May 7, 2015

Why Old Places Matter: A Survey of the Public

Thompson Mayes’ and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s recent exploration into why old places matter has sparked a series of conversations, including the idea that quantitative and qualitative research investigations can deepen our understanding of the value of historic places. In his essay in the most recent Forum Journal, Jeremy Wells, Ph.D., provides an overview of the existing social science research that helps to explain how and why people feel the way they do about old places. As part of my master's thesis for the University of Southern California, I conducted a study that contributes strong empirical evidence that old places do indeed matter to people.

Example of an old building used in the study. | Photo Courtesy of Sandra Shannon

The study, “A Survey of the Public: Preference for Old and New Buildings, Attitudes about Historic Preservation, and Preservation-Related Engagement," involved 200 survey respondents from across the United States and was designed to gather preliminary information about how the general public thinks and feels about old places and historic preservation. The survey incorporated visual preference research, which is a methodology used to assess people’s preferences for different environments, which in the case of this study, were the exteriors of old and new buildings. Respondents were shown a series of carefully curated photographs of old and new commercial/office buildings (with old buildings being 50 years old or older and new buildings being 15 years old or newer), and asked to rate how much they liked the appearance of each building. Additionally, participants responded to a series of questions to better understand their attitudes about old places and historic preservation. Below are five of the study’s major findings.

Example of a new building used in the study. | Photo Courtesy of Sandra Shannon

    • People prefer old buildings over new. Respondents rated the appearance of old buildings an average of 0.77 points higher than new buildings (on a 7-point scale), a difference which was determined to be statistically significant.1 Further, 75 percent of the respondents rated the appearance of old buildings higher, on average, than new buildings (figure 1). These findings substantiate the results of previous studies that have also demonstrated the public’s preference for old buildings, providing increasing empirical support for the idea—as Thompson Mayes explored in this blog—that old places matter to people because of their beauty.

Figure 1. When asked to rate the appearance of 25 old buildings and 25 new buildings, 75% of survey respondents rated the appearance of old buildings higher, on average, that the appearance of new buildings.

  • Not all old buildings are equal. Though, on average, the appearance of old buildings was more preferred than the appearance of new buildings, old buildings constructed after World War II were among the least preferred buildings in the study. This finding tells us that we need to continue to promote an appreciation for resources from our recent past, whose aesthetic value may not be realized yet by the general public.
  • People value old places and historic preservation. Eighty-eight percent of respondents believe that historic places should be treated as community assets and 83 percent indicated that historic preservation is somewhat to very important to them.2 In fact, respondents rated historic preservation as one of the three most important ancillary services that communities provide their citizens (figure 2). Additionally, 64 percent of respondents believe that more should be done to protect historic resources in the United States. These findings are particularly notable because only a small proportion of respondents reported being actively engaged in preservation-related activities in their communities, meaning that though a small number of people are the face of the cause, there is a broader level of support for historic preservation from the general public.

Example of an old building used in the study. | Photo Courtesy of Sandra Shannon

  • People believe that preservation is green. Eighty-two percent of respondents indicated that the preservation or reuse of historic buildings is environmentally friendly. This statistic is important because as preservationists, we understand the association between historic preservation and sustainability, but until now, the extent to which the public saw a connection was unknown. As many of us believe the sustainability of preservation will play a significant role in the future of the field, this statistic is promising.
  • Old places matter to nearly everyone. Minimal demographic trends were identified in respondents’ preferences for old and new buildings and attitudes about historic places and preservation, meaning that preservation generally appeals to all regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, political affiliation, urban/city, or geographic location.

Figure 2. Survey respondents rated historic preservation as one of the three most important ancillary community services.

As preservationists, these results are likely no surprise, and instead, serve as affirmations of our previously held thoughts and beliefs about why old places matter to people and the extent to which they matter. Beyond this, however, the results of this study offer an opportunity to use quantitative proof of the value of old places to enhance our dialogue with others. Next time you find yourself explaining why old places matter, use data to support your argument. “Because 88 percent of people believe that historic resources should be treated as community assets” is a powerful statement.

Example of a new building used in the study. | Photo Courtesy of Sandra Shannon

The findings from this study and others like it are, however, just the tip of the iceberg and only begin to help us understand how people feel about and respond to historic places and preservation. As Jeremy Wells explained in his essay in the Forum Journal, the field of historic preservation is largely unstudied from an empirical standpoint in academic circles. So that we can better answer the question—why do old places matter? —and countless others, we need to begin to promote quantitative and qualitative investigations of the public and incorporate empirical evidence in our practice.


  1. Where appropriated, the significance level of 0.05 was used throughout the analysis to determine statistical significance.
  2. For the agreement items, the proportion reported is the proportion of respondents who somewhat to strongly agreed.

Sandra Shannon is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California’s Master of Heritage Conservation program with a professional background in social science research.

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By: Sandra Shannon

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