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Conservation Districts for Preserving Urban Character
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The suburbanization of America’s inner cities can seem inevitable. Chain stores like Subway, FedEx-Kinko’s, and McDonald’s have proliferated virtually unchecked across the US, frequently in the very same charming, revitalized inner-city neighborhoods that have been rapidly repopulated in the last decade. No longer are national chains confined mostly to the exurbs, where we’re accustomed to seeing car-centric, gaudy commercial districts indistinguishable from the next strip mall down the highway. Tanning salons, copy shops, and fast-food restaurants displace local cafes, bars, restaurants and boutiques in a city's urban core, until, eventually, the institutions that gave a neighborhood its character are lost.

One tool to combat the suburbanization of cities is by creating a so-called conservation district. Although the definition varies from city to city, generally speaking, a conservation district is a more lenient version of a historic district, not necessarily as old or as well-preserved, but still worth preserving because of its unique character and value to a city. Conservation districts in Chapel Hill, NC, Davis, CA, Dallas, TX , and Cambridge, MA have been established to preserve historic architectural features, promote economic revitalization, and keep out incompatible businesses.

Among other restrictions, conservation districts generally impose certain design standards for new buildings and renovations, including restrictions on which features can be altered and what sort of signage is allowed. Interestingly, the signage restrictions may be one of the most effective tools for keeping out the big national chains. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense: Major chain fast-food restaurants, cell-phone purveyors and tanning salons all have large, backlit plastic signs. Typically, these bright, gaudy signs are dictated from afar by corporate; ban plastic, backlit signs (and throw in signs that are painted on awnings, while you’re at it) and you’ve effectively banned the corporate chains. The same thing is true of many other zoning overlays, of course (banning street-facing parking is a great way to keep Wal-Mart out) but signage has the advantage of being both simple and relatively uncontroversial; people see benefits in parking lots, but no one wants a big, gaudy fast-food sign in their charming urban neighborhood.

Erica C. Barnett is a columnist for Seattle's weekly, The Stranger: she blogs at


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