October 8, 2020

Building Relevance: Innovation in Preservation Practice

In the Fall of 2019 the National Trust for Historic Preservation sent out a survey ato gain a better understanding of the movement’s core values, challenges being faced, and developing innovations. In this second post digging into the results of that survey, Jim Lindberg examines the responses related to the need for innovation in the field. This three-part series is just one set of pre-reads for the Town Hall on Relevance at the PastForward Online 2020 conference later this month.

Partially in response to the outcry following George Floyd’s murder, as well as the pandemic and associated economic downtown, many preservationists are raising important questions about standard preservation practice. What practices are no longer working or need changing? How can we adapt existing tools to better serve communities? What new approaches are needed?

While the National Trust’s survey of the movement took place in 2019 the responses provide useful context and background for deeper conversations around innovation in preservation practice.

Building New Approaches

Overwhelmingly, the preservationists who responded to the 2019 survey felt that the preservation field needs new approaches. When presented with the statement “innovation is needed in preservation practices,” 86% of the 1,052 survey respondents said they agree or agree strongly. About half of the respondents went on to describe some of the new approaches they are implementing. These include adopting digital technologies for survey and documentation, establishing legacy business programs, adding conservation districts to preserve neighborhood culture, and deploying social media to broaden community engagement, and build support for policy change.

Dog Eared Books, a legacy business in the Mission District in San Francisco.

However, several respondents admitted that they aren’t doing much innovating. “Our tools are neither new nor innovative,” one said, “I'd invite more risk taking.” Another added, “since we are so limited in staff time, we are limited in the amount of innovation that we might make use of.” We don’t need new tools, “just smarter use of existing ones,” another said.

Several respondents reflected on the importance of innovation that moves preservation practice toward a more inclusive approach. Comments included:

  • “It is increasingly apparent to me that an overemphasis on regulation is not serving our intent of being more inclusive in preservation and our criteria in the regulatory framework lends itself to being exclusionary.”
  • “I see potential in creative placemaking, ethnographic methods, organizational leadership strategies, and facilitation. These all put people first, and they are not taught to preservationists, who are taught and operate within a curatorial practice (place as art object) and historical approach to place.”
  • “We need more effective ways to engage with a non-white, lower income audience. These are probably not available because most historic preservation practitioners do not come from marginalized social, racial, ethnic, or cultural groups.”
  • “I wouldn't say ‘new,’ but listening better.”

In comments about what new preservation tools are needed, many survey respondents pointed to the growing importance of embracing cultural values across preservation practices. Comments included:

  • “We need ways to further recognize cultural significance that may not be rooted in historic resources or the built environment. Our current regulations are silent on how to consider cultural significance as decision-making criteria.”
  • “A criterion in the National Register for cultural significance is needed.”
  • “Our cities are just beginning to think of conservation districts, let alone how to implement cultural districts that include preservation.”

Not surprisingly, the need for funding and better incentives also frequently came up. A few respondents pointed to specific incentive program ideas, including:

  • “Tax credits or financial incentives for homeowners, rural commercial property owners, and small rehab projects.”
  • “Resources to make historic tax credits easier to obtain in softer real estate markets. On smaller projects, clients may balk at the professional fees to go after tax credits.”
  • “I really miss the 10 percent tax credit. While retaining the 20 percent was laudable, I have found the 10 percent tax credit to be the most helpful to owners of properties that are of character and local importance but do not meet national designation standards.”

Numerous respondents highlighted the need for better planning policies that could extend preservation’s impact and address broader community concerns. Comments included:

  • “We need to rethink the traditional historic district because neighborhoods no longer want that kind of regulation. In many neighborhoods restrictions that focus solely on dimensional factors while limiting demolition would be effective and accepted.”
  • “Better tools in cities to help address gentrification and displacement, more flexible tools that work in different types of communities, tools to help with intangible heritage. They are not available either because no one has figured out how to do it yet, or because those topics have not traditionally been part of the professional preservation field and we are not trained in how to develop and use them.”
  • “We also need a coalition of housing and preservation advocates to change the narrative that claims that preservation is a hindrance to providing much needed housing.”
  • “So many laws on a local or state level could help us -- land banking, lien foreclosures, quiet title actions.”
  • “A big gap in our office is a clear connection and integration with the broader planning division.”

Finally, two comments from the survey put the idea of innovation in a broader perspective. Reflecting on the recent history of preservation practice, one respondent observed: “The movement, as a whole, has been built largely on regulations, requirements, and legal action over the last 40 years, which can be effective. But we rely far too heavily on these and tend to approach preservation from the standpoint of enforcement of rules, rather than solving problems to achieve a desired outcome.” Another made the case for why innovation is important today and for the future:

“Historic preservation can no longer succeed in isolation simply valuing of heritage assets. The 21st century challenges of climate change, civil unrest, migration, and the need to integrate all aspects of economy, environment, society, and culture for positive outcomes pushes us forward in our practice.”

Read the whole series:

Jim Lindberg

Jim Lindberg is senior policy director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He has more than 30 years of experience in preservation, planning, and sustainable development.

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