(The following is the text of a presentation I made on September 7, 2015 at the 16th International Conference of National Trusts in Cambridge, U.K. The session – Looking Ahead: Contemporary Challenges and Opportunities – was chaired by Emily Drani, Executive Director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda. My fellow panelists were Shivranjani Rajye, Trustee, Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur, India; and Professor Ruan Yisan, Director, National Research Center for Historic Cities, Tongji University, China.)
Thank you to INTO and to the National Trust for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland for the opportunity to focus on our efforts in the United States to build a growing and more inclusive historic preservation movement. Our goal is a movement that recognizes all the facets of our diverse history, enables all our citizens to see themselves in our collective story, and – as a result – become engaged in this work. I hope you will find elements that ring true with your work in your countries.
Our preservation movement (and I will use the terms historic preservation and heritage conservation interchangeably) has survived and thrived in large measure based on our ability to adapt to a host of changing circumstances.
For example, the creation story for preservation in the U.S. turns in the mid-twentieth century from a focus on high-style architectural landmarks to a grassroots and activist movement. Jane Jacobs in Greenwich Village, Barbara Capitman in Miami Beach, and others led tens of thousands of citizens across the country to fight the nature and pace of change in their neighborhoods. This instinct to shape the communities we want, instead of accepting what others conceive for us, remains. Unfortunately, many do not connect that instinct with preservation practice today.
To reach those who share our values, preservation should be inspired by that moment of fundamental change in its past
In reflecting on the future and the growth of our movement, I’ll begin with this idea of adaptation to change. Consider the thought that contrary to popular perception, change is constant and important to our work as preservationists and conservationists. Buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods all change. Our job as preservationists is not to freeze time. Paul Goldberger, the award-winning architectural critic, says, “Successful preservation makes time a continuum.”
After addressing the importance of adaptation to change, I want to swiftly pivot to consider how the way we work, the tools we use, and the way we talk often inhibits our growth as a movement. This reflection grows out of my belief that preservation is a political movement, which means we have to convince people to join us in saving places that matter. Often the language used to describe historic preservation and heritage conservation looks backward. We need to look forward.
Any assessment of preservation in America finds that we have succeeded in our work, yet failed to fully capture the public’s heart. Let’s start with our success. America’s cities are magnets for the young, creative class, and these individuals are voting with their feet to live, work, and play in older and historic neighborhoods. The National Trust recently examined data from five major cities in the U.S. and found that up to 90 percent of the hip bars and restaurants in those communities were located in older buildings. In the past 35 years, the federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits have been used to preserve more than 40,000 buildings, brought a private sector investment that exceeds $117 billion, and generates $1.27 in taxes for every $1 spent by the federal government. President Barack Obama has used his power under the Antiquities Act to designate as National Monuments some of the most important, yet underappreciated, sites that tell the broad story of America, places such as a World War II-era Japanese internment camp in Hawaii and Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood – the heart of the American Labor Movement. Studies have demonstrated that local historic districts provide strong economic value to communities. Jane Jacobs’ statement that “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them” has never looked so prescient.
On the other hand, preservation is under assault. Economists such as Harvard’s Ed Glaeser travel the book and lecture circuit blaming historic preservation regulations for the lack of affordable housing in Manhattan. Surveys by the National Trust find some 15 million like-minded Americans who nonetheless do not identify as preservationists. Congress threatens to eliminate the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits. In almost eight years in office, the Obama administration has cut or eliminated funding for preservation and called for the weakening of one of the country’s most important preservation protections.
Peter Drucker has noted that, “People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete – the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.” Could preservationists and conservationists be too attached to tools designed to fight the last war? Have we “won” and yet do not know how to build on our success?
Let’s focus on change.
Heritage conservation has proven to be highly adaptable. The National Trust in the U.S. – and many Trusts around the world – own sites that represent our movement’s initial focus on great architecture and museums.
But we’ve changed that focus over time. In a 2013 New York Times story, two 27-year-old Buffalo residents – working in the heart of America’s industrial rust belt – were lauded for their preservation skills as micro-developers, “rehabbing derelict properties to rent (or sell)…in an attempt to save houses from demolition….” One of them, Bernice Radle, gave a TED talk, holding up a heart-shaped poster that read “Preservation is Sexy” while explaining the “preservation as social activism” manifesto that drives her and her peers.
Preservation as social activism. In the 21st century, historic preservation and heritage conservation are definitely not one-size-fits-all propositions – not with Main Street revitalization, heritage tourism, social justice, the use of urban landscapes as public history, a growing back-to-the-city movement, protection of our natural heritage, public gardens, placemaking, historic site reinvention, a renewed focus on the civic commons, large landscape conservation, land use and transportation planning, and engagement on economic and environmental sustainability all part of our work.
This broadening of conservation has led to a change in our tools. Smart practitioners today are often moving beyond a reliance on ownership or regulation, knowing we cannot focus on saving every piece of material from our historic buildings or freezing our historic landscapes in a moment in time, as if that is what makes them important.
Herbert Muschamp, former architecture critic for the New York Times, said,
“A building does not have to be an important work of architecture to become a first-rate landmark. Landmarks are not created by architects. They are fashioned by those who encounter them after they are built. The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.”
Places – whether they be buildings, gardens, or landscapes – change as they are imbued with meaning, memory and stories. Looking at landmarks only through the lens of an architectural historian or landscape architect – without considering other equally important aspects of place – severely limits our understanding of what makes our older and historic buildings and their landscapes special. Daniel Solomon, writing in Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities), notes what the sustainable city must sustain…
“…is the culture of the city: the way people cook in New Orleans, the way they dress in Milan, dance in Havana, speak in London, wise-crack in New York, look cool in Tokyo.”
Intent on achieving the larger goal of creating and maintaining livable, sustainable, resilient communities for all our citizens, preservationists are realizing that local situations call for different tools to take us from the outside to the mainstream. The National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab helped the City of Seattle pass the nation’s first outcome-based energy code, focused on energy-saving outcomes instead of prescriptive actions. That code aligns with the inherent energy-saving qualities of older buildings.
As many of you are doing, the National Trust in the U.S. is leading efforts to move beyond the idea that a museum is the optimal outcome for a historic building or site. In an expanding partnership with a farm-to-table nonprofit organization, the National Trust is looking beyond the house museum at a new use for our historic site Woodlawn, setting up a 21st century use that relates directly to the site’s 19th century roots as a place for experimental agriculture. Sometimes embracing change entails going back to the future.
However, far too few people understand the changing nature of preservation. I believe this is because our reactionary language looks backward and is based on conservation doctrine. We’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by that language.
When the voters of Houston, Texas, narrowly defeated a referendum to save and rehabilitate the Astrodome, a local newspaper felt perfectly comfortable in saying that the voters had rejected nostalgia.
Nostalgia? We don’t work in nostalgia. The Astrodome – the 8th Wonder of the World, a modernist icon, and a symbol of the brashness, big vision, and can-do spirit of Texas with a bright future – isn’t nostalgia. Yet we’ve too often allowed ourselves to be framed by others.
When we think of language, we have to recognize that fundamentally, preservation is a political movement.
Writing on the influential planning blog Greater, Greater Washington, David Alpert brought this point home in a post about an especially difficult fight over the Brutalist-style Third Church of Christ Scientist in our nation’s capital.
If there’s ever an example of winning the battle and losing the war, (Alpert wrote) this church fight is it….I admire the strict preservationists’ fortitude in standing up for what they believe, but preservationists need to realize an important fact: preservation is a political movement.
For all the talk about how preservation retains even buildings that are unpopular (since tastes change), preservation got started saving buildings that were popular. Masses rose up unsuccessfully to save the old Penn Station, still New York City’s most deeply-felt loss. Our historic preservation laws came from the political force of many citizens dismayed at the changes happening around them.
Since then, the political climate has changed. (Alpert ends by noting) If I were a leader in the historic preservation movement, I’d be very worried that the movement is heading…toward irrelevance in pursuit of ideological purity.
Political movements succeed when they find issues where undecided people agree with their side. They also succeed when they work hard to educate the public about why things – such as modernist buildings and landscapes – can be important from an architectural, sustainability, and a (small “c”) conservative point of view. But we have to speak in language that resonates with the values that people care about. And we have to understand that we may be going up against deeply held beliefs by the public about what they like – and don’t like – in our communities.
A democratization of preservation suggests we must move the protection and reuse of older and historic environments from the purview of the few to work all our citizens can embrace. New tools have to be wide-ranging and accessible, compelling many more individuals to join us. Some of this work should focus on expanding our definition of preservation and heritage conservation.
To build a movement for all Americans, we are seeking to recognize that preservation in the U.S. takes many more forms – what the University of Pennsylvania’s Randall Mason describes as “small p” preservation – than the ones associated with our work today. Frankly, we need tools which give every person a voice in determining what is worth preserving in their community.
Conservation and reuse of historic buildings and neighborhoods is at the heart of much of the renewal of communities all over the world over the past 30 years. But preservation as nostalgia often gets pigeon-holed as a niche, a “nice-to-do” but not “critical-to-do” activity. Thankfully, a new generation is providing a sense of how to approach preservation holistically.
They are making the case – in path-creating, forward-thinking, active language – for preservation and what Daniel Solomon has called “The Continuous City.” In a recent series of essays, my colleague Tom Mayes explores the reasons that old places are good for people. He begins with what he considers the main reason—“that old places are important for people to define who they are through memory, continuity, and identity—a ‘sense of orientation.’ These fundamental reasons inform all of the other reasons that follow: commemoration, beauty, civic identity, community, and the reasons that are more pragmatic—preservation as a tool for community revitalization, the stabilization of property values, economic development, and sustainability.”
As Tom notes in his introductory essay, “The notion that old places matter is not primarily about the past. It is about why old places matter to people today and for the future.”
Our political movement must compel others to believe that saving historic and older buildings should be a priority for decision makers today. We must show that livable communities today – thriving, alive communities – are diverse. Wholesale demolition and new construction destroys the connectivity and the continuum that make places unique and desirable.
But if we speak in language of preservation and conservation doctrine – even if we are speaking of relevant issues such as environmental sustainability and urban “hipness” – we will still fail to reach the majority of citizens who share our interests and could be supporters.
Some of the most important work in this area is being undertaken by Dr. Jeremy Wells, a professor in the historic preservation program at Roger Williams University, where he specializes in the use of social science research methods to improve the ways in which the historic environment can be conserved.
In the Spring 2015 issue of the National Trust journal Forum, Dr. Wells makes the case for historic place conservation based on people’s values. He describes the disconnect between the way that professionals who work with old or historic buildings, places, and landscapes…
“…make an objective case for conserving historic places and the emotional way in which most people actually talk about places with cultural value. Each side tends to talk past each other, which may help to explain why most people support conserving old or historic places but don’t view themselves as historic preservationists, and therefore fail to support organizations that advocate for historic place conservation.”
“In other words,” Wells continues, “we aren’t communicating effectively with most stakeholders in their own language and its familiar meanings. We are operating as if we expect most people to adopt our language, perspective and objective descriptions, which is an improbable outcome.”
To be embraced, our work needs to be easy and personal.
According to Wells, laypeople believe that heritage can be found everywhere – not just in special districts – and that at heart everyone is a heritage expert. Natural and cultural heritage are intertwined in a continuum. People have a much more multidimensional view of significance than the preservation expert would often suspect, and people understand that significance lies in the present, not the past.
Old places matter to people for a variety of reasons, and these reasons often overlap.
“Making arguments to the public based on conservation doctrine is almost certainly doomed to failure,” according to Wells. “So how can we make a better case for historic place conservation? The answer is to make a better effort to understand how the public values, perceives and behaves in historic environments.”
We need to stop talking to ourselves and, as suggested by Tom Mayes, start listening to – and working with – everyday people, mayors, brewers, philosophers, housing advocates, historians, planners, developers, architects, shop-owners, politicians, environmentalists, sustainability experts, environmental psychologists, sociologists, neighborhood advocates, artists, writers, composers, and community organizers.
My vision of preservation’s future is one where we embrace change and employ a variety of locally-grown tools that make our historic buildings, landscapes, and development patterns the norm rather than the exception. Those tools would be developed and employed by, for, and of the people. And we would have a political movement that embraces our grass-roots origins.
Historic places matter to people today and to future generations because of the changes, stories, memories, and inspiration that are embedded in our landmarks, in our vernacular buildings, in our older neighborhoods, and in our historic landscapes. If we tell that story in language that speaks to the values people care about, and if we work side-by-side with the people living in our communities, we can have a future where we save and continue to use these places that tell our broad and rich stories.
Together, we have the opportunity to make our historic buildings, landscapes and neighborhoods relevant in shaping the future of our ever-changing communities. If we embrace change in where and how we work, we may find ourselves in the same situation as those who follow Mark Twain’s advice about always telling the truth: “It will amaze your friends and confound your enemies.”
Here’s to an amazing future.
More to come…