THE HOUSE this week can help preserve an important part of America's heritage by approving an imaginative project, the Lowell (Mass.) National Historical Park. Unlike most national parks, Lowell does not involve a precious natural resource or a site linked to famous people or political or military events. Instead, H.R. 11662 would rehabilitate a significant man-made site, the first planned industrial city in the United States. And it would help modern Americans understand the country's industrial development, the design and evolution of factory towns, the role of ethnic groups, and the growth of labor movements - elements that loom larger in many families' own histories than splendid landmarks and great events.

Lowell, on the Merrimack River near Boston, is the right place for that new kind of park. Founded in 1822, Lowell was the first American city built expressly for mass production and shaped by the new social order that factory work imposed. Although the textile industry has largely gone, many huge mill building remain. So do the intricate network of power canals and some of the schools, churches and boarding houses established for the Yankee "mill girls." Finally, the city's neighborhoods still reflect the cultural diversity of the thousands of immigrants who streamed there after 1850.

It is a place worthy of national attention. The tricky question has been to figure out how the federal government can bolster local and state efforts and concentrate the National Park Service's energies on the most important sites. A good answer has come out of years of discussion, a congressionally ordered study and the tireless work of Lowell's Democratic congressman, Paul Tsongas. That answer, embodied in H.R. 11662, is a complex partnership involving all levels of government, plus private interests. It is a promising way to preserve the past in the heart of a living city. In that sense, too, the Lowell National Historical Park could be a pacesetter, just as Lowell was during the 19th century.