Natural resource conservation and historic preservation: Never the twain shall meet? A potential solution centered in equity and inclusion

As I was listening to the session on “A New Framework for Blended Conservation of the Built and Natural Environment” from PastForward 2020 (the US National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference), I was inspired to write this post. While the aim of the session was admirable, what I saw were people innately motivated to work in wild and natural areas dabbling in preservation and people innately inspired by cultural landscapes dabbling in natural resource conservation. Neither seemed particularly interested in each other’s perspectives beyond superficial understandings. There was little, if any, bridging that happened in the session, which was disappointing. This led me to ask the question as to why this connection between preservation and conservation has been so difficult for so long.

Some people point to the UK and especially this nation’s National Trust as a model for integrated preservation and conservation. Others point to the World Heritage convention and its balance between natural and cultural heritage as another example. But even here, with these and many other international examples, you don’t see the same people working in both natural and cultural spaces. Different teams specialize in one or the other. The epitome of this example is how ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Properties) and ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) are asked by UNESCO to comment on the cultural heritage in a World Heritage nomination while IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) is asked to comment on the natural heritage in the same nomination. Throughout the entire world, there is no organization that equally houses expertise on both the cultural and the natural within the frame of conservation. This alone should say something profound.

For sure, over the past few decades, people working in the historic preservation field (especially in cultural landscapes) have argued that the divide between natural and cultural in the environment is artificial and shouldn’t exist; some of the most powerful arguments in this sense were articulated two decades ago by Alanen and Melnick (2000) and remain salient today. But while there are logical reasons that this divide shouldn’t exist, its persistence means that we’re not asking the right kinds of questions to bridge fields and dissolve gaps.

Before I begin, I want to define the term BIPoC, which is critical to this discussion. This is commonly understood to mean “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.” In my use of this term, I also intend it to be broadly inclusive of Latinx people as well as other cultural groups, such as Asian Americans.

Intrinsic motivators: why people choose (and don’t choose) careers in natural resource conservation and historic preservation

One fundamental aspect of this discussion on dissolving the nature/culture divide that is consistently missed is the influence of the intrinsic career motivations of professionals. Or, in another sense, why do people choose to work in the “culture” side of conservation while others choose the “nature” side of conservation? I find very little evidence—in any form—that many people exist who want to work in conservation and preservation. Why is this?

Research shows that the most important reasons students choose to enter a career in environmental or natural resource conservation is because they enjoy being outdoors and experiencing nature (Rouleau, Sharik, & Wellstead 2020), have had many positive outdoor experiences in natural areas during youth, and want to “do something good for the world” (Haynes & Jacobson 2015).

Conversely, while there does not appear to be any studies on students’ choice of a major in historic preservation, studies of professionals in the field and highly engaged volunteers reveal consistent reasons that these individuals choose to work in historic preservation: a desire to be in and experience places that are “beautiful” and have “fine craftsmanship”, enjoyment from reading the chronological layers of a building that have changed over time, and a general tendency to focus more on the fabric of older places rather than on the contemporary people in those places (Buxton 2010; Schofield et al. 2020; Wells & Baldwin 2012). In addition, historic preservationists appear to be likely to anthropomorphize older buildings and thereby attribute human feelings to these inanimate objects. This phenomenon engenders compassion and care toward a building similar to how one would attribute such feelings to a person; preservationists may feel a sense of loss similar to the death of a friend or relative when a building is demolished (Milligan 2003).

It is well known that the practitioners and academics in historic preservation, archaeology, and natural resource conservation are predominately white and that these fields have what is often a profound lack of diversity (Davis et al. 2002; Haynes, Jacobson, & Wald 2015; Cep 2020; Wells 2020; White & Draycott 2020); with few exceptions, nearly all students who choose these career directions are white. While I am not aware of any research in historic preservation or archaeology that investigates why this is the case, we do know that the lack of African Americans and Latinx people in natural resource conservation seems to be strongly related to a lack of outdoor experiences for these groups as youths (Morales & Jacobson 2020).

We also know general factors that tend to motivate African American students to choose certain degree majors. Carnevale et al. (2016) found that African Americans are “highly represented in majors associated with serving the community”: 20% select a major related to community organization and 19% select a major related to social work. Brown and Segrist (2016) found that African Americans are more likely to have successful careers and become leaders if they “placed a greater value on connections with their African heritage, African values and beliefs, and a sense of racial community.” Both of these studies suggest that compared to other types of students, African American students may be particularly attune to the needs and identity of their communities. This evidence suggests that African Americans may avoid historic preservation and natural resource conservation because neither of these fields have a central focus on serving communities. Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate homologous research on other racial or cultural groups, but it is possible that the results might be similar, but we don’t know for sure.

In all aspects of this discussion on intrinsic motivators, it is important that we’re looking at generalizable qualities and not idiosyncratic ones. There will always be exceptions to everything I have laid out here in terms of an argument. I mention this because there is a danger in categorically attributing behaviors and values to a group of people based on racial or ethnic characteristics. I recognize this problem and want to be clear that much of what I discuss still needs better empirical grounding as well as much more qualitative nuances. I also want to make clear that it is erroneous to assume that just because someone has a preference for helping buildings or the planet does not mean that this person does not like people, is antisocial, etc. Moreover, there are no data to substantiate such a claim.

Key takeaway 1: People with BIPoC identities appear to avoid careers in conservation and preservation because neither fields center serving communities in their work

In analyzing the literature on career and degree major choices, it becomes possible to hypothesize a link between intrinsic motivations and specific fields:

  1. People choose to work in natural resource conservation because they want to care for the planet.
  2. People choose to work in historic preservation because they want to care for buildings.
  3. African Americans (and possibly other ethnic and cultural groups) choose careers where they can serve communities; because neither conservation or preservation have this central focus, these fields remain largely white.

Key takeaway 2: If we want to increase diversity and inclusion in natural resource conservation and historic preservation, we need to reposition these fields in ways that serve the needs of communities

The field of natural resource conservation has been trying to integrate a message of caring about communities in its work. Examples include the “Community Based Natural Resource Management” program at World Neighbors, the World Wildlife Fund’s people and communities initiative, and RARE’s emphasis on using “behavioral science to motivate people and communities to adopt behaviors that benefit people and nature.” The conservation social sciences field developed in the early aughts of this century specifically to engage with local communities in environmental conservation work through the use of social science methods that understand how to motivate behavior change.

But, with few exceptions, all of these activities are international (i.e., do not take place in the United States) and involve working with local communities in rural areas. Again, this makes sense given that people who are likely to be motivated to work in natural resource conservation will focus on areas that are more rural (such areas are more “natural”). Arguably, the most degraded natural environments are to be found in denser urban areas, which also happen to be places that will have significant populations of African American and Latinx people (in the US). These urban areas need the most environmental conservation work as AND people “conservation” care of any place in this country, yet the environmental conservation field has shown little interest not only in working in these places, but also in working with these communities. Again, this appears to come down to the simple fact that the people who want to work in environmental conservation don’t like urban areas – it’s not why they entered the field.

Similarly, historic preservation, which is much more likely to involve work with local communities in urban areas, tends to emphasize the benefits that such endeavors have for buildings over directly helping marginalized people. A good example of this are the (now ancient) directives from the National Park Service and the American Planning Association on how local preservation planning should work: the first step is to conduct a survey of the buildings in an area; then develop a preservation ordinance so that these properties can be protected via a local historic district; and then you invite local stakeholders to the table that has already been set. During this process, the local community and its needs, perceptions, and values are not considered: at the end, you simply ask the local stakeholders to agree with the experts. Perhaps most disturbingly, in my work doing these kind of local historic resource surveys, I was constantly aware that the fundamental needs of these neighborhoods were often food and housing security and job and educational opportunities. In working in these places, the community rightly perceived me as an outsider that cared more about beautiful old buildings than the people who lived and worked in these places. In my concern over this situation, I constantly asked why historic preservation could not be re-envisioned as a way to help people through its focus on place.

So, while we know that neither historic preservation nor natural resource conservation centers the care of communities in urban areas in its work, the bigger issue is how to craft a message that delivers this content in a way that also incorporates community empowerment.

Key takeaway 3: A core focus on the care of local communities can help historic preservation become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive while opening a space for our conservation allies to have a dialog about how building and place re-use is good for the planet.

While the people who work in natural resource conservation and historic preservation likely have disparate motivations for their work preferences, these fields have the shared problem of failing to focus their endeavors on the care of local communities. In this light, however, this deficiency becomes an asset to bring preservation and conservation closer together while addressing their innate problems with diversity, equity, and inclusion. The problem remains, however, in how both fields need to authentically craft this message and ground it as a core principal in all (or at least most) of the work of preservation and conservation.

Works cited:

Alanen, A.R., Melnick, R. (Eds.). (2000). Preserving cultural landscapes in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Brown, D., Segrist, D. (2016). African American career aspirations: Examining the relative influence of internalized racism. Journal of Career Development, 43(2), 1-13.

Buxton, A. (2010). A future in the past: Unlocking a career in Britain’s built heritage. Doctoral thesis, Sheffield Hallam University.

Carnevale, A.P., Fasules, M.L., Porter, A., Landis-Santos, J. (2016). African Americans: College majors and earnings. Washington, DC: Georgetown University.

Cep, C. (2020). The fight to preserve African American history. The New Yorker, Feb 3 issue.

Davis, R.D., Diswood, S., Dominguez, A., Engel-Wilson, R.W.,  Jefferson, K., Miles, A.K., Moore, E.F., Reidinger, R., Ruther, S., Valdez, R., Wilson, K., A. Zablan, M.A. (2002). Increasing diversity in our profession [of environmental conservation]. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 30(2), 628-633.

Haynes, N.A. Jacobson, S. (2015). Barriers and Perceptions of Natural Resource Careers by Minority Students, The Journal of Environmental Education, 46:3, 166-182.

Haynes, N., Jacobson, S.K., Wald, D.M. (2015). A life‐cycle analysis of minority underrepresentation in natural resource fields. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 39(2), 228-238.

Milligan, M. J. (2003). The house told me: Historic preservation and dwelling as social actor. In 2003 American sociological association meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association.

Morales, N., Jacobson, S. (2020). Student Perceptions of Environmental and Conservation (EC) Careers: Exploring Perspectives of Diverse University Students. Environmental Management, 66, 450–459.

Peterson, M.J., Peterson, T.R., Von Essen, E. (2020). Ethics in wildlife science and conservation. In N.J. Silvy. ed., The wildlife techniques manual: Volume 2 management (pp. 12-38). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schofield, J., Scott, C., Spikins, P., Wright, B. (2020): Autism Spectrum Condition and the Built Environment: New Perspectives on Place Attachment and Cultural Heritage. The Historic Environment: Policy & Practice. DOI: 10.1080/17567505.2020.1699638

Thomas, I. (2017) Influences on career choice: Considerations for the environmental profession, Environmental Practice, 19:3, 115-127

Wells, J. C., & Baldwin, E. D. (2012). Historic preservation, significance, and age value: A comparative phenomenology of historic Charleston and the nearby new-urbanist community of I’On. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(4), 384–400.

Wells, J.C. (2020). Does intra-disciplinary historic preservation scholarship address the exigent issues of practice? Exploring the character and impact of preservation knowledge production in relation to critical heritage studies, equity, and social justice. International Journal of Heritage Studies.

White, W., Draycott, C. (2020). Why the whiteness of archaeology is a problem. Sapiens Anthropology Magazine, 7 July.

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