How Historic Rehabs Contribute to the Dynamic City


A few weeks ago, we joined over 200 professionals and academics in the fields of city planning, architecture and historic preservation for a discussion about The Dynamic City: Futures for the Past. This symposium was hosted by the Boston University Initiative on Cities and Historic New England and was designed to examine the urban history of New England and its relationship within a global context.

Many of the topics had us contextualizing how historic preservation, especially rehabilitation projects, are contributing to the modern dynamic city. Topics ranged from discussions about data gathering and metrics used for Massachusetts’ Gateway City planning, gentrification issues, urban housing and the study of building obsolescence, and resilient design and sustainability. While most of these topics were geared toward Boston and Massachusetts – the Gateway City programs encompasses 26 former industrial towns or employment centers – examples also included Detroit, New Orleans, Seattle, and even London and Cuba. In all cases, historic rehabs are an integral part of protecting not only the history and character of a place, but have an impact on preserving affordable and mid-income housing.

Using Boston as the laboratory for many of these conceptual discussions was no fluke; it is one of the most historic cities in the United States, and also facing (and actively dealing with) issues that require dynamic planning. MHA Partner Albert Rex moderated the panel Envisioning Urban Housing. Panelists included Daniel Abramson, professor at Northeastern University, David Traggorth, owner of the Traggorth Companies, a housing developer and MHA client, and Sheila Dillon, director of the City of Boston Department of Neighborhood Development. A city of limited landmass, Dillon spoke about how Boston is aggressively pursuing their strategic planning initiative titled Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030. It addresses a projected population increase to 700,000 residents by that year, a number not reached since the 1950s. Part of this plan includes the incorporation of historic building stock. The panel spoke to how preservation concepts and practice are applied to this type of strategy.

Boston was also highlighted in a ULI Boston/New England study titled The Urban Implications of Living With Water. In this report, four districts of Greater Boston are examined to determine the likely risks of sea level rise and what might be done to combat them. The most historic of these is the Back Bay neighborhood. With a six foot sea level rise, it has been proposed tthhat a canal system be integrated into it to accommodate the rising waters. It is in planning for these types of certain changes that new innovation for historic preservation is sure to arise. In fact, the report addresses historic preservation directly and states, “the preservation of the historic character of the neighborhood will be realized through the development of new typographies for the built environment.”

Whatever challenges America’s dynamic cities face in the coming years and decades, we are sure that the rehabilitation of historic resources will be integral in meeting their demands. As sustainability becomes more of a necessity and less of just a good idea, the saying “the greenest building is the one that is already built” will not just be a movement slogan but an actual factor in the adaptation of the built environment.

After all, dynamic cities need dynamic buildings.