Historic Preservation in the Era of the Shrinking City Dr. Stephanie Ryberg-Webster

Jean Brainard Boebel Memorial Lecture in Historic Preservation


April 16, 2015
6:00 pm
137 Kirschman Hall


Historic Preservation in the Era of the “Shrinking City”

In the latter half of the 20th century, a new paradigm of urbanism took hold: the shrinking city. Variously termed post-industrial or legacy cities, these places face complex challenges stemming from decades-long population loss and economic decline, with the recent foreclosure crisis exacerbating issues of vacancy and abandonment. It is now widely accepted that urban planning and development strategies based on a model of perpetual growth are ineffective, and potentially even detrimental, to the future of shrinking cities. Despite widespread abandonment, severe disinvestment, poverty, and a forceful call for demolition to “rightsize” shrinking cities, these communities retain astounding historic resources and significant heritage. At this crucial juncture, there are difficult questions about historic preservation’s role in shaping the future of legacy cities: How should we identify and leverage historic assets? What benefits and impediments exist to using preservation for community and economic revitalization? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we decide what we save and what we destroy?

Dr. Ryberg-Webster will explore the challenges of historic preservation in shrinking cities, using case examples from Cleveland, Ohio, and draw parallels to the ongoing discourses about heritage across the City of New Orleans. In Cleveland, there is an extensive network of community development corporations (CDCs), which universally agree that history and heritage are valuable assets. Yet, these neighborhood-based organizations vary greatly when it comes to defining what counts as a historic building, what is worth preserving, and how to actually save historic fabric. Thus, the city has a highly uneven landscape in terms of historic resources and the built heritage of entire communities is in peril. There have also been recent efforts to identify, survey, and designate Cleveland’s African American historic sites. While preservationists recognize that the field has traditionally marginalized communities of color, standards of architectural merit and material integrity devalue the heritage of African American neighborhoods that have suffered from years of deterioration and neglect – a condition epitomized in shrinking cities. Dr. Ryberg-Webster will illustrate the complexities of preserving the rich heritage of shrinking cities, highlight the need for preservationists to work with a wider range of partners, and question the applicability and usefulness of longstanding preservation tools for cities and neighborhoods rich with heritage, but overwhelmed by decades of disinvestment, deterioration and poverty. 

Dr. Stephanie Ryberg-Webster is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. Her research explores the intersections of historic preservation and urban development, with recent or ongoing projects on historic preservation in legacy cities, synergies and tensions between preservation and community development, rehabilitation tax credits, and the preservation of Cleveland’s African American heritage. This year, Dr. Ryberg-Webster is launching a historical study of historic preservation in Cleveland during the 1970s, as the city’s decline became increasingly pronounced. Dr. Ryberg-Webster teaches courses in urban planning, historic preservation, and urban design. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, with a dissertation analyzing community development corporations' past and current use of historic preservation as a neighborhood revitalization strategy. Dr. Ryberg-Webster also holds a Master of Historic Preservation from the University of Maryland and a Bachelor of Urban Planning from the University of Cincinnati. 

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MPS - Master in Preservation Studies
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