THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

What They Are Saying...

March, 2022

The new year is a time for reflection and thoughts about the future. Now that we are more than two months into 2022, it’s a good time to examine what people are saying about what might be in store for historic preservation and the built environment in the future.

At the end of 2021, the Preservation Leadership Forum (PLF) published a blog post by Erica Avrami, the James Marston Fitch Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation and a Research Affiliate at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development – Earth Institute at Columbia University, entitled Next Generation Preservation Policy: Interrogating the Status Quo. She writes about the assignment she gave her students challenging them to develop a cost-benefit analysis of the National Historic Preservation Act, which provides the legal framework for historic preservation, from both an economic and social and environmental perspective.

Avrami argues that the student exercise highlighted the challenges of comprehensively examining preservation policy: “the over-reliance on preservation’s repeated co-benefit narratives, the limited investment in evidence-informed research – both quantitative and qualitative; the lack of systematic data collection; the dearth of researchers with preservation and social science skill; the absence of institutional and government mandates to evaluate policy; and the lack of funders to support such evaluation beyond the public sector.” She observes that preservation focused institutions have not done enough to prioritize policy work or build the capacity to undertake it.

Three books edited by Avrami and published under a collaboration between the American Assembly and Columbia University – Preservation and the New Data LandscapePreservation and Social Inclusion, and Preservation, Sustainability, and Equity – will help to ensure a more critical approach is undertaken to understanding and tackling necessary policy reforms.

Katherine Malone-France, Chief Preservation Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation (Trust), kicked off 2022 with a PLF blog post, A Re-Defining Moment: The Evolving and Creative Practice of Preservation in 2022. She writes, “In the face of all the challenges and uncertainties of the moment, it seems more important than ever to commit to the idea that preservation is an ongoing and evolving effort that is a means, not an end. Preservation is not a steady state we are working towards or a moment when everything is finally secured and settled. Far more in keeping with our current moment, preservation is a dynamic effort that is messy, humbling, inspiring, and surprising.” A means not an end! A dynamic effort! These observations and realities couldn’t be truer and will help us address the complicated issues we face in 2022 and beyond because preservation affirms our shared narrative, advances justice and equity, and is climate action.

The City of San Antonio recently hosted its fourth annual Living Heritage Symposium, sponsored by its Office of Historic Preservation. The four-part series included an opening plenary with Sara Bronin, nominee for Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and topical panels on Climate Heritage, Sensitive Treatment of Culturally Significant Properties, and Leveraging Living Heritage for Economic Prosperity. 

Katie Carter, Project Officer at Historic Environment Scotland argued we must move to a circular economy. It relies heavily on reuse compared to recycling and involves everything from buildings to energy to where goods come from and how they are packaged. Carter argues that conserving the built environment is inherently circular. Will Megarry, Professor at the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University Belfast, focused on climate change and the importance of adaptation. Adaption is a necessity; he observed that we must look to cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge to address the global threat of rising seas, drought, and changing temperatures.

The City of Austin is attempting to address displacement issues primarily impacting historically Black neighborhoods facing new development pressures. Neferttiti Jackmon, Housing and Policy & Planning Manager for the Austin Housing and Planning Department, is currently spearheading the city’s displacement prevention efforts. In 1928, seeking to address its tremendous growth and the mixing of Blacks and whites, the city demolished Emancipation Park and created a segregated neighborhood for its Black residents. Jackmon has been focused on centering community voices to ensure that resources important to its residents are identified and preserved. The city has committed $300 million over 13 years to create affordable housing and retain businesses. This program could provide a template for communities across the country to address displacement.

Ken Bernstein, Principal City Planner and Manager at the City of Los Angeles, spoke about the success of the city’s historic survey efforts, which included the public identifying resources important to them and their communities. Coming out of the survey was the development of 13 ethnic and cultural historic context statements including those focusing on Blacks, Asians, Jews, Latinos, LGBT communities, and women.  These context statements provide a perspective on the history and extant buildings important to each of the communities.

While historic context statements are not new, Los Angeles is one of the first municipalities to use them as a planning tool for future preservation initiatives. These historic context statements and others undertaken in other communities, including San Antonio, provide a possible template for historic preservation work in cities across the country.

Much has been written about historic preservation and its impact on housing. Some have blamed historic preservation and zoning regulations for contributing to the shortage of affordable housing. It is a complex issue. PlaceEconomics, a national firm focusing on the economic impact of historic preservation, reports the average cost per unit in projects using the Low Income Housing Tax Credit is 25% less expensive for rehabilitation compared to new construction. It also reports that more than 98% of housing constructed before 1970 is rated as adequate or moderately adequate. Others have blamed historic preservation for limiting housing density in communities. Not surprisingly, PlaceEconomics found that density in historic districts in Nashville, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Miami-Dade County is greater in each of their historic districts than in the surrounding city.

Historic preservation is not about stopping change, it is about managing change. As Katherine Malone-France writes, “historic preservation is not about the past, it is about building a better future together.”  It’s still relatively early in 2022, but what they are saying will influence our work for years to come.

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