What is people-centered historic preservation?

Should people help old places or should old places help people?

People-based preservation puts people first, not buildings.

In simple terms, if planning begins by asking how an old place benefits people, then it is “people-centered.” If, on the other hand, planning starts with the assumption that people must benefit an old place, then it is “fabric-centered.” (“Fabric,” in this sense, is the physical materials from which the building or place is made.)

Representation of a grassroots effort

Today, historic preservation policy (e.g., laws, regulations, guidelines, and official decisions) at the local, state, and federal levels in the United States is fabric-centered in its overall approach and goals because it puts the needs of buildings ahead of the needs of people; many countries’ policies are similar in this focus. The norms of professional practice (or “doctrines”) are also mostly fabric-based, such as the international Venice Charter. While this does not mean that people are not considered when planning for the recognition of, protection of, or changes to old places, it’s all about setting priorities: fabric-based preservation puts buildings first; people-based preservation puts people first. Here at Lived Heritage Studies LLC, we put people first in all of our work.

By definition, people-centered preservation centers the values, perspectives, and needs of people who have been historically marginalized. People-centered preservation means that diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice are always part of the conversation. It also respects people who are knowledgeable about their own heritage places as experts on par with conventional experts. Decisions about heritage are, ideally, driven by grass-roots efforts by specific community groups through a highly participatory process that can be facilitated by conventional experts.

People-centered preservation still treats the historic environment as a valuable asset that is deserving of recognition, protection, and treatments that retain its authenticity. The difference is that conventional experts don’t make all of the decisions first and then ask the public to approve them; in people-centered preservation, the public is involved, from the beginning.

Who is advocating for people-centered preservation?

The US National Trust for Historic Preservation, in 2017, released its goals for “Preservation for People,” which was intended to guide its work for the next fifty years. In this document, the Trust’s primary goal for historic preservation is that it “grounds its work in human needs and aspirations and becomes a prevalent, powerful, and practical force to sustain, improve, and enrich people’s lives.” The Trust is also explicit that “preservation must put people first.” This people-centered future “hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the ever-evolving American story” and “more fully incorporate[s] … environmental justice, health and welfare, planning, social justice, sustainability, and urbanism.”

In 2020, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) issued a resolution on the “People-Centred Approaches to Cultural Heritage.” This document directs ICOMOS to “Promote people-centered approaches, the connections of people with heritage and places; intercultural dialogue and understanding, sustainability and well-being when addressing local, national, and international heritage policies and practice.”

In 2015, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) created its vision for “People-Centred Approaches to the Conservation of Cultural Heritage.” In this document, ICCROM notes “Taking a people-centred approach is not simply a suggestion for increasing participation within a management system. Instead, it is about addressing a core component of heritage management – the people who are connected to heritage – and ensuring that it is an integral element of conserving that heritage.”

How to learn more

The following resources discuss what “people-centered preservation” is and provide specific examples:

In addition, a few people and organizations have created lists of resources on increasing the diversity of the field and its areas of focus, including people with minoritized identities in its work, creating more equitable practice and policies, and how historic preservation can be a tool for social justice: