October 8, 2020

Building Relevance: A Snapshot of the Preservation Movement

In the fall of 2019, before the death of George Floyd and the global pandemic, the National Trust for Historic Preservation circulated the 30-question survey, Challenges and Innovations Occurring in the Preservation Field. A deep desire for relevance—and its positive consequences related to funding, media attention, partnerships and membership—came through loud and clear. Whether or not the aim was to make the preservation case for a mayor, planning agency, developer, legislator, students, or neighbors—respondents in the survey noted that relevancy was one of the biggest challenges they faced.

The following is the first in a three-part series unpacking what was shared, how the data collected is informing the National Trust’s work—including the upcoming PastForward conference—and how the findings may help your own efforts today. The second part will go deeper into the survey questions related to innovation in the field, while the third piece will explicitly examine the responses related to challenges.

Who Took the Survey?

Between August 27 and September 30, 2019, 1,052 respondents provided thoughts on the innovations and challenges within in the preservation field. Distributed through National Trust outlets like Forum Connect and Forum Bulletin, the survey was also shared, by the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, National Council of Preservation Educators, National Alliance of Preservation Commissions, and by the Historic Preservation Professionals Facebook group.

Chart of Respondant Affiliations

While we received a preponderance of responses from nonprofits (33%), we saw responses from across the entire preservation movement. Survey-takers reported working mostly at the local level (53%) with some focus at state (23%), national (12%) and regional (12%) levels. The majority of those who took the survey had worked in the field for more than 20+ years (39%) but there was great representation from both mid-career and new professionals.

Chart with details about the primary focus of survey respondents.

Time worked in the field by survey respondents.

Key Findings

The first three questions got the most responses:

  • Greater innovation is needed in preservation practices: 40.17% strongly agree, 45.73% agree—85.9% agree
  • Preservation should strive to tell the multi-layered narratives of our history: 67.72% strongly agree, 27.89% agree—95.61% agree
  • Preservation practices should help enable residents to live, work and play in historic neighborhoods if they choose regardless of wealth and income: 66.12% strongly agree, 25.65% agree—91.77% agree

Not surprising, right? But remember that this survey was taken a year ago. These results seem to indicate that as a movement we were overwhelmingly supportive of telling the full American story and ensuring equitable development last fall. Also, remember that most of the respondents had been in the field more than 20+ years and were part of the majority calling for change.

When asked “How can preservation be more relevant to solving challenges that impact our lives?” the responses could be categorized in six categories shown below. Listed in decreasing numbers, the categories are illustrated by voices from the survey:

  1. Increase Preservation’s Relevancy – “By teaching all who will listen how preservation impacts our lives.”
  2. Address Climate Change and Sustainability – “Preservation is an environmental act - prove it, broadcast it.”
  3. Add Flexibility to Tools – “by being less restrictive” and “revaluate relevancy of existing tools, and who our tools are benefiting.”
  4. Be More Inclusive – “Be more inclusive and reflective of America's diverse peoples and places.” and “Diversify the racial and socio-economic demographics of staff, boards and stakeholders involved in the field.”
  5. Tell the Full American Story – “Tell more stories of places and stir emotion and connection” and “don’t tell just a single narrative.”
  6. Address Housing Needs – “People need shelter to survive. Find a way to help cities and towns renovate their old buildings to house people in affordable apartments and homes.”

What’s Next?

We undertook the survey to gain a better understanding of the movement’s core values, challenges being faced, and developing innovations. We wanted to better comprehend the opportunities for meaningful collaboration. As part of that effort, the National Trust signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Preservation Partners Network to jointly work on four priority areas:

  • Diversity, inclusion, and racial justice.
  • Affordable housing and density.
  • Climate change and resilience.
  • Historic preservation trades training and workforce development.

In addition to the choice of a guiding theme (Resilience and Relevance), PastForward Online 2020 reflects the findings of the survey in many ways—from the sessions and speakers to the reduced registration fees and emphasis on inclusion. Climate change, identified as one of the top issues where preservation must play an important role, became one of the three conference tracks with more than eight sessions. We are holding Town Halls on relevancy, climate change and equitable development. Plenary speakers were selected to offer their opinions about how preservation can become even more relevant in this moment of crisis.

Join us at PastForward Online 2020 and here on Preservation Leadership Forum as we work together to make preservation more relevant. As one respondent eloquently summed up, “Preservation can be more relevant to solving challenges that impact our lives by connecting to what matters to others socially, physically, mentally, financially, and spiritually.”

Read the whole series:

Renee is a senior director in the preservation services and outreach department of the National Trust.

The Mother Road turns 100 years old in 2026—share your Route 66 story to celebrate the Centennial. Together, we’ll tell the full American story of Route 66!

Share Your Story