August 11, 2015

Climate Change and Preservation: Where Do They Intersect?

  • By: Stephanie K. Meeks

In her President's Note in the Summer Issue of Preservation magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation President, Stephanie Meeks discusses preservationists' responsibility to protect historic places in the face of climate change. Her thoughts have been republished in full below.

National Trust for Historic Preservation President, Stephanie Meeks.

Summertime brings picnics, baseball games, family vacations, and, increasingly, record-busting temperatures. Each of the 10 hottest years on record has happened since 1998, including the hottest of all, 2014. As a preservation community, we are starting to grapple with the effects of this changing climate in very concrete ways.

Beloved destinations are confronting the new reality of rising sea levels, which contribute to coastal Louisiana losing a football field of land every hour. Powerful storms such as Katrina and Sandy are damaging historic places with tragic regularity. And roughly 100 of the National Park Service's more than 400 park units are already experiencing climate-related transformations.

Chick & Ruths Delly Annapolis MD - Exterior. Credit: Beth Lennon,
Much of historic Annapolis, Maryland is threatened by sea-level rise as a result of climate change.

In the face of this growing climate crisis, our work as preservationists is twofold.

First, we should encourage the use of historic buildings as a way to reduce carbon emissions -- the engine that is overheating the planet. Nearly half of the greenhouse gases in the United States are produced by the construction and operation of buildings.

It makes no sense for us to recycle newsprint, bottles, and aluminum cans while we’re throwing away entire neighborhoods. Our Preservation Green Lab has conducted groundbreaking research that emphasizes the environmental value of reusing historic buildings, which is far better for our planet than demolition and new construction. As the saying goes, “The greenest building is the one that is already built.”

We must also contend with the impact of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other climate-related issues on our cherished places. With coastal waters rising dramatically over the next century, historic places from Annapolis, Maryland, to the French Quarter in New Orleans could be literally underwater unless we take direct action. And -- as increasing flooding at Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, illustrates -- inland communities are by no means immune.

Virginia's James River and the historic site of Jamestown will be profoundly affected by climate change.

In 2014, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) named 30 landmarks across the country that could face irreparable damage or be lost forever due to climate change. Moving forward, we will be partnering with them to save these and other historic places. To do so, we may have to consider novel approaches, such as moving buildings, raising them up, or implementing creative waterproofing and reinforcements to help them withstand flooding.

None of us wants to think about the kind of triage we will likely face in the years ahead. But as preservationists, it is incumbent on us to reckon with climate change bravely, because no one is better suited than we are to help people memorialize the places we lose -- and save the places we can. That’s incredibly important work, and we must rise to the challenge.

Ed. Note: Read more about the intersection of cultural resources and climate change in the Summer 2015 Forum Journal.

Stephanie K. Meeks was the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010-2018. She is the author of "The Past and Future City."

Join us for PastForward Online 2022, the historic preservation event of the year. Registration is open!

Tell Me More!