It's time travel of a sort. You know the feeling. In rural Vermont, you walk into a country grocery store, the screen door slapping shut behind you, and you've stepped back 80 years. Walk the streets of Verona, Italy, and you step back 800—if it weren't for all the tourists, that is.
In this, our fifth annual destination-stewardship survey, we look at how well historic destinations are withstanding mass tourism, neglect, and wrecking balls—as well as the more subtle threat of overplaying the past, where a place ends up embalmed as a lifeless museum or Disneyfied into a cute parody of its true heritage.
For this year's survey, conducted by the Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations, we chose more than a hundred historic places around the world. We then asked an international panel of 280 experts to evaluate the destinations based on our six criteria (see About the Survey). This being a destination survey, we skipped living museums and stand-alone sites and chose only populated communities possessing a historic character, district, or dominant site. The score for each place is the average of the panelists' ratings, accompanied by a sample of comments they posted in the course of the survey. We also skipped some destinations we'd rated in previous surveys.
Austria's Wachau Valley and Melk Abbey got top honors with a score of 88 for excellent preservation of both landscape and structures. Surprising to some might be one of the best U.S. ratings: a 78 for Columbus, Indiana, renowned for its modern architecture.
Lowest on the survey, Colorado's Central City scored only 34. Panelists agreed that behind its historic facades the town had lost its soul to ranks of gleaming slot machines. Suburban sprawl takes a toll, too. Charlottesville, VA, and Harpers Ferry, WV, have decent scores (72 and 67 respectively), but the greater "Hallowed Ground" countryside of which they are a part does not—45—due largely to rampant development.
Luckily, such failures are exceptions. Many U.S. destinations score well—Charleston, SC, Port Townsend, WA, Red Wing, MN, Asheville, NC. Some owe their success to downtown revitalization programs like Main Street, a well-respected initiative of the National Trust. In other cases, like Charleston, the citizenry as a whole has developed a sincere interest in protecting the character of the community.
In the end, people make the difference. No surprise there. A homegrown sense of stewardship, along with the support of caring visitors, is what will secure the future of our pasts.
Traveler and the National Trust for Historic Preservation
We publish these annual surveys in part to promote public discussion and action in support of destination stewardship. We encourage communities to take measures that will, in effect, raise their scores, and so become even better places to visit and live. In an unprecedented move, therefore, we are pleased to be working with Preservation magazine, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to help show why some U.S. places do well, others not so well, and what can be done about it.
Go to www.preservationnation.org, and you can read Preservation's in-depth online profiles of five U.S. towns selected from this survey. You can also learn about Trust programs, such as Main Street and Heritage Tourism, that help communities make the most of their historic assets. For your own visits, check out the Trust's Historic Hotels directory at www.historichotels.org.