“Rightsizing” Providence

The King's Cathedral, in Providence's Olneyville neighborhood. (wstl.us)

The King’s Cathedral, in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood. (wstl.us)

The King’s Cathedral, a church in Olneyville whose motto is “Where Everyone Is Royalty,” and its leader Bishop Jeffrey Williams hosted the inaugural session of this year’s “Beyond Buildings” symposium of the Providence Preservation Society. “Beyond Buildings” rubs me wrong, as if PPS were slightly abashed at being interested in architecture instead of people. But as the bishop pointed out in his welcoming remarks, “What people see helps people envision what they want to become.”

You tell ’em, Reverend!

The subtitle of this year’s symposium is “Preserving the Livable Neighborhood” – which the society has been pursuing actively since the 1980s under Wendy Nicholas, who was its first director (I believe) to draw the society’s attention away from College Hill.

While listening last night to keynote speaker Donovan Rypkema, an expert in the economics of place, my stomach was hankering for pulled pork from Wes’ Rib House, nearby, but as the site of the evening’s VIP reception, this was not to be. Still, Rypkema had some interesting things to say about his area of expertise, which is called “rightsizing.” That is how cities are trying to address issues raised by diminished municipal population.

He said that cities addressing such issues put far too low a priority on the role historic districts can play in civic regeneration. The historic districts in cities studied by Rypkema’s firm, PlaceEconomics, tend to lose less population per square mile than their host cities as a whole. The rate of home foreclosure is less in historic districts than in cities as a whole. While surveys show that people don’t like high population density in general, they do like historic districts more than newer neighborhoods with lower, even suburban, densities. So it is extraordinarily important to learn from these places.

Rypkema cited a range of factors that strengthen historic districts compared with other neighborhoods. Density, which reduces infrastructure costs and increases sociability and activism in a neighborhood, is just one. Another is neighborhood character, or how pretty it is. Although history certainly plays a vital role in creating historic districts and especially their distinctive qualities, Rypkema correctly correlates the popularity and high property values of historic districts with their beauty.

I would go further and insist that, going forward, the advantages of historic districts spring less from their history than from their beauty. Their beauty does indeed spring from the historical fact that such districts were almost all built before beautiful architecture was booted from the design and building industry. But the fact is that people who buy and rent houses in historic districts do so not because of the history of their house or neighborhood but because of their beauty. It is beauty more than history that will create jobs and boost populations in Olneyville, in Providence, in Rhode Island.

As Rhode Island considers how to rebrand itself, Governor Raimondo and her new team of rebranding experts should keep this in mind. Our history makes us who we are, but in terms of selling the Ocean State to potential visitors and new citizens, and creating jobs, beauty is a more easily salable commodity. Beauty is first-hand experience while history is second-hand experience. While beauty is appreciated immediately through our senses, history is appreciated only through knowledge, which must first be acquired. This is why it is easier to “sell” beauty than history.

In determining how historic districts can play a leadership role in civic regeneration – that is, by giving more neighborhoods the qualities that make historic districts popular and valuable – the importance of beauty cannot be overstated. That is why incorporating the architectural principles that create beauty in new architecture is just as important as preserving those principles in buildings that are saved. Saving a beautiful building prevents the decline of beauty in a neighborhood, but only the construction of a new building of beauty can add to it. What Donovan Rypkema sees as the role of historic districts in civic revitalization should be harnessed to turn less advantaged neighborhoods, such as Olneyville, into ones that have all the character of historic districts. This is no less important than solving the problems of crime, poverty and poor schools – but it is a helluva lot easier.

Notwithstanding its “Beyond Buildings” moniker, I hope this is what the society’s guests will take away from their Olneyville sessions at the King’s Cathedral today and tomorrow.

PPS will at some point make last night’s keynote available on video. In the meantime, readers should view at least some of the lengthy talk recently given in Charleston, S.C., by Andrés Duany, the New Urbanism founder whom Charleston’s Mayor Riley asked to update the city’s landmark process. Much of what he says is equally useful to Providence, which rivals Charleston as a city reliant on the quality of its built environment, and whose beauty is also facing challenges from modern architecture that undermines its brand.

For more information on those sessions, go to the website of the Providence Preservation Society, which next year will reach 60 years in operation.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to “Rightsizing” Providence

  1. Glad to have your reassurance, Brent! (For readers outside of R.I., Brent is director of the Providence Preservation Society.) I think focusing on the qualities of people’s lives is perfectly appropriate, except that PPS could do that more effectively by promoting new architecture based on design principles that made old buildings worth saving. But you are very familiar with my opinion on these matters. And thanks too for clarifying in regard to Deborah Dunning, whom I recently met (well, about a year ago). Point is, PPS has been focusing on the neighborhoods west of College Hill since forever.

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  2. Brent Runyon says:

    Thanks for attending, David, and for your analysis and commentary! Just to clarify, we aren’t abashed at being interested in buildings, as is clear from our continuing focus on specific “most endangered” places and other programs, but we do want to make it clear that we are also interested in the quality of lives of the people who use the buildings and neighborhoods. “Beyond” doesn’t imply abandonment of “buildings” as one of our foci. And, I believe Deborah Dunning was the first PPS E.D. to expand PPS’s interests beyond College Hill. She preceded Wendy Nicholas.

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