Building a Sustainable Future at Filoli, One Visitor at a Time
Like other sites in the state, Filoli, a sweeping National Trust for Historic Preservation Historic Site housing both a Georgian revival-style mansion and 654 acres of land in the Bay Area, has become vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As biodiversity in the state works to keep up with weather extremes—such as droughts, rising temperatures, wildfires, and heavy, sporadic rainfall—Filoli staff have been adapting their practices to protect the historic site while also supporting their local community.
Their approach is focused on boosting environmental resilience onsite as well as creating educational programs, both of which protect Filoli in the short- and long-term.
Through these efforts, Filoli aims to “reduce its [carbon] footprint, as well as be a beacon for sustainable measures,” says Chief Operating Officer Alex Fernandez.
Boosting Environmental Resilience Onsite
One way staff foster environmental resilience is by recycling materials found onsite. For example, wood from Filoli’s fallen trees is recycled to create woods chips. Staff distributed the chips across the property to help plants and trees retain water around their roots, which helped them stay hydrated during dry months when water is scarce. Eventually, these wood chips will decay into organic matter and nourish the soil.
Another way staff are boosting environmental resilience onsite is by constructing a new well, which will provide the site with an additional water source. This is critical work, as two of Filoli’s three existing wells run dry during the summer months. These wells reduce the site’s reliance on public water. They also support wildfire prevention efforts by increasing the availability of water onsite for use during climate-related emergencies.
Filoli’s gardens—originally modeled on English gardens, with a Mediterranean palette—are now home to succulents, salvias, and other plants that thrive in California’s climate.
Educating the Next Generation
Staff at Filoli are also prioritizing education, especially about water. In 2021, Filoli launched a preschool program with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and in partnership with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. This program was also supported by funding from the Marder-Vaughn Center for Historic Sites Interpretation and Education at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
One of the National Trust’s inaugural awards, the Marder-Vaughn grant supports the creation of civic engagement activities and themed curriculums. This grant provided a host of resources to Filoli’s preschool program, including books for each student, buses needed to transport students to and from the site, and the ability to hire a curriculum consultant to help staff design and augment the program.
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Preschoolers who participate in the program visit Filoli three times during the school year. While visiting, they focus on interacting with nature and learning about the importance of water. According to Erika Frank, director of learning & engagement, “water is a focus to help the children make early and life-long connections to how their actions affect their community and the environment. Centering the visits around food production and tasting reinforces the idea of where our food comes from, and that water is essential to growing food.”
To further nurture these lessons, Filoli has granted complimentary membership to over 350 families with children who are participating students in their programs. They have also provided complimentary membership to 100 San Mateo Country Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) who support children in foster care, so these children may seek comfort and relaxation at Filoli.
Looking Ahead to Future Climate Challenges
Though the damages Filoli has sustained due to climate change have been challenging, staff remain hopeful when considering the future.
They have created a sustainability task force and a tree succession plan and have developed a master plan that explores the long-term resiliency of built spaces. This plan includes efforts to integrate water capture and responsible water use, rely on sustainable energy, and design with permeable and sustainable materials.
Educational programs at Filoli are flourishing—staff began their preschool program with two participating schools in 2021 but have since expanded that number to 16 participating schools in 2023—and are long-term in scope.
Filoli is, at its core, a historic mansion and garden which sits within a larger regional story linked to water. Now, it is also a resilient landscape—and a prime example of the vital relationship between sustainability and historic preservation.
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