1. Preservation policy and doctrine need to put people first, but a focus on fabric is still important
We believe that the traditional or orthodox focus of historic preservation/built heritage conservation on building fabric is important, not for its intrinsic value, but for the value that older places have for all people across the planet, broadly. There will always be a need for the scientific conservation of some immovable heritage that has great technical, artistic, or other values that society elevates, but this is a very, very small proportion of the built environment. Our focus is, instead, on the ubiquitous value that the older built environment provides to everyday people, not experts. Without older places that still retain culturally and psychologically perceived authenticity, we, as a society, give up the vast potential for how older places improve people’s quality of life, foster place identity and attachment, and even improve people’s health (for example, see Ander et al. 2013).
In the US, between about 1930 and 1980, a self-appointed, exclusive group of white, male professional historians, architects, and archaeologists designed preservation policy to address their own needs and benefit their own disciplines. Almost a half century later, preservation policy, set in motion by this small group, remains largely unchanged. Existing preservation policy does not, therefore, take the broader public’s values, perceptions, and needs into consideration unless the public’s values and discourse happen to perfectly align with the professional values and policy-driven discourse of historians, architects, and archaeologists. The technical term for this phenomenon is the “Authorized Heritage Discourse,” established by Laurajane Smith in her foundational text, Uses of Heritage (Routledge, 2006).
Or, in another sense, built heritage conservation/historic preservation policy is written from the perspective that the public must work for the benefit of the professionals employed in policy-driven preservation endeavors, and not the other way around. (To be clear, this is not the same as stating that professionals who work in preservation/conservation expect this allegiance to authority; rather, it’s what policy expects, but professionals are beholden to support a work environment framed by preservation policy.) We therefore believe that professionals who work in built heritage conservation/historic preservation should seek ways to disarm existing preservation policy and support changes that center the broader public’s values, perceptions, and needs—especially from people with marginalized identities.
2. Existing historic preservation policies compromises climate crisis solutions
We believe that built heritage conservation, and its inherent focus on the retention of existing building fabric, is an important factor in addressing the climate crisis. Traditional building techniques, and the labor needed to actualize them, are inherently more sustainable than many technologically- and policy-driven driven “green” solutions that the design and new construction industries attempt to promulgate. To be sure, when considering the embodied energy of the existing built environment and the landfill space required for demolished buildings, an empirically-defensible argument can be made for why older building fabric should be retained to the highest degree possible. When considering other factors, such as passive climate controls, which were broadly employed in the built environment prior to World-War II, the conservation of the older built environment should be an essential part of any strategy to address the climate crisis.
Orthodox (broadly accepted) methods for assessing historical significance, which are required by preservation policy, however, exclude so much of the existing older built environment (perhaps more than 95%) that the quantitative impact of most doctrinally- and policy-driven built heritage conservation practice is truly minuscule. In addition, regulations, such as the US Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, are also increasingly being recognized as a possible impediment to achieving better energy efficiency in existing buildings, as Sara Bronin shows in this policy analysis.
Historic preservation policy reform, therefore, not only promises to be more responsive to the needs of the public, but could also be a vastly improved tool for addressing the climate crisis.
3. “Heritage” is built from environmental experiences in which the cultural and natural co-exist
While preservation/conservation policy often frames cultural heritage separately from (or even in competition with) the “natural” environment, we believe that the sociocultural meanings and psychological experiences that define “heritage” are, at their core, influenced by people’s interaction with place; most places have both cultural and natural elements to various degrees and, according to many environmental psychologists, people’s experience of the environment is therefore holistic. For most people, there is no artificial separation of place into its constituent natural and cultural elements. Our work therefore accepts the people- and human-centered values, meanings, and experiences held by most members of the public in relation to place and rejects the artificiality of policy-defined separation of nature and culture.
There is much promise for an integrated approach to historic preservation/heritage conservation and environmental conservation that recognizes this nature/culture overlap. This is one reason why our work is deeply influenced by the precepts of the conservation social science movement, which recognizes that environmental conservation is as much a social process as it is scientific. Preservation/conservation professionals could learn much from this collaboration.
4. Non-dominant groups have long defined historic preservation practice on their own terms and the preservation/conservation field should learn from their experience
As Fallon Aidoo pointed out in her chapter in the book, Preservation and Social Inclusion, and Catherine Fleming Bruce in her book, The Sustainers, non-dominant communities have, for decades, been doing built heritage conservation/historic preservation work that has not been widely recognized by the people who do paid work in the historic preservation field. We should learn from their successes and failures and apply this knowledge to needed changes to preservation policy and practice. The preservation field should therefore be open to the possibility that one way to make preservation/conservation more ubiquitous is that more of it needs to be driven by community, grass-roots efforts outside of the preservation policy sphere.