March 23, 2022

People Saving Places: Sara Bronin and an Interdisciplinary Approach to Preservation

All around us, people are saving historic places. Whether they are community activists, grassroots advocates, architects, or formally trained preservationists, they each bring with them a passion for the past and a drive to protect the cultural heritage all around us. During Women’s History Month—and as part of our campaign for Where Women Made History—we are interviewing five women who illustrate the many ways we can protect historic spaces. In this interview we hear from Sara Bronin, a Mexican American architect, attorney, and policy maker.

Sara Bronin is a woman who wears many hats. Her interdisciplinary approach to preservation leverages her expertise as a lawyer, writer, and policymaker to lead conversations related to urban planning, transportation, real estate, climate change, and sustainability. Her recent projects include leading the research team behind the Connecticut Zoning Atlas, and in 2020 she founded DesegregateCT, a pro-homes grassroots coalition that “successfully advanced the first major statewide zoning reforms in several decades.”

Bronin is the current nominee for the position of chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and she currently serves as an advisor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. [Ed. note: On December 22, 2022, Bronin was confirmed as the Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). We look forward to working with her as the second full-time Chair of the ACHP and continuing the National Trust’s more than seventy-year history of working with the Advisory Council.]

Listen to Sara Bronin describe, in her own words, about the ways in which local governments regulate historic places, and the role preservation plays in response to climate change.

In Her Own Words

I am Sara Bronin, a professor at Cornell University who focuses on historic preservation and land use law.

As a researcher, I've explored preservation issues from a variety of angles, writing on everything from the designation process to rehabilitation tax credits. Right now, I’m really excited to be researching how local governments regulate historic places. It turns out that we don’t really know how many local governments have historic regulation. And what’s worse, we really don’t know what those local laws say.

So my current project tries to address that information gap. I’ve already completed a census that counts how many towns have these laws, and now I’m working to figure out what they say. Do they regulate alterations, demolition, and/or new construction? Do they address renewable energy? It is my hope that with a greater understanding of the scope and scale of historic preservation law at the local level, we can understand what we need to do to make it better.

In other research, I have focused on one of preservation’s greatest challenges, and that is the challenge of climate change. Natural hazards associated with climate change include flooding, sea level rise, increased precipitation, erosion, and wildfires. All these hazards can have a significant negative impact on our historic places.

View of a woman standing and smiling with her hands in her pockets. She is wearing a black top and is against a deep blue backdrop.

Sara Bronin

Unfortunately, some laws prevent us from fortifying, relocating, or modifying our places to protect them from these risks. We have seen that’s the case from Alaska to New Orleans. What’s more, disaster management policies don’t give us the tools we need to plan for or mitigate the impacts of natural hazards on historic sites. My work examines those laws and policies and encourages us as preservationists to figure out whether it's time to update them in the face of new realities.

Fortunately, many preservationists around the country have engaged in this issue, including many convened by the National Trust.

Similarly, we have seen increased interest in ensuring that preservation itself becomes more inclusive. Through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, we have seen significant engagement on a national level in sites that have long gone overlooked. I’m proud to have served on the board of Latinos in Heritage Conservation, which shines a light on Latino cultural and historic sites, and is also opening the door for more Latinos to enter the field of preservation. And there are other groups all over the country who are also advancing underrepresented communities in historic preservation. All of that is really exciting.

A view of a house with a porch painted white with a historical marker in front.

photo by: Sara Bronin

Exterior of the Yates House within the Freedmen's Town Heritage District.

A rendering of a structure for a neighborhood visitor's center with some rendered people walking around it.

photo by: Houston Freedmen's Town Conservancy

The Visitors Center (rendering) is located in the heart of the Freedmen's Town Heritage District and will serve as a point of access and orientation for residents and visitors alike. The Visitors Center will serve as a new model for development partnerships, community engagement, and heritage tourism in Freedmen's Town.

Along those lines, I'd like to take this chance to draw some attention to a unique and important site of cultural heritage. It's in my hometown of Houston, Texas. It is the historically African American Fourth Ward neighborhood, which is seeing new attention thanks to Houston Freedmen's Town Conservancy (HFTC) and several other local organizations. They are working to restore landmarks, public art, and brick streets, through the lens of the experience of formerly enslaved people who created this neighborhood.

And interestingly, they are trying to harness law, including preservation protections, to keep this history intact. If you’re in Houston, you should visit Freedmen’s Town, Olivewood Cemetery, the Gregory School, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, and other sites so important not just to African American history but to the history of Houston, Texas, our country, and beyond. (Editor's Note: HFTC and Olivewood Cemetery received grants from the Action Fund in 2021.)

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

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