Social justice and using heritage values to prioritize climate change decisions

Erin Seekamp (NC State University), Sandra Fatorić (Delft University of Technology), and Allie McCreary (Western Kentucky University) just published “Historic Preservation Priorities for Climate Adaptation” in Ocean and Coastal Management that’s worth a close read. This is one of the only research papers that surveys “experts” and “community groups” to ascertain how their values overlap with climate change priorities in terms of saving historic buildings. We need more work like this! But, while this paper is very important in terms of the topic it addresses, its non-critical perspective on heritage meanings and values is potentially problematic. To be fair, the authors acknowledge this limitation in the paper, when they recommend that “Future research should specifically measure historically marginalized groups’ perceptions of climate adaptation priorities for historic buildings” (p. 9). But the limitations and the issues that arise from the paper are worth exploring in more detail.

What’s clear is that in the results from both samples (experts and community groups), there’s a strong preference to privilege buildings that are: 1) “unique”; 2) have strong national significance; and 3) readily apparent “scientific values”. Curiously, there’s very little difference in the responses between both samples, which I find odd. But, regardless, this paper helps to sanction quick decision-making that leaves out stakeholders (e.g., the broader public) in these decisions, leaving these decisions entirely in the hands of conventional experts. To wit, the paper’s authors recommend that “when faced with situations in which rapid decision making is needed, technical expertise may be sufficient if there isn’t time for stakeholder engagement or formal consultation” (p. 9).

As I’ve noted many times before (most recently at my presentation at the Keeping History Above Water conference in Florida), climate change will likely increase the inherent social justice issues in historic preservation practice because it reinforces expert rule, top-down decision making, and marginalizes non-white perspectives. This article gives credence to these concerns in the following ways:

  1. We’re failing to break out of the mode that all heritage values are somehow neatly and entirely encompassed in National Register criteria, which is often used as a proxy for “scientific” values.
  2. The exigency of climate change means that we don’t have to engage with the public (especially marginalized groups/minorities); since we’re talking about expert/scientific values anyway, there’s no need to understand broader community (sociocultural, psychological) values associated with places.
  3. Only white people are being involved in these discussions (more below).

My major concern with this article is that “community groups” is not defined. We don’t really know who the individuals are that participated in the survey, but it’s possible to make some strong inferences. Because these groups are likely to be equivalent to non-profit heritage/preservation advocacy organizations, it is reasonable to assume that their membership is overwhelmingly white, and thus the sample fails to encompass minority perspectives. I find it both interesting and telling that the authors of the paper did not report any demographics from participants other than gender and age. I could be wrong on this assessment, of course, but based on data from the field in other studies, the lack of diverse perspectives in the paper’s sample is likely to be an accurate assessment.

To be sure, however, the major issue is that this paper uses a convenience (non-probability) sample, so there’s all sorts of issues about generalizing from the results. But again, this paper, as presented, reinforces the status quo in orthodox historic preservation practice that fails to recognize non-white and Latinx perspectives.

This article and the larger issues around climate change and built heritage surface a very important question: How do the white (and non-Latinx) people who dominate the fields of environmental conservation AND historic preservation respectfully and consistently increase their engagement with non-white people both in historic preservation AND environmental conservation practice? Both of these fields have significant problems in minority representation, which really should be discussed to a much larger extent. For instance, recently a New Yorker Magazine article claimed that 99% of the people who practice in the historic preservation field are white. I’ve seen similar statistics for people in environmental conservation as well as climate scientists.

Before we assume that National Register criteria are the only valid way to assess the value of built heritage, we ought to engage in broader and deeper discussions with groups that represent non-dominant perspectives, such as Latinos in Heritage Conservation and Asian & Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation, among many other possibilities. And, when we do studies like this, we need to collect demographics that better represent the samples in order to understand the potential narrowness of the perspectives that are represented. 
For reference, the paper by Seekamp, Fatori, and McCreary is available in full text, here from Research Gate

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