How to “fix” historic preservation

Recently, Patrice Frey, President of the National Main Street Center, wrote a post on Citylab about “Why Historic Preservation Needs a New Approach.” While I very much agree with most of her points, there are many issues (and potential solutions) that she misses.

First of all, I wholeheartedly agree with her claim that the field of historic preservation has changed significantly in the past 50 years, but “our toolbox has not evolved to keep pace.” We need new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new people in the field to increase both its relevancy and vibrancy to the American public. Frey states that “the primary goal of preservationists should be to support people and communities in retaining the places they feel passionately about, and doing so in a way that supports their evolving needs ­­(and reflects their financial realities).” Bravo. I’m there 100% and I hope my readers are as well.

But Frey’s argument starts falling apart when she makes specific recommendations on how to achieve this goal. Her first recommendation is to implement a grading system such as the one used in the United Kingdom. For those of you not familiar with this system, it breaks down the value of historic buildings into three categories – grade II, grade II*, and grade I – from lowest to highest in value. The regulatory system therefore preserves – in situ – to the highest degree, grade I buildings, but allows more changes to the fabric of grade II*, and especially grade II buildings. Frey, however, provides no answer to how, in the US, we should implement such a grading system. (Of note is that the US National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was supposed to include this kind of grading system, but it didn’t make the cut.) In the UK, the way this works is a black box from the perspective of the public. Unlike in the United States, a regular citizen can’t simply submit a nomination to get a building listed in a grade I (or any other) category. Instead, the most that can happen is that a citizen can make a recommendation to a panel of experts who then create the values contained in the nomination based on their own methods of research and sociocultural perspective. Surely, this is not the way forward in the US.

The implication is that somehow a grading system would allow the US to get away from a one-size-fits-all approach to the retention of historic fabric inherent in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. Yet, even in the UK, officials use pretty much the same standards as we do in the US for all grades of buildings, although under a different name: Principles of Repair (English Heritage 1993) or Guide to the Principles of the Conservation of Historic Buildings (British Standards Institution 1998). All of these standards are highly derivative of the Venice Charter of 1964.

While, on the surface, a grading system is laudable, surely we can do better than the system used in the UK to establish the criteria for how the grades are applied. The UK is no better than the US in terms of accessing, understanding, and applying local knowledge in the creation of the values and meanings used to define historical significance. Again, one might argue because the nomination process is so opaque compared to the US in the UK that this would be a backwards step. There is no panacea here as Frey seems to imply.

I very much, however, agree with Frey’s stance that we need more ways to financially incentivize historic preservation, especially small-scale projects, but what would this look like exactly? Frey offers some useful examples, such as social impact funds, changes to securities law in real estate finance, and Opportunity Zones. But, none of these are what I would conceptualize as game changers that would fundamentally change the field of preservation.

In consideration of Frey’s suggestions to, in essence, fix historic preservation, I would offer an expanded list. I should note that many of these ideas have been offered by others, but are assembled by me here.

  • Reconceptualize historic preservation as an activity fundamental to sustainability and a core solution to climate change and improved environmental quality. For thousands of years, human beings have been using traditional construction methods – lime mortar technology, earthen building construction, wood windows, linseed-oil based paints, among many other possibilities – that are inherently sustainable. Why? Because these materials do not rely on fossil fuels for their composition and are based on renewable, repairable, plant-based materials that pollute far less than modern materials. One might also make the argument that they also tend to cost more in terms of labor, which could be a desirable outcome in an economy this is increasingly automated — in other words, use of these materials creates and sustains jobs (Donovan Rypkema makes some excellent arguments in this direction).
  • Conceptualize cultural and environmental conservation as the same thing, but along a continuum. Historic preservation is an environmentally conscious activity, yet it’s not mentioned by most environmental conservation advocacy organizations. On the flip side, historic preservation should also, fundamentally, be about the conservation of landscapes, including their living components and ecological systems. Many historic preservation advocacy organizations also fail to make this similar connection.
  • Disincentivize new construction in rural contexts. Or simply, disincentivize new construction, period. It is still too easy in the United States for a developer to buy cheap farmland where the utility infrastructure is subsidized by tax payer dollars. The regulatory environment should be designed in a way that makes rehabilitation/reuse of existing buildings easier than new construction. This can be accomplished through taxes (e.g., a demolition tax) as well as more streamlined processes in zoning and building permitting.
  • Recognize “green building” and LEED for what they are—marketing-led gimmicks that are used by developers and architects for feel-good advertising. Technology got us into this unsustainable mess, yet we continually look to it as the only solution for sustainability. This is not an anti-technology position, but rather one that needs to be mitigated by also looking at sustainable past practices and blending them into a system that is not as reliant on disposable technology. What do you think happens to all of those plastic parts in automatic windows that open/close in LEED buildings and eventually break because of UV light degradation? Or the increasingly outdated software and hardware than runs computer systems to make buildings more efficient? The reality is that the technology that makes buildings more “efficient” and “green” ends up broken or in the landfill in a couple of decades. This is a process whereby being green and sustainable looks a lot more like fashion than sensible, evidence-based decision making. I should point out that there are very few post-occupancy studies on LEED buildings 5, 10, or 15 years after their construction to even start to substantiate the marketing claims being made.
  • Recognize that historic preservation is (as Frey rightfully points out) based on an archaic 50-year old platform that is fundamentally designed to marginalize local knowledge and sociocultural meanings not held or articulated by conventional experts. The fact is that our existing regulatory system will not accommodate intangible values or obviate the need for material authenticity (i.e., historical integrity) without fundamental changes. The first place to start is to eliminate the need for lists of historic buildings and switch to a dynamic system that continually and contextually adapts to changing values and meanings (see here for more details).
  • Recognize that historic preservationists may have a different psychological profile than other groups of people. In my research in environmental psychology, I’m finding that people who work in historic preservation value patina or decay in the built environment significantly more than people who do not. What if, as historic preservationists, we are literally forcing most people to think like us? There are many reasons why people value older places, but our regulations and doctrines are all based on a fundamental assumption that retention of material fabric—and its glorious decay—is of the highest value. We—i.e., historic preservationists—need to start understanding how most people think about, perceive, and value older places and make our arguments for our activities through their lens, not ours.
  • Our field is still far too white and lacks diversity in all forms. This claim is true whether we look at the paucity of places on the National Register representing marginalized groups or the lack of people of color in historic preservation practice. Look at this problem in this way: If you are a member of a marginalized group, why would you choose to practice in a field that does not represent your cultural values and is constantly represented by images dominated by rich white men? Clearly, this is a solvable problem, but it should start by reconceptualizing the nature of historical significance and historical integrity in the field.
  • We should be about the everyday, not the rare and unique. Back to the lists that our field loves – the listing process assumes that cultural heritage is supposed to be rare and unique. Cultural heritage is ubiquitous, ordinary, and everyday – both in tangible and intangible forms. Yet, we choose to throw away most of these places—often through regulatory requirements. And we wonder why most people, in surveys, state that they love historic buildings, but don’t like historic preservation.

I’m sure many of you could produce lots of additions to this list. But this kind of discussion should be much more common in the field—especially among practitioners and policy leaders—than is currently done. Why is this not the case? In my next post, I’ll make the argument that practitioners are often afraid to speak up; there are few safe places in the field outside of higher education where one can have these debates.

One thought on “How to “fix” historic preservation

  1. NK

    Excellent post. I firmly believe it is a much shorter leap to engage those on the periphery of traditional preservation in order to leverage positive impacts. I further put forth that Historic Preservation, a 168 year old movement, is RIPE for disruption. Toward that end, I am working with thought leaders, process engineers and global connectivity organizations in developing a framework through which this positive disruption can find its way… Will follow your work more closely! NK

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