There are two sides sides to historic preservation. On one side preservationists work to save places, using community character and history to enhance the quality of living through transportation, smart growth, and sustainability. On the other we are seen as obstructionist, the party of “no,” and a limiting factor to the development and modernization of what a community wants to accomplish.
So how do we change perceptions? As public historians we know the interpretive (and storytelling) technique of showing rather than telling. The more partnerships we build, the more projects that are successful, the more examples we have to sway perception.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been working hard to make those leaps and those connections. For example, late last year the Preservation Green Lab published The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Value of Building Reuse. Using models established by the sustainability community, the lab demonstrated that in most cases rehabbing an existing building is much better for the environment than building new.
But this isn’t just work that is happening on the national level. All around the country preservationists are making connections with developers, code enforcers, real estate agents–so the battles that are usually fought at the eleventh hour are addressed well before the demolition balls come anywhere near a historic property.
When I started at the National Trust six years ago, I understood the importance of being a jack-of-all trades. But the more time I spent in the preservation world, the more I saw how seeing both sides of the fight would help lead to a solution that is acceptable to both (or all) parties.
At the end of October the National Trust for Historic Preservation will be holding its annual conference in Spokane, Washington. As for many years, this is one of the opportunities for preservationists across the country to gather, network, and look for new solutions. The program this year attempts to go “Beyond Boundaries” and look at preservation from all angles. For example, at the start of each day is a “Conversation Starter” which links to the broader sessions that occur afterward.
You Say Wilderness, I Say Preservation! Good vs. Good on Public Lands and Beyond
The Wilderness Act passed the US Congress in 1964, the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, both seeking to protect what is unique and precious to our nation. How could two such inspired and important acts come to be in conflict? How could wilderness protection come at the expense of heritage preservation? We will look at the interpretation and application of these acts from the vantage points of their supporters including examples from recent court cases. Yet, the debate raging here is only one of many that pits historic preservation against other worthwhile endeavors. This session offers an opportunity to begin exploring ways to resolve such conflicts for the good of both sides.
Telling Richer Stories of Place
Plan to be inspired as stewards of some of our nation’s most complex and challenging sites tell how they are reaching beyond traditional preservation and interpretation practices to tell a more powerful story of heritage and place. We’ll look at Native American cultural sites where preservation is less about site and more about people; Japanese internment camps with difficult stories to tell and few remnants remaining; and sites where interpretation has changed dramatically over time as their managers seek to tell a fuller story. In the twenty-first century, historic sites stewards can no longer rely on traditional management models to sustain their sites and those seeking to protect and interpret diverse sites have few examples to guide them. This session is designed to bring many of those issues to the forefront and begin a dialog about where we go from here.
Beyond LEED: A Candid Conversation about Green Building Standards and Preservation
For years, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) has overseen an unprecedented drive to make our nation’s buildings more energy efficient and lessen the environmental impacts of their construction and use. Concurrently, the preservation community has been investigating the energy and environmental benefits of historic buildings as well as retrofit strategies that can ensure that the reuse of an historic building is almost always as economically and environmentally advantageous as new construction. This session brings together USGBC officials and preservation specialists to consider how these initiatives might be more effectively aligned to achieve our common sustainability goals. A facilitated dialog will allow representatives of both USGBC and the preservation community to bring to the table their unique perspectives, constructive critiques, and useful proposals.
As you can see, the purpose of each of these sessions is to make connections and start conversations that will lead to solutions not only between often-opposed forces, but also within the preservation community writ large.
So what are some of the ways that we as public historians work to change perception? As preservationists? If you want more information about the National Preservation Conference which will take place October 31-November 3, 2012 in Spokane, WA visit the conference website.
~ Priya Chaya