“Challenges and Innovations Occurring in the Preservation Field”

The US-based National Trust for Historic Preservation is asking for input, via a survey on the “Challenges and Innovations Occurring in the Preservation Field.” The survey asks some very useful and relevant questions, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to post my response to a few of the questions here. The specific question from the Trust is in bold prior to my answers.

Q. In your opinion what are the top three current challenges to preserving historic places?

  1. Legitimizing historic preservation for people who are not in the dominant socioeconomic class.
  2. Rules, laws, and regulations used in preservation (e.g., design review, Section 106) are nearly impossible to modify/change to accommodate a more innovative, people-centered approach.
  3. Encouraging primary, social science research in the field of historic preservation to provide evidence to influence practice.

Q. How can preservation be more relevant to solving challenges that impact our lives?

It is important to increase preservation’s relevancy to a larger portion of the American population. The general public still perceives preservation as an elitist activity focusing on a very small part of the built environment consisting of monumental buildings; rules and regulations that drive 75% of preservation practice reinforce the very real reality of this still accurate perception.

Historic preservation needs to be re-conceptualized as 1) a place-making endeavor that improves overall quality of life; 2) an endeavor that predominantly addresses ordinary, vernacular places; and 3) a preferential activity to new construction because it’s inherently sustainable.

Q. What are the most important ways the National Trust could help address the challenges and opportunities you’ve identified?

  1. The Trust should continue its very important work in engaging with diverse communities and marginalized groups; in this work, it’s important to let leaders from these groups envision and steer overall ideas and processes. In this sense, the Trust acts as a facilitator letting others lead.
  2. The Trust should work with practitioners and academics to re-envision the regulatory environment that drives most of historic preservation practice. How can it be more dynamic in a way that could incorporate more grass-roots meanings in balance with conventional, expert art/historical values? This could take the form of conferences, publications, workshops, and even state-by-state efforts. Legal scholars must be involved in this process; international perspectives would be very important to help envision what might be possible.
  3. The Trust should work with its partners to create funding sources for researchers to conduct primary social science research into the ways in which people perceive and are affected by the historic environment. How is this experience different than other aspects of the built environment? A secondary effort would be to help fund efforts to translate this primary research into practice.

I very much appreciate that the Trust is requesting this kind of feedback. As the only national advocate for historic preservation in the United States, this organization has a significant influence on the field. In the 1960s and early 1970s, for instance, the Trust was a leader in helping to establish what the professional field of historic preservation would become and influenced what has now become the standard curriculum for academic degree programs in the field. My hope is that this organization’s work on diversity and inclusion will continue and that the Trust’s new leadership will open new paths to increasing the relevance of the field for the public.

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