Six Essential Reasons to Save Old Places
There are many reasons why we save historic places. For some the beauty of a structure remains paramount, for others it is because of a personal connection to a landscape. Increasingly we save historic places to acknowledge and document our full history, while in other cases it is a part of the call to action in response to a changing climate. The reasons are wide and varied, serving as a reminder of why historic places and the work of preservation are so important to communities all around the country.
For the last year the preservation movement has been working on “Leading the Change Together: A National Impact Agenda for the Preservation Movement.” Developed based on insights from past studies, facilitated discussions, and surveys, this agenda is intended to map out a series of goals for changing the preservation movement. Hundreds of suggestions for concrete actions serve as potential pathways—large and small—to achieve the agenda goals.
Articulating these shared goals and actions reminded us why the work of preservation is essential to our collective wellbeing. Here, we share six essential reasons to save old places.
1. Save Old Places to Save the Planet
Often when climate disasters strike, preservationists are on the front lines, not only as communities react and recover, but also to identify and implement strategies that encourage a community’s ability to be prepared for these events.
For example, consider the work of the Climate Heritage Network, a global network of members who are “committed to mobilizing arts, culture, and heritage to address issues related to climate change.” Their work acknowledges the important role cultural heritage plays on understanding and protecting the environment. Another example in the United States is the Georgia Trust’s GREEN program, which is dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability in historic homes across the state. This program provides tools to save places while also emphasizing energy efficiency.
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2. Save Old Places to Advance Social Justice
One of the seven goals of the National Impact Agenda includes the development of “A Truer History.” This goal looks to present a more accurate, inclusive, and multilayered narrative of the past, embracing complexity and advocating for increased community participation in the work to save historic places. It is also about acknowledging whose community stories are lost when a place is not saved, and how to prevent that from happening again.
Current examples of this work include mapping initiatives such as the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, which is dedicated to supporting the preservation of Black settlement landscapes, or the Charleston Justice Journey, which is an interactive set of maps associated with the city’s march toward racial justice.
3. Save Old Places to Support Affordable Housing
Across the United States the affordable housing crisis—one of the four issue areas of the Preservation Priorities Task Force—impacts communities of all sizes. For the National Impact Agenda this is an essential reason to save older and historical buildings and is one piece of the goal of “Modernized, Expanded Tools.” More flexible approaches are needed to respond to an array of issues including affordability.
In 2020 the Los Angeles Conservancy released a study, Preservation Positive Los Angeles, which demonstrates positive connections between local historic districts, affordable housing, and high-density development. As their executive summary states, “Preservation is affordable housing. As one of the most pressing concerns [i.e. the need for affordable housing ] facing L.A. today, older, smaller, and mixed-use buildings represent the largest share of affordable housing in the city, from quaint bungalow courts to large garden apartment developments.”
4. Save Old Places to Support Local Economic Development
Often the historic buildings we protect are part of a group of buildings that run through the center of small towns. Main Streets are the backbone of small towns and urban neighborhoods and serve not only as a space for community engagement, but also the places where local history and economies thrive. Data from the National Trust has shown the importance of older and smaller buildings, but the goals of the National Impact Agenda center these structures as the beating heart of American towns.
In Buffalo, New York, a public-private partnership involving the SUNY Buffalo State's Small Business Development Center, Signature Development, and the National Trust Community Investment Corporation completed an adaptive reuse project of a former three-story factory building located in the Chandler Street Industrial Buildings Historic District. Originally built for the Jewett Refrigerator company in 1902, this project now houses a group of culinary entrepreneurs in a restaurant incubator space, providing affordable and accessible space for small businesses to thrive.
The collaborative partnership emphasized developing the space with equitable revitalization in mind, providing space for local small businesses to thrive, while also achieving multi-faceted community-oriented goals demonstrating the link between preservation, equitable development, and resilient and healthy communities.
5. Save Old Places to Promote Cultural Preservation
Saving historic buildings is also critical to promoting cultural preservation of all our history. Often when a structure has been lost, preservationists and community members developed digital projects as a means of saving the stories of a particular time and place; in other cases the work involves identifying funding opportunities to support communities in danger of displacement.
One example of the first method is from 2021 when Latinos in Heritage Conservation launched the Abuelas Project, a digital preservation project intended to identify, document, and broadly share stories that matter to the Latinx communities in the United States and Puerto Rico. The project is intended to honor grandmothers as the keepers of heritage and knowledge.
To encourage cultural preservation for communities in need of additional support, look no further than the Preservation Resource Center’s Revival Grants Program which provides free home repairs to help low-income New Orleans homeowners get back into compliance with the city’s historic district code, helping owners maintain their homes and remain in their homes and neighborhoods. This successful program, which was piloted in the Tremé historic district in November 2019, is now being expanded to historic districts citywide.
6. Save Old Places to Preserve History for Future Generations
Finally, it is imperative that we protect historic buildings in order to save history for future generations. Learning about the past is always possible through reading, but as those of us who love historic places can attest, there is nothing more valuable than learning through place. Experiencing a space where history happened is crucial for fostering the shared connection that builds a stronger community.
Consider the work of The Kali’uokapa’akai Collective that works to reframe historic preservation from a Native Hawaiian perspective by elevating the voices of Native Hawaiians in making decisions around stewarding Hawaii’s ancestral places and raising awareness of the importance of intangible heritage. Or The Sikh American History Project which documents centuries of Sikh American history in the United States to create a deeper understanding of this part of the American story.
These two projects are for the communities they serve, but also they provide a vision of what historic preservation could be for years to come. A vision where “Leading the Change” means working with, and for, all communities across the United States.
With contributions by Di Gao, senior director of research & development at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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