October 8, 2020

Building Relevance: What Are the Top Challenges Facing Preservation?

In the Fall of 2019 the National Trust for Historic Preservation sent out a survey to gain a better understanding of the movement’s core values, challenges being faced, and developing innovations. In this final post digging into the results of that survey, Amy Webb examines the responses regarding the challenges facing preservation as a 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.

The third and final installment in this series addressing the comments from a 2019 National Trust survey on the future of historic preservation and comments about the top challenges facing the field. While survey respondents identified a broad range of issues, the top seven preservation challenges as of the fall of 2019—prior to the 2020 pandemic, the death of George Floyd and the ensuing fight for social justice, and recent natural disasters including wildfires and damaging storms—included:

  1. Need for funding
  2. Need to communicate the relevancy of preservation
  3. Pressures from new development
  4. Bureaucratic nature of some preservation processes
  5. Need to educate the next generation of preservationists, particularly in the preservation trades
  6. Lack of diversity in the preservation movement
  7. Risks posed by climate change

Chart outlining the challenges facing the field.

The most commonly cited challenge in the survey—which should not be a surprise—was funding. Understanding the clear relationship between funding and relevancy, that addressing present day challenges is more likely to encourage funding, one respondent noted, “the national preservation movement continues to suffer from diminishing support, influence, and relevancy. We need to radically rethink our agenda and how we advance it so that our work is not easily dismissed as punitive, elitist, “white,” NIMBY-ist.”

Finding better ways to communicate the relevancy of preservation was the second most reoccurring response. Some cited a lack of awareness while others bemoaned misperceptions, a negative image of preservation, or active property rights opposition. While many focused on the importance of communicating the value of preservation to the general public, others cited the need to inform or educate targeted constituencies such as property owners, elected officials, or contractors. In framing the need to rebrand preservation to create a stronger preservation ethic, respondents noted:

  • Many Americans do not value history as reflected in historic buildings or districts”
  • “…the view that old homes/businesses are blighted, outdated and ill-suited to modern needs/living
  • “Impression that preservation is costly and inhibits private property rights”
  • “The reality that preservation…has historically been inequitable and not inclusive (has led to the) perception that preservation is an obstacle to equitable and affordable urban development”

Respondents cited pressures from new development as a major challenge facing historic preservation, commenting:

  • “Over valuation of property encourages teardowns for construction of new buildings that are out of context for the surroundings.”
  • “Predatory developers…would rather deal with fines and mitigation than slow down a project for required reviews.”
  • “A lot of people just want something new.”
  • “(We need to) challenge the heavy marketing campaigns of the replacement industry.”

As discussed in the previous blog, bureaucracy and red tape at the local, state and national level were seen as barriers that discourage preservation. One responded noted that the “preservation process is overly complex, full of jargon, and puts people off,” and others criticized processes as being “far too cumbersome and restrictive,” creating costly delays. Concerns about preservationist’s role as “regulators, not innovators or leaders” were targeted at processes ranging from National Register nominations, to Section 106, to federal and state tax credit projects, to building codes, to local designations, to conflicting requirements between FEMA and NHPA in disaster recovery. Questions raised about existing requirements included a range of responses about the appropriate balance between historic integrity and acceptable alterations to make sites livable and marketable.

The need to educate the younger generation was also cited as a key challenge, including a stronger focus on history and an appreciation of the past for young students as well as higher education leading to preservation careers to fill key gaps in the field. One respondent called for “education across the board on the value of historic structures, and a lack of a trained workforce to work on them properly” and another notes, “there is a widespread need for people with the skills to do repairs on historic buildings. An effort needs to be made to train new craftspeople,” echoing common sentiments about the need to provide preservation trades training.

The need to make the preservation movement more diverse and inclusive was woven through many comments. Observations were made regarding the lack of diversity in the profession as well as the need to identify and assist diverse “historic places ‘hiding in plain sight’ with important stories to tell, that are not yet known.” There was a recognition that being more inclusive and equitable could mean “more interpretations of what ‘integrity” of a resource means for a marginalized community.” A more pointed critique noted that “ignoring the presence of systems that historically discriminate against African Americans and other people of color that threaten their ability to retain and preserve historic places that belong to them: too often these places wind up being lost, stolen or surrendered to the ownership and/or control of white-led organizations or to local, state, or national government entities.”

Respondents observed that “as climate change becomes more severe, preservationists need to work more and more with environmentalists,” citing increasing number and intensity of natural disasters including “flooding, wildfires, storm surge, coastal flooding and other weather-related impacts.” One respondent emphasized the importance of “showing people and policymakers the connection between heritage and climate change—both the vulnerability of historic places and their economic, environmental and societal value to resiliency efforts.”

These are just a few of the 1000+ survey responses. While there were common threads, preservationists also showed their individuality with differences of opinion. For example, some argued preservation is consistently more costly, whereas others argued that there is a widespread misperception that preservation is more expensive.

On a hopeful note, respondents cited the value of working collaboratively to address these challenges. As one respondent noted “it would make all the difference in our collective capacity to help organizations share best practices and not have to reinvent the wheel.” Another noted “Focusing on health/wellness, inclusion narratives, and climate change will make preservation more relevant for people. Preserving history because it's somehow “right” or “moral” doesn’t seem to go down well.” Carefully considering these challenges can help preservation be more relevant to solving issues that impact all our lives such as systemic racism, climate change, income inequality and public health concerns.

Read the whole series:

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