Donovan Rypkema

Principal, Real Estate Services Group

Culture, Historic Preservation and Economic Development in the 21st Century


September 1999, Yunnan Province, China

As the world quickly passes into the 21st Century the context and environment of local economic development is rapidly evolving. The purpose of this paper is to identify some of the elements of that evolving context, establish some principles the will underlie economic development in the 21st Century, enumerate the "Five Senses" that each community will need to be competitive, and suggest that the preservation of the historic built environment, far from being a hamper to economic growth, can be a critical vehicle to make it happen. This paper is not intended to be an exhaustive discussion of any of these issues, rather it is hoped to be a checklist of economic development components against which a variety of specialists can consider their own areas of expertise.

Realities of the 21st Century Economy

    1. The 21st Century will be a globalized economy. This will effect every national economy regardless of political or economic system.
    2. The most significant impacts of the global economy will not be at the national or even the provincial level. The biggest impacts will be local. Akito Marito, founder of Sony, calls it "Global Localization"
    3. There will be a rapidly growing demand for products world wide. But the manufacture of those products will require fewer and fewer people. Likewise the need for agricultural products will only increase with world population growth but fewer agricultural workers will be necessary to grow that food.
    4. The areas of the economy that will grow, both in output and in employment are these:
    1. For each of the above growth areas, quality and authenticity will be major variables in consumer choice
    2. For all of the potential benefits of a globalized economy (and there are many) it carries with it the substantial risk of a globalized culture, of which there are few if any benefits, BUT
    3. It is NOT inherently necessary that a globalized economy leads to a globalized culture, in fact it is crucial for economic as well as other reasons that it does not, BUT
    4. That will require decisions at the local and regional level to make sure a globalized local culture does not occur
    5. In parallel to the above the "modernization" of local communities in infrastructure, public health, convenience, and quality of life does not necessitate the "westernization" of the built environment.
    6. The copy of a built environment from elsewhere will never be as good as the original. An imitative strategy for the built form quickly leads a community from being "someplace" to "anyplace". And the distance for "anyplace" to "no place" is short indeed.
Principles of 21st Century Economic Development

The communities and their citizens which will be successful in the next century’s economic development will be those that recognize the realities above and respond by embracing five principles.

    1. Globalizaton. To ignore the reality of a globalized economy, or to recognize it but not respond will make many communities the victim rather than the beneficiary of globalization. To adopt globalization as a principle allows a local community the opportunity to identify its own characteristics that can be competitive in the global marketplace and to establish measures that mitigate the adverse impacts that a globalized economy can carry.
    2. Localization. The definition of what "economic development" means needs to be a local one. It needs to be specific and measurable. Many local economic development yardsticks in the 21st Century will be qualitative rather than quantitative. Localization will always necessitate identifying local assets (human, natural, physical, locational, functional, cultural) that can be utilized to respond to globalization. Those assets need to be first identified, then protected, then enhanced.
    3. Diversity. The concept of diversity has three different facets in relation to economic development principles:
    1. Sustainability. Sustainability in economic development has for sometime been recognized by the resource industries – the necessity to pace extraction or renew resources so that the local economy is sustainable over the long term. A broadened principle of sustainability recognizes the importance of the functional sustainability of public infrastructure, the fiscal sustainability of a local government, the physical sustainability of the built environment, and the cultural sustainability of local traditions, customs, and skills.
    2. Responsibility. While in most parts of the world there will be provincial, national and international resources that can occasionally be tapped for use in enhancing a local economy, the vast majority of the efforts will take place at the local level. This, then, requires that each community takes a large measure of responsibility for its own economic future. Certainly local government has a part to play in that process, but so does the private sector when it exists, NGOs, and citizens at large. Each must recognize the responsibility at the local level to define and pursue a community-wide economic development strategy.
The Five Senses of Quality Communities

In the past the economic fate of a given community was largely driven by locational and resource factors. Is it near a port? Is there timber to be cut? Is transportation available by waterway? Is there copper that can be mined? Certainly these and similar factors will continue to play a major role in the economic future for many locations. But in the 21st Century there will also be variables that will influence local economic opportunity that are not locationally driven. These are referred to as the Five Senses of Quality Communities and will, in the intermediate and long term, have considerable impact on the economic health of individual communities.

    1. Sense of Place Both the built and natural environment should be used to express the particularity of this place. That this community is neither "anyplace" nor "no place" but "someplace," unduplicated anywhere.
    2. Sense of Identity In economics it is the differentiated product that commands a monetary premium. A community which in the long term wants to be a "valuable place", however that is defined, needs to identify its attributes that add to its differentiation from anywhere else
    3. Sense of Evolution Quality, living communities will neither be frozen in time as museum relics nor look like they were built yesterday. The physical fabric of a community should reflect its functional, cultural, aesthetic and historical evolution.
    4. Sense of Ownership If there needs to be responsibility exercised at the local level to create and benefit from economic health, then there has to be a sense of ownership of the community by each of the sectors. This does not mean ownership in a legal or property sense, but ownership more broadly, a feeling of an individual stake arising from that particular place and fellow citizens.
    5. Sense of Community A sense of ownership acknowledges an individual benefit from, an individual stake in, and an individual responsibility for one’s place. A sense of community acknowledges the obligations to and interconnectedness with the other residents of that place.
Historic Preservation as and Economic Development Strategy

Historic preservation has often been portrayed as the alternative to economic development – "either we have historic preservation OR we have economic growth." This is absolutely a false choice. Increasingly around the world historic preservation is becoming a uniquely effective vehicle for economic growth.

Historic preservation has moved from being an end it itself (save old buildings in order to save old buildings) to being a vehicle of broader ends – center city revitalization, job creation, small business incubation, housing, tourism, and others.

Utilizing historic preservation in this fashion, however, requires the recognition of certain verities:

With those understandings a historic preservation based economic development strategy has several measurable benefits: Public Policy Reasons for Historic Preservation as Economic Development

Historic preservation also has numerous attributes which warrant using preservation as an economic development tool from a public policy perspective.


Historic preservation as an economic development strategy is consistent with all five principles of 21st Century economic development: globalization, localization, diversity, sustainability, responsibility.

Historic preservation reinforces the five senses of quality communities: sense of place, sense of identity, sense of evolution, sense of ownership, and sense of community.

Historic preservation can meet the test of both "quality" and "authenticity" that will be critical elements in economic development in the next century.

The cultural assets of a community – dance, theater, music, visual arts, crafts, and others – are inherently influenced and enhanced by the physical context within which they were created and evolved over the centuries. If cultural resources are to become and remain an economic asset for a community, then the physical context that has always influenced their creation needs to be maintained. Otherwise more than just the physical buildings are at risk; the quality, character, differentiation, and sustainability of the other assets are in jeopardy as well.

Historic preservation allows a community to participate in the positive benefits of a globalized economy while resisting the adverse impacts of a globalized culture.

Historic preservation allows a community the opportunity to modernize without having to Westernize. More than that – historic preservation is the irreplaceable variable to achieve modernization without Westernization.

For the 21st Century only the foolish community will make the choice between historic preservation and economic development. The wise community will effectively utilize its historic built environment to meet the economic, social and cultural needs of its citizens well into the future.