President-elect Barack Obama was known as a champion of historic preservation in Chicago and Illinois. Michelle Obama served on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks for several years. As Obama enters office amidst a massive economic crisis, I can only hope that preservation becomes the new calculus of a sustainable economy: creating jobs without wasting resources.
Our traditional economic models rely on waste and obsolescence, which is not sustainable. One of our leading economic indicators is New Housing Starts that a Chinese might call Covering Up The Most Productive Farmland On Earth. Automakers are hurting thanks to a model of obsolescence crafted by GM way back in the 1920s, when it took Ford to task for making cars that lasted. Wal-Mart reaps fortunes by selling supercheap products at supercheap prices and then selling them again a few months later after the first ones are already in the landfill. Not sustainable. (For more, see the Story of Stuff (www.storyofstuff.org))
But back to preservation, which interestingly enough, offers a jobs-rich way to remake the economy. Rehabilitation of existing buildings is inherently sustainable – it makes the most of materials that are already there and takes advantage of carbon footprints made long ago. Rehabilitation is sometimes expensive, because it is more labor-intensive and that labor needs to be more skilled than those guys throwing together gypsum and pressboard on the prairie. But that labor intensity is an advantage in the coming year as unemployment continues to grow. And it is EVERYWHERE – rehabilitation of historic buildings can happen in every community – they are local jobs.
Plus, the money spent on local rehabilitation tends to stay local. It doesn’t go to China and Arkansas with Wal-Mart. Study after study has shown the intuitively obvious – preserving America’s built resources generates more positive community economic spinoff than highway construction or new housing development.
Think about it historically – preservation was rife in the Great Depression in places like Charleston and Greenwich Village. This was the time of sweat equity, and that community-oriented effort continued into the 1960s and gave us the modern preservation movement: a movement about communities taking control of their environment.
President-elect Obama was a community organizer, which may explain why he has been a preservation advocate – because preservation and grass-roots community development have always been hand-in-glove. They have always been a way to rebuild the local economy. Why not the national?