Why historic preservationists make saving historic urban landscapes difficult

Today's piece comes from Jeremy C. Wells, a professor of Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University. Historic preservation is an issue of relevance for our work at Strong Towns and we'll be interested to hear our readers' perspectives on this issue in the comments section.

Across the globe, urban centers contain some of the oldest human-modified landscapes. Are the old buildings, structures, and landscapes found in these places important to sustain or is it better to replace them with something new?

This is a question that has been asked since at least the fall of the Roman Empire when scavengers were ravaging the Forum for building material to reuse. As a political movement, the origins of saving old places are more recent, dating to the eighteenth century in Europe and a bit later in the United States. Humans seem to have an interest in keeping old things around, either in buildings or objects. Is this behavior just nostalgia, which is a word whose Latin origins refer to a disease? Or does some benefit come from the practice of sustaining the old into the present?

John Ruskin, writing in the nineteenth century, thought that old buildings had an intrinsic value associated with their age or patina. Starting in the early twentieth century, historians and cultural geographers became interested in old buildings and later, cultural landscapes, for their informational value in terms of how people used to design and modify places—the closest parallel is thinking of a landscape as a kind of book that can be read. Toward the later part of the twentieth century, saving old places began to be associated with economic development and then sustainability. 

Today, we can make quantitative arguments for saving old places based on recycling buildings, which puts less waste in landfills, uses less energy than new construction, and puts more money into local economies. In fact, pre-World War II buildings have all sorts of innovative, time-tested passive designs to save energy on heating and cooling.  For instance, the U.S. General Services Administration has found that buildings constructed before 1930 use less energy for heating and cooling than buildings built after this date. 

Heritage tourists pump $192 billion into the economy to visit historic sites and urban areas around the United States each year. These tourists want to see, visit, and experience authentic historic towns around the country. In fact, these studies indicate that of all types of tourists, people who want to see and experience heritage spend the most money. No wonder that around the world, countries scramble to list their urban cores on UNESCO's World Heritage list. (Don't expect this anytime soon in the United States--we will likely never have an urban center on the World Heritage list until Congress changes federal law that requires 100% consent of all affected owners.)

Studies also indicate that buildings in urban areas which receive official historical designation and protection appreciate more rapidly and retain their value better through economic downtowns than similar, non-historic properties. This seems to be related to the fact that many people prefer to live in historic buildings and places compared to other, non-historic urban areas. Of course, the downside to this phenomenon is that it gives credence to the possibility that saving old buildings leads to gentrification, or the displacement of lower income individuals from “historic” areas.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Program is arguably the most successful downtown revitalization program in the United States, if not the world, with a nearly 40-year record of success. Its core principle is based on retaining and reusing historic buildings and places in downtowns. According to the National Main Street Center, the program has resulted in $59.6 billion in investments in downtowns that would have otherwise not happened and the creation of 502,728 new jobs and more than 115,000 new businesses. According to their statistics, every $1 in funding from the Main Street program leverages $18 in additional funding from other sources. 

In the twenty-first century, we’re making a bit of a return to John Ruskin’s idea that old buildings and places have some kind of innate value related to their age. In a recent article that I wrote for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Forum Journal, I summarized the environmental psychology literature on people’s preference for old buildings and places. All things being equal, people prefer genuinely old buildings over new ones, even if the design of new buildings matches the design of old ones. In my own research, I’ve found when comparing urban residential neighborhoods where the primary difference between the two is age, but the urban design is extremely similar, people are more emotionally attached to the old neighborhood, which has some interested implications in terms of mental health. In fact, we also know that exposure to heritage has positive impacts for both mental and physical health

Until this point, I’ve avoided giving a name to this activity of saving old buildings. In the United States, it’s most commonly called “historic preservation”, while in other parts of the world it might be called “heritage conservation” or “architectural conservation”. Many people (including me) don't like the phrase, “historic preservation”, because its meaning is too ambiguous and it has negative connotations for many people.

Remember all those tourists that spend vast amounts of money on visiting historic downtowns and the people buying historic houses because they prefer them to new construction? Most of these people don’t like “historic preservation” either, according to market studies done by historic preservation advocacy organizations, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And they certainly won’t refer to themselves as “historic preservationists”. So what’s going on here? Why the disconnect between the phrase and people’s activities which clearly seem to be very intent on saving old buildings and places?

The answer to this question is not clear, because to date, very little research has tried to understand how normal, everyday people perceive, value, and experience built heritage and cultural landscapes. In fact, most research in historic preservation is from the perspective of the historians and architects who work in the field, which doesn’t relate well to everyday people’s experience of historic places. Many social science researchers describe the way that historic preservation is practiced by professionals as a system of expert rule that sidelines the values of everyday people in terms of identifying, treating, and managing historic places. The field also relies heavily on the regulatory environment to promote its building conservation aims. These are sore spots for many professionals in the field who genuinely see their work as benefitting communities, yet are confused as to why many members of the public often do not support “historic preservation”.

A new field of research, called critical heritage studies, is looking at this disconnect between historic preservation practitioners and the public. One goal of this endeavor is to convey meanings associated with the historic environment to most stakeholders in the language of these stakeholders. Typically, professional jargon dominates discussions between laypeople and professionals, alienating the former. Professionals in the environmental conservation field have already been using social science research in a similar endeavor to connect with their stakeholders, so a ready parallel already exists for historic preservation practitioners. We just need to start using it.

In sum, while there are many tangible and intangible benefits to conserving historic urban landscapes, until this disconnect between practitioners in the field and most stakeholders is addressed, convincing the public of the value of “historic preservation” will continue to be an uphill battle. Some possible ways to address this disconnect include:

  • Conducting research on how everyday people value, perceive, and experience historic places
  • Use the meanings from this research to communicate the importance of built heritage conservation in the language of most stakeholders
  • Training students who will work in built heritage conservation in social science research methods so that they are better prepared to understand and work with people
  • Revisiting how the regulatory environment works to protect historic buildings and places to make it more responsive to a wider array of stakeholder values

While I firmly believe that the conservation of historic urban places is an important societal endeavor that is environmentally and economically sustainable and has clear physical and mental health benefits for people, we have a long way to go before the average person on the street sees it this way.

(All photos by Jeremy Wells)

Jeremy C. Wells, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University.