Just over a month ago, Louisville, Kentucky was host to the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, who came to this city, in part, to help launch a Harmony and Health Initiative -- emphasizing, as the prince said, the interrelatedness of nature and human life, health and happiness. On that same day, Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, announced that the "Heart of Louisville" has joined 50 other special places in America as a "National Treasure." It's an impressive list that includes Nashville's "Music Row," Atlanta's "Sweet Auburn District" (birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and the indigenous ancestral places of Southeast Utah.
This news may not come as a surprise to many of Louisville's most recent guests, who are here to enjoy the particular hospitality and beauty of the Kentucky Derby Festival, centered as it is upon such historic sites as Churchill Downs, and the Belle of Louisville, the oldest passenger steamboat in North America, now celebrating its 100th anniversary. They have seen much of the best that the city has to offer -- visually -- but they may not be aware that if they dig deeper, they will find that beyond the aesthetic and economic development all around us, Louisville is intent upon the serious task of improving the city's health as well.
Prince Charles was the special guest of the Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, founded by philanthropist Christina Lee Brown, which sponsored the Harmony and Health Initiative on March 20, attracting environmental, agricultural and other leaders from around the world. The Prince has strengthened the case for health through cherishing and building upon communities' historical treasures by pointing out the many ways in which the built environment impacts human health and well-being. We have learned a great deal about caring for human as well as planetary health from Prince Charles, especially in his recent book and film, Harmony, so the occasion of Louisville's being named a National City Treasure is a good time to share some of the insights gained.
Prince Charles points out that the "built" environment can benefit physical health in a number of ways. It can, for example, reduce obesity if it is planned to encourage walking, biking or running by providing sidewalks, trees and other amenities. The built environment can be psychologically comforting if living accommodations are built to human scale and if it includes green spaces that are safe places for socializing or meditating. This relationship between scale and livability was advocated more than a half century ago by The (Louisville) Courier-Journal's nationally known urban affairs editor, Grady Clay, and that theme was also advanced by one of his acolytes, Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961.
For many years, however, the link between livable and sustainable cities was anecdotal at best, not to say romantic. Thanks to the National Trust, a program called "Older, Smaller, Better" is putting facts and figures together to measure the character of urban neighborhoods to influence civic vitality and economic strength. A real-life example of this can be seen in the blocks of activity along Louisville's Main Street, where a combination of new construction (the KFC Yum! Center) and adaptive reuse of old (Whiskey Row, Slugger Field and the many other surrounding projects) are creating a whole far greater than the parts. What is more, the Green Lab initiative is advancing the most sustainable solutions for making cities healthy and happy places to live, work and raise children.
Beyond these physical benefits, by advancing restoration and reuse of buildings that no longer serve their original purpose, creative construction within a community can preserve its continuity with the past, enhancing memory and nurturing the emotional value that accompanies it. Buildings that take on new life through restoration and reuse can invigorate their neighborhoods by involving neighbors themselves in the planning, contributing their collective knowledge, relationships, values and perspectives. These, according to Prince Charles, are any area's most valuable resources.
In his address at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, the Prince explained it this way:
In the United Kingdom I've been trying very hard for quite a long time to remind people of just how important our heritage is, and how you can reuse, save and ... find new uses for many of these buildings: Great mill buildings or stockyards or army barracks or huge 19th century hospitals and mental hospitals, convert very well to other uses. And not only that but when you use those buildings ... you can also use them as inspiration for what new building you do around it.
Thoughtful neighbors know best what deserves to be rescued from the past, and benefiting from such traditional knowledge, revitalization becomes a bridge to a future enriched by its heritage. As in nature (with great respect, the prince always capitalizes "nature" in his writing) itself, which is constantly bringing forth new life while producing no waste, this kind of building creates anew without losing anything of value from the past. Prince Charles has been reminding us for over 30 years that architecture in any age is admirable when it follows nature's patterns of balance and harmony. This, he insists, is the only appropriate human pursuit because, "We are nature." As a species we are related through an intricate and interdependent connection with the whole of natural life. Within this network we are sustained and are privileged to participate in the vast cycle of life itself.
Viewed in this light, historical preservation is mindful of far more than the mechanics of bricks and mortar or a profitable return on investment, important as these factors are in the business of construction. Building and preservation are human endeavors, and therefore are best when they are respectful of history and mellowed by memory. Such building has a human center, without which it becomes a hollow exercise in anonymity, soulless places that sustain life as a mechanism without mind or spirit.
The prince outlined a way to avoid the creation of those soulless places:
There are many examples where communities have replaced the short-term impulse with the long-term plan. But part of that strategy ... is the need for a new public and private-sector partnership with includes N.G.O and community participation. It seems to me that for this to work we need to ensure that community and environmental capital is indeed put alongside the requirements of financial capital -- and that we also develop transparent means to measure the social and environmental impact of our actions.
As Stephanie Meeks said in her comments announcing Louisville's designation as a "National Treasure":
Today's designation means that we care deeply about both the past and the future of Louisville. We'll be working together to bring the best strategies in the modern preservation toolkit together. Things like revolving funds and historic tax credits; energy efficiency retrofits and more flexible zoning codes. To simply listening to the community as they tell us what would improve their city living experience and what places matter to them. We'll look forward to working with the Mayor and other local partners to help Louisville employ its tremendous historic resources to foster health and community, nourish sustainable development, and unlock jobs and prosperity.
Dr. Kathleen Lyons is a retired professor of English at Bellarmine University and former executive director of the Center for Interfaith Relations, co-authored this article. A version of it appeared in The Courier-Journal on Sunday, May 3.