5 reasons we should care about heritage preservation
1. Architectural beauty is good for your brain. A relatively new area of neuroscience known as neuroaesthetics posits the theory that beauty in art and design makes us happy. The synaptic payoff is real: scientists can track brain activity when people respond to design and beauty. Don't you feel better already?
2. Historic buildings are physical links to our past. Yes, we've all heard that before. It's not just about saving bricks, but about saving the layers and layers of information about our lives and those of our ancestors. Without that, we'd erase the stories of our past, as if the people who came before us never existed.
3. Historically significant buildings contribute to our city's cultural and economic well-being - not to mention the vibrancy of street life. When re-purposed for modern-day use, like the Wychwood Barns redevelopment or 401 Richmond, older buildings are great incubators for entrepreneurship, innovation, and experimentation. The opposite holds true when older buildings are demolished to make room for high-rise development. Only chain stores like Shoppers Drug Mart can afford the street-level rents.
4. Heritage designations boost property values. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the designation ties the hands of owners interested in redevelopment, a historical specification sets properties apart.
5. Heritage preservation is more labor-intensive, which means more jobs. It's also good for the environment. Fewer building materials are required to refurbish old buildings, which reduces waste headed to landfill and the demand for aggregates gouging holes in the countryside up north to supply the materials for new bricks and mortar.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"There are lots of places we can build. We shouldn't have to raze the city to intensify. My big worry is what's happening on our main streets. As we erase historical patterns of ownership instead of replacing them gradually, we're not just pushing artists out, we're removing space for invention."
Catherine Nasmith, president, Toronto Architectural Conservancy
"We need to define what constitutes a threat to heritage. When I think of threats, I think not just of bricks and mortar, but the impact of development on the visual environment. What are we saying when we put a huge tower over a building of historic significance? Are we saying it's more important? Is that the message we want to be sending? I'm wondering if we're not missing the point."
Don Loucks, chair, Heritage Toronto education, and conservation committee
"Some of our early buildings were designed by some of the world's greatest architects and architectural firms: Old City Hall, Casa Loma, and the King Edward Hotel. The New York City firm of Carrère and Hastings, designers of the New York City Public Library, built the still-standing Traders Bank building at Yonge and Colborne. These are true marvels of art and engineering and in their day were modern masterpieces. However, thousands of other marvels were destroyed, and in doing so we destroyed a lot of art. I always think of Toronto's urban renewal of the 1950s and 60s as the destruction of a great museum, like the burning of the Louvre or the British Museum - all that great art we used to have on our streets destroyed."
Bruce Bell, author, and local historian
"To me, heritage preservation is an essential part of any city that values itself. We have a long way to go compared to so many other cities around the world: our heritage legislation is pretty weak and the range of tools available to help achieve meaningful heritage preservation is pretty thin."
Paul Bedford, former chief planner, the city of Toronto
"The first act of many revolutions is to destroy the artwork of the past as a symbol of a new order. To maintain existing public works is to maintain a respectful sense of history and cultural continuity both symbolically and physically. When we allow public works to decay because of neglect, we are engaging in an act of disrespect both to artists and to our own culture."
Eldon Garnet, artist, professor of contemporary photography, public art and Sculpture at OCAD U
"Toronto needs to stop the deliberate demolition-by-neglect practice that has become, sadly, too commonplace. We have to create incentive tools to assist benevolent heritage property owners in their efforts to preserve buildings. The cultural values of such properties belong to all of us. Our heritage properties are cultural assets, and each one informs the evolving cultural landscape of Toronto."
Kristyn Wong-Tam, Ward 27 councilor, member of Toronto Preservation Board
WHAT YOU CAN DO
• Make a donation to Heritage Toronto or a local group of your choice involved in preservation issues.
• Become a member of Heritage Toronto. The $55 annual fee buys your way into city-operated facilities and museums.
• Volunteer your time and expertise to preservation efforts in your community.
• If you own a business, sponsor heritage programs and events. Most preservation boards have charitable status, so your contribution is tax-deductible.
• Stay informed about what's happening with heritage issues in your neighborhood.
• Write your local councilor, MP, and MPP. Push for legislative changes to strengthen heritage preservation. Remind them of the economic benefits of keeping our historic landmarks.