Volcanos, bicycles and moving forward

Posted January 13th, 2016 by maryanthony and filed in Executive Director's Blog


Copenhagen photo from Great City.org

Art’s Brief History of the World

13.5 BYR ago Big Bang
~4 BYR ago- Life begins
65 Ma-Mammals begin to take over
~100 Ka-Homo sapiens start to ruin the world
1815- Mt Tambora Erupts- bicycle invented
1869- ball bearing patented
1869-now- Everything else is a footnote* 


If you haven’t seen How We Got to Now, check it out.  In this series, Steven Johnson takes a fresh, wide-angle look at history and puts together seemingly disparate pieces to show us what really happened.   Think skimpy bathing suits have nothing to do with the Chicago sewer system?  Think again.  Unlike the straight-arrow timelines we endured in history class, this is the real history deal- messy, haphazard, exciting and sometimes explosive.  How We Got To Now

At the 1772 Foundation, we have been thinking a lot about how our field has become too much like a straight-arrow timeline.  We know that there are architectural and historic gems that need and deserve care- they are the jewels in our built history collection and they are well-suited to the timeline approach to history.  But they only account for a small fraction of the historic building stock in this country.  The entire spectrum of historic structures needs attention and it is messy and exciting business.

Like repairing a bicycle, historic preservation is not just getting the paint color right, but contributing to dynamic system in which the gears, wheels and brakes work together to propel us forward.  We need to consider the whole bike if we are to propel this preservation puppy to a successful and sustainable place.  Urban planners, low-income housing developers, environmentalists, city officials, transportation experts,  business owners and residents all need to work together if we want historic preservation to become a true historic revitalization movement.

And, interestingly, bicycles might be one of those disparate pieces that helps move us forward – one of the slices of the of the historic preservation pie of collaborators that will help historic revitalization evolve.

Historic cities lend themselves beautifully to the incorporation of non-motorized transportation options.  Like my home city of Newport, older cities were not built to accommodate the huge influx of car traffic that is dealt with every day. Parking in the summer is a competitive sport, the fragile colonial houses and churches shake when big trucks thunder through, and pedestrians must brave cross walks in a man vs. car situation that has ended tragically far too many times.

But it could look more like Copenhagen, where about 55% of daily trips are by bicycle.  This is holistic, sustainable systems change and it directly serves the preservation needs of fragile historic downtowns.  Check out Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes for a little inspiration.

Creating protected bicycle lanes in historic cities greatly reduces pollution, congestion, and frustration.  Bicycles are efficient, compact and quiet.  They promote human-scale interaction.  They take up far less space than cars.  Construction costs for protected bike lanes are a fraction of that eaten up by building car infrastructure.  As my friend Bari Freeman of Bike Newport summed it up- bicycles are gentle on our fragile historic cities.

Economically it makes sense, too.  Comprehensive bicycle infrastructure would expand historic downtown residential options because it could relieve would-be developers of the burden of providing unnecessary parking spaces.  Typically hard-to-develop second floor lofts above businesses could be created with greater flexibility for the millennials and baby boomers who overwhelmingly want to live in places where cars do not dictate how their daily life unfolds.

Bicycles gliding through the tight narrow streets of historic cities looks and feel right, because it is.  It is an inspiring image that reminds us that we can be more involved as preservationists than just guardians of crown jewels.  As preservationists, we can and should support this type of wholesale change that makes cities more livable and lovable.  (If the word lovable sounds too mushy, a must-read is How to make smart growth more lovable and sustainble by F. Kaid Benfield.  Fantastic.)

Fresh looks at history and historic preservation remind us that it not a topic that can be reduced to a straight arrow.  Like maintaining a working bicycle, preservation needs to contribute to a cohesive system that works across disciplines to propel true change, change in which the bicycle itself may play a key role. Steven Johnson and Art Spivack remind us that hitting the refresh button on history once in a while is healthy.  So is a historic city with protected bike lanes.


  • Dr. Arthur Spivack explains, “The 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora was one of the largest in recorded history and put a bunch of aerosol into the stratosphere.  This led to the “year without a summer” in Europe due to the reflectivity of the aerosols blocking the sunlight. As a result of the associated crop failures due to the lack of a summer, there wasn’t enough feed for horses in Germany. This inspired Karl von Drais to invent the first proto-bicycle as an alternative  means to get from town to town. About 50 years later, the ball bearing was patented as a device to be used in bicycles which were then fitted to the winning bicycle ridden by James Moore in the world’s first bicycle road race, Paris-Rouen, in November 1869.  The ball bearing ultimately enabled much of the Industrial Revolution.”