January 8, 2014

Young Preservationist Daniel Ronan on Why Preservation is the "Triple Bottom Line"

  • By: Aria Danaparamita

Daniel Ronan graduated from the University of Oregon Planning and Public Policy program and is now based in Chicago. Credit: Daniel Ronan
Daniel Ronan graduated from the University of Oregon Planning and Public Policy program and is now based in Chicago.

As a young person in preservation, Daniel Ronan has heard laments of how the field struggles with meeting modern demands. But he sees it differently.

The 24-years-old Portland, Ore., native was a Diversity Scholar at the 2013 National Preservation Conference and a planning and public policy graduate of University of Oregon. Now pursuing his path as an emerging preservation professional, he sees a bright potential, an energetic momentum for preservation. Millennials, he thinks, have the opportunity and ingenuity to bring the past forward. The key? Thinking of it in multifaceted terms, being open to innovative approaches, and refocusing on saving the local, community places that matter.

We caught him in the conference afterglow and got inspired by his excitement. Here’s what he had to say.

How did you come to preservation? What/who inspired you?

Growing up I was enamored with cities, and heartbroken each time I was faced with a photo of a dense, walkable, and historic neighborhood as yet another victim to the wrecking ball of “progress.” I was tired of the sighing, the “what could have or would have been” and the “back in the day’s.” What I wanted, and to this day continually seek, are the old streets, the corner stores, and the characters that comprise a healthy neighborhood.

I am excited about the rejuvenating potential of market forces to bring back the historic fabric of our communities, all the while aware of the harmful effects of gentrification. With these ideas in mind, what I want to do is define “preservation” as economic, social, and environmental renewal. Preservation is the triple bottom line. Much more than just restoring old buildings, I am drawn to the complexity and the promise of our communities to define their own progress through a preservation lens.

What do you think is the preservation community's perception of young preservationists?

Maybe it’s the times we live in, but the interactions I have had with older preservationists seem to center on a general frustration with the preservation profession as a “broken model” and a feeling of hopelessness as preservation faces ever-dwindling resources. Older preservationists seem critical of non-traditional engagement techniques, as if more voices in preservation risks questioning their specialized knowledge and authority.

Across the board, preservationists are faced with reckoning expertise and experience, and how to define preservation. Do we take the traditional historic building preservation approach, or do we seek to pinpoint a definition that is more dynamic and open to change? I believe younger preservationists serve to answer this question.

As a millennial, I believe our generation is consumed with personal identity and experiences. As much as I try and sidestep this generalization, I see it as a reason why folks my age seek community so much. When we advocate, we are often innovative and think outside convention. We generally accept corporations into our lives -- supplanting the traditional role of government to take care of us. Older preservationists seem to approach this new reality with hesitation.

The one thing for certain is that it takes both younger and older viewpoints to further the preservation cause, each continually informing and challenging the other.

Ronan was a Diversity Scholar at the 2013 National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis. Credit: National Preservation Conference
Ronan was a Diversity Scholar at the 2013 National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis.

What are some of the more non-formal or non-traditional approaches have you seen in preservation?

A session I attended at 2013's National Preservation Conference included a presentation of an online game centering on historic preservation. The game, named Historical Friction and produced by Second Avenue Learning, uses an interactive format to help teach grade school students about how communities participate in historic preservation.

Through various techniques from listing a building on the National Register of Historic Places or hiring a developer to redevelop a site, students engage in preservation using a unique interface that factors in skill and luck to make preservation fun. It looks like Historical Friction has the ability to engage an entirely new audience in preservation, and for that I am excited to see how it is received when the game debuts for purchase in the spring of 2014.

What do you think preservation's biggest opportunity is right now?

I think preservation’s biggest opportunity at the moment is reorienting itself towards saving local places. While the National Trust is focusing on its National Treasures campaign, I am unsure whether this approach will engage the support of the approximately 15 million preservationists who do not see themselves as belonging to the historic preservation movement.

I believe framing historic preservation as a local issue will help translate this movement from preserving historic buildings to preserving historic places and experiences that are tangible on a daily basis to most people. I would suggest these more Main Street-oriented contexts have more resonance to a community than a site of national significance.

Why is preserving history important?

Preserving history is important because it anchors our identities in a turbulent age of social, economic, and environmental change. While it is important to adapt to the changing times, it is also important to remain connected with our past, not to relive or repeat it, but to understand and value the constants of community, place and identity. We are all people; we all have a mutual need for connection and to create places which uphold and strengthen our ties to one another. Historic preservation is but one of many tools to make this happen.

Read more about what Daniel and other young preservationists had to say on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog.

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