Photo from flick user JasonParis
Each and every city is unique. The distinctiveness of a city lends to the idea that each city has its own separate identity. The identity of a city largely depends on the identity of its citizens, and vice versa. In a way, we are our cities. We come to love cities mainly because of how we identify with them and when someone truly identifies with a city, they will often choose to live in that city for life. This is why it's important for a city to find and embrace its own unique identity. There are many factors that help shape a city’s identity, but one of the most important factors is the city’s history.
Urban history is shaped by location and trade. For example, Chicago’s history was shaped by the many railroads and canals that brought various industries and cultures to the region; San Francisco’s history was shaped by the industries and cultures brought by the gold rush and Navy bases. Both of these cities were affected by devastating disasters (a fire and an earthquake, respectively), which led to dramatic changes in their urban framework. These two examples, like other cities, are truly embodiments of the historical events of the past.
A city’s architecture is perhaps the most concrete representation of its history. Architecture is much more than just the physical design of buildings; instead architecture can, in many ways, be viewed as a reflection of the cultural movements of the past. Every city has its own unique story to tell, and those stories are told not only through its citizens, but through its buildings. Preservation of historic architecture is imperative to preserving the unique identities of our cities. A concept that went out of fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, historic preservation is making a comeback as cities embrace their identities.
From the Spanish colonial architecture of California and the Southwest to the English colonial style of the Northeast, architecture acts as a physical representation of a city’s history. Detroit’s many factories and warehouses speak for its industrial heritage, while New Orleans’ elaborate iron balconies speak for its French colonial past. Walking through a historic city like Boston, one witnesses the city’s history manifested in its winding streets and dense brick buildings. Boston embraces its revolutionary past and is thus able to maintain a strong and unique identity that stands apart from many other urban centers. Without historic preservation efforts, many cities like Boston and New Orleans would have lost touch with their history.
Photo from flick user KatjusaC
However, as cities modernize they find that they must change their identities to remain relevant. This raises the important question: how can cities respect the past while also forging new identities? Many cities are finding ways to build their future on the past by utilizing its history and landmarks as a core for attracting tourism and social activities. For example, Cleveland and other Ohio cities have invested millions into preserving the old Ohio & Erie Canal and transforming its towpath into a biking and hiking destination. The canal, which once brought commerce and prosperity to Cleveland, is now a modern tourist attraction.
Cities can also enhance their landmarks with the use of public lighting. Innovative lighting helps to modernize a space, while embracing its historical significance. From the Eiffel Tower to the Statue of Liberty, lighting frames historical landmarks which contribute to their branding and, ultimately, their identities. Historic preservation means that cities can maintain their historic identities, but it does not mean that cities cannot expand upon their identities in a modern, globalized world.
Ethan Lawson is a CEOs for Cities Summer Success Fellow. Ethan is a senior at Baldwin Wallace University, majoring in political science and history with a minor in urban studies. He has also spent time studying at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa, while also volunteering for the SHAWCO program, which provides education for low-income children in the greater Cape Town area. He plans on pursuing a graduate degree in Urban & Regional Planning after graduating in 2014.