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Home arrowInclusiveness arrowPhilip L. Walker, AICP - Principal: The Walker Collaborative

Philip L. Walker, AICP - Principal: The Walker Collaborative

Phil Walker is the principal of The Walker Collaborative, an urban planning and preservation consulting firm based in Nashville, Tennessee. He has more than 30 years of experience in city planning and historic preservation and has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) since 1989. His public sector experience includes serving as the downtown revitalization director for Pensacola, Florida, and Clarksville, Tennessee, as well as the city planning director for Natchez, Mississippi. Mr. Walker’s private sector experience includes positions with planning and design firms in Princeton, New Jersey (Hintz-Nelessen Associates), Cambridge, Massachusetts (Christopher Chadbourne & Associates), and Nashville (LRK Architects). Since establishing The Walker Collaborative in 2002, he has led numerous award-winning planning projects across the country. His book entitled Downtown Planning for Smaller and Midsized Communities was published by the American Planning Association in 2009, and he is a frequent speaker at planning conferences and universities. He has a bachelor’s degree in Historic Preservation from Middle Tennessee State University, a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Florida, and a master’s degree in Real Estate Development from Harvard University.

What led you to your field?
As a kid, I always had an interest in history and considered going to college to earn a history degree but was afraid I would be limited to teaching. As a senior in high school, I learned about the historic preservation field through a special edition of the National Trust’s Preservation magazine, which profiled college preservation programs. As a result, I attended Middle Tennessee State University, which (from what I’ve always been told) offered the country’s first bachelor’s degree in historic preservation. That program got me interested in being a Main Street manager, but because I did not feel like I was ready to transition from school to a full-time job upon graduation, I decided to then attend the University of Florida for a master’s degree in urban and regional planning as a compliment to my preservation degree. One reason I chose U of F was because their planning program was housed in the College of Architecture, which also had a graduate preservation program. Thus, my bachelor’s and master’s degrees put me on the path toward city planning and historic preservation.

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
Some of my work relates directly to preservation, and some of it relates more indirectly. Examples of my preservation projects include heritage area management plans, citywide historic preservation plans, and historic district ordinances and design guidelines. I also have developed a specialty in battlefield preservation planning - primarily related to Civil War sites. Many of my preservation projects are in collaboration with Phil Thomason, who focuses solely on preservation and is based here in Nashville. In fact, he was my architectural history instructor back in my undergraduate days in the early-1980s. I often joke with him that, had I known we would be business colleagues decades later, I might have paid more attention during his class! 

I also work on a lot of citywide comprehensive plans, special area plans (downtowns and neighborhoods), zoning codes, and similar planning projects. To the extent that those types of projects address preservation, I always lead that component within our consultant team. Because of my preservation background, most of my city planning projects emphasize preservation more than a typical planning project might. Similarly, I tend to put more focus on the historic development of a community relative to most city planning projects.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
I believe that historic preservation is important for the same reasons that we preservationists typically cite to the public, including preserving our history, retaining a sense of place for communities, fiscal efficiencies, economic development, and environmental benefits (“the greenest building is the one that’s already built...”). Older buildings are also key to the revitalization of historic downtowns and neighborhoods because they are so critical to the image and branding of such places that gives them a competitive edge over non-historic places. I also believe historic housing can play a significant role in providing affordable housing. Finally, preserving historic resources is imperative to heritage tourism and the many benefits that such tourism brings to their areas.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Students earning a degree in historic preservation would typically have plenty of very relevant courses to choose from, such as architectural history and preservation administration. However, other less obvious (yet beneficial) courses include political science, urban planning, economics, business management, and public speaking. Any opportunities for hands-on preservation projects and seminar courses are also advantageous.

Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
It is very tough to identify a single favorite project. However, because the history and character of a place often weigh more heavily for me relative to the project specifics, a favorite was the plan I led for the Lower St. Charles Neighborhood in New Orleans back in 2000. Our client was a non-profit neighborhood revitalization entity, and part of their project funding was from the National Trust. It was a great excuse for me to do a deep dive into the historic development and architecture of that area. Although the neighborhood featured numerous individuals and groups at war with each other (even the churches), we were able to establish a consensus on key planning ideas through a public charrette process. I do not know how significant of a role the plan ultimately played in the neighborhood’s revitalization, but I get to New Orleans at least once a year and always take a run through the study area to witness the progress, which has been slow but steady.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
I am currently working on a couple of citywide comprehensive plans in Arkansas (Clarksville and Russellville); a zoning and development code rewrite for both Starkville, Mississippi, and Sumner County, Tennessee; historic district design guidelines for Georgetown, South Carolina; and a preservation plan for Garden City, Kansas. My workload at any given time typically features about two-thirds city planning projects and one-third preservation projects.

However, my most exciting current project is the downtown master plan I am leading for Natchez, Mississippi. I was their city planning director back in the early-1990s, and I have had an ongoing relationship with the community. A few years ago I rewrote their zoning code. Because the City is currently unable to fund a downtown plan, the funds have been raised privately. The community raised more than $100,000 for our plan, with no checks exceeding $10,000, and most being much smaller. As just one example of many, Fat Mama’s tamale joint sponsored a celebrity 5K road race that raised more than $8,000. An authentic grassroots effort so far, our week-long public charrette for the project will occur in mid-July.

How do you think the national historic preservation programs help your community?
National preservation programs help Nashville in a variety of ways. Some of the historic building rehabilitations in downtown and elsewhere have utilized the federal investment tax credit, which appears to be key to the economic viability of some projects. Also, Nashville is part of the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area. As the person who drafted the heritage area’s management plan, I have followed firsthand the numerous great preservation projects and enhanced heritage tourism that the heritage area has stimulated. Finally, the Music Row area of Nashville has been designated a National Treasure by the National Trust. The Trust has built partnerships with the local government, Tennessee Historical Commission, property owners, the business community (including the music industry), and local preservation groups and individuals to engage in planning efforts intended to preserve this unique area that was pivotal in much of America’s music heritage.

Do you have advice for novice preservationists?
Because there are so many facets to preservation, I believe a major challenge for many novice preservationists is figuring out their ultimate role in the field. My advice is to not box yourself into any one particular facet too early in your career. Pursue those areas that you feel most passionate about since it may be how you end up spending a large percentage of your life. I also think that reading preservation trade journals, attending preservation conferences, and networking, are important for professional development-particularly earlier in your career.

The ACHP’s mission is “preserving America’s heritage;” can you give us an example of how your community is preserving its heritage?
There are numerous examples in Nashville, but local historic and conservation districts are the one example that I witness on a daily basis. I live on a former streetcar boulevard in a National Register district which, until about a decade ago, was unprotected from building demolitions, inappropriate alterations, and incompatible infill development. I was part of a group that spearheaded the adoption of a conservation district for our neighborhood, a “historic zoning light” overlay that is a tool available in Nashville. Infill development tends to be the most relevant issue shaped by this overlay. While the compatibility of some aspects of new housing in our neighborhood is debatable, the overlay at least avoids any clearly inappropriate infill from occurring.

How does area planning play a role in historic preservation?
As indicated previously regarding the types of projects I work on, preservation goals can be furthered through a wide range of area plan types, including downtown and neighborhood plans, citywide comprehensive plans and regional plans. Area plans are typically comprehensive in nature by addressing a variety of issues, including land use, development form and character, transportation, natural and cultural resources, infrastructure, housing and economic development. It is up to preservationists to be sure that historic preservation is given sufficient attention as well to be sure that future growth advances preservation gains rather than loses.

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