Placemaking Spotlight: Making History Happen in Franklin, Tennessee

Located about 20 miles south of Nashville, the city of Franklin, Tennessee, is rooted in history and brimming with contemporary personality, making it a noteworthy example of placemaking at its finest. 

Downtown Franklin

Named for Benjamin Franklin, the town was founded in 1799 and grew into a prosperous trading center for hemp, tobacco, and other products, as well as its administrative role as the seat of Williamson County. During the Civil War, it was the site of one of the only battles to take place in a downtown setting—one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

As tensions between the North and South continued after the Civil War and at the end of the 19th century, Franklin witnessed several well-chronicled instances of racial violence and injustice to Black citizens. [Franklin now strives to tell this complex piece of its history through historical markers that acknowledge the tragic events of the past and educate residents and visitors about its “Fuller Story”.]

While preservation is top-of-mind in Franklin today, it took 120 years for the county’s economy to reach pre-war levels, and many of Franklin’s noteworthy historic sites fell into disrepair and neglect in the mid-20th century. Downtown Franklin, including its Main Street core, struggled to maintain its architectural integrity as longtime businesses closed. 

In 1967, a group of determined citizens, frustrated with the recent demolition of a prominent home, formed the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County to save the architectural and cultural resources that make Franklin unique. Similarly, the Downtown Franklin Association was formed in 1984 to work in partnership with property owners, preservationists, local government, and merchants to revitalize Franklin’s historic main street and downtown retail core. 

Much of the battlefield itself was also largely redeveloped over the century following the Civil War. However, about 20 years ago, preservationists rallied to reclaim over 200 acres of the battlefield and restore it in the form of public parks and open space.

Embracing these historic resources proved to be a good investment for business, as Emily Wright, Franklin’s Director of Planning and Sustainability, explains. “When our downtown wasn’t thriving back in the 1970s and early 1980s, local citizens took action and organized to partner with the city to focus on reviving our historic resources, most notably our main street and public square. Some of the new regulations that were adopted weren’t popular with the entire business community at the time, but when you look at the difference in how much our downtown has changed in the last 30 to 40 years, you can see how much more vibrant of a place it has become.”

Today, there are seven local historic districts in Franklin’s downtown core, with several other historic sites located outside of these designated areas. The city’s thoughtfully preserved Main Street boasts an appealing blend of architectural styles ranging from pre-Civil War to the 1900s.

And the Heritage Foundation’s impact continues to grow; it kickstarted a streetscape program and now manages a Main Street Program for the city. The foundation has also swept in to rescue historic properties that were vacant, underutilized, or set for demolition with the goal of making these places more accessible to the public.

From a planning perspective, Emily notes the importance of balancing Franklin’s historic qualities with modern demands. Indeed, the planning department’s staff includes a preservation expert who focuses on managing growth and change in the historic districts, zeroing in on preservation details with each new development—a procedural step that the public is often not even aware of.

The planning department also recognizes how the city’s population has shifted in recent years, with growing neighborhoods attracting residents from all over the country. People are drawn to Franklin for its burgeoning corporate operations, tech and healthcare industries, as well as its proximity to Nashville. While Franklin’s population—just under 78,000—makes it a fraction of the size of Nashville, it keeps a close, symbiotic relationship with its neighbor to the north. Commuting patterns run equally in both directions along a highway corridor that’s rich with business campuses.

Maintaining Franklin’s distinctive personality is also one of the planning department’s top priorities.

“We consider how to preserve our character in every new development through routinely examined development regulations, and how to highlight it in interesting and meaningful ways,” adds Emily.

As a recent example, Emily points to Franklin’s Harpeth Square development in downtown. Completed in the past year, it’s the first recent development project to take up nearly a full city block in downtown—home to the only downtown hotel, along with apartments and commercial space.

“Harpeth Square added to the vibrancy of downtown and shows how something new can exist alongside something historic. It’s not meant to look historic, but rather to blend in and be compatible with downtown,” she says.

In addition to preserving Franklin’s historic assets, Emily also takes note of the need to protect the Franklin’s scenic qualities.

Franklin is surrounded by natural beauty

“There is so much natural beauty in this area: rolling hillsides, amazing greenery and rural landscape, streams and waterways, and we want to make sure these views remain intact and are not disrupted. We don’t want to place structures on top of a hill where only the people on the hilltop can enjoy them.”  

Looking ahead, Emily recognizes that growth puts pressure on Franklin’s infrastructure, and that such strains must be properly planned for. Just the same, the city is entering into discussions with the county to re-examine its growth plan and boundaries for the first time in 25 years. This planning effort will coincide with a few other planning initiatives, such as a major update to Envision Franklin, the city’s land use plan, and re-evaluating Franklin’s preservation plan.

“We need to look at what new areas should be preserved. As time goes on, other areas that are currently undesignated have become historic.”  

Although growth and change are inevitable in Franklin, as in any other thriving placemaking community, the Tennessee city has a proven record of preserving and protecting its unique character.

“Some citizens think we’re growing too fast,” explains Emily. “But our growth is well thought out and strategic, and only where it makes sense in the long run. It isn’t just happening. We’ve been directing where it’s happening.”