Conserving as much as creating

When I think about conservation, I think about the necessity of being creative in order to be successful. That is, I don’t think it’s possible to conserve something without also to some degree changing the thing you’re conserving—and in that change, creativity emerges.

What a conservationist exists to do first and foremost is conserve something—speaking in the broadest way, this is usually a way of life, or a way that people or a community relate to one another. A conservationist is guided by creativity and principle, but only secondarily concerned with things like institutions or abstract ideas. And a conservationist’s interest in being creative and the principle of the thing he’s trying to conserve usually comes from his relationship with his other people, his neighbors.

In life, in family, in the church, in schooling, in social clubs, in recreation, all these things require actively recreating a way of being that has been lived before and born the fruit of the present—or at least born fruits that are no longer present but at least vaguely remembered. A dilapidated but historic house crying out for renovation is one example. A run-down neighborhood once made vibrant by an economic or intellectual strength is another example. But the essential point is that every choice in and of itself is an act of creation, or writing the next chapter. In this, we are creating the good life as we understand it with those we love.

A tangible example of the way that both conserving and creating relate to one another can be seen at Philadelphia City Hall. There is the mighty old building herself, but there is also the conservationist’s creative touch in the cleaning and restoration of the original white of the building’s tower. Its cleaning certainly helped conserve the building, and simply in cleaning it did not change the tower. And yet, in cleaning that tower the conservationist created an entirely new experience of City Hall that is altogether different than the one that generations had before of a filthy, pollution-covered symbol of the city.


The same idea can be seen around City Hall in what is now called Dilworth Park. This was a concrete and marble skirt for the building until a few years ago, when the entire thing was transformed by Center City District into an inviting and attractive public space. Achieving this transformation required a great deal of creative thinking, and in executing the change Dilworth Park was born as an entirely new space. And yet Dilworth Park also in some form conserves Centre Square, one of William Penn’s five squares laid out hundreds of years ago.

To conserve something is rarely a passive thing. It requires as much vision and thoughtfulness about what’s value and good as the newest thing under the sun. Maybe more so, given human tendency to prize novelty over the proven and timeless.