In his book titled Why Do Old Places MatterTom Mayes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation described what we mean by historic preservation by articulating continuity, memory, and identity as reasons we preserve. Continuity extends our cultural and physical heritage from the past to the present, and into the future; memory gives this continuity a cultural imperative; and identity brings not only memory but meaning to the places we preserve.The words “historic preservation” are institutionalized in our organizations, associations, national legislation, and in numerous university programs—e.g., National Trust for Historic Preservation, Michigan Historic Preservation Network, and numerous university “Historic Preservation” degree programs, such as the one offered at Eastern Michigan University.
During the nineteenth century two famous preservationists espoused completely different philosophies of preservation: John Ruskin said old buildings should be allowed to age untouched, while the approach of Viollet le Duc was to “improve” on their historic character. The appropriate response typically lies somewhere in between—allowing changes to historic buildings while still protecting their historic character.
In the mid-twentieth century, laws and standards recognized this “complementary” approach to preservation. In 1977, the Office of the Secretary of the Interior published the Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties to promote historic preservation “best practices” that protect our nation’s irreplaceable cultural resources. The more detailed Standards for Rehabilitation provide the basis for review of proposed changes in local historic districts, as well as for determination of whether a property owner’s project is eligible to earn tax credits. The Standards are inherently subjective and not prescriptive, and their interpretation is provided by the city’s Historic District Commission.
Historic preservation is expanding its role in society. We recognize the need to move beyond the protection of individual buildings and districts to an appreciation of culture and memories. The term “intangible preservation” represents the need to preserve our non-physical heritage as well as our bricks and mortar. Along with this expanded role, we need to consider a broader range of acceptable changes and adaptation of properties in historic districts.
Sustainability and historic preservation are often at odds with each other, when in fact there is a common purpose to designing for resilience and to protecting our fragile environment. Toward this end, environmentalists often refer to “protection of the built environment” as a separate consideration. The inherently sustainable features of many older buildings, in addition to recognizing that “the greenest building is the one that is already built,” highlight the contribution of all existing buildings to our urban fabric. The cost of demolishing buildings to construct something new that is touted as more energy efficient does not equal sustainable development.
“Think globally, act locally,”applies as much to historic preservation, as it does to other forms of social activism. This phrase is attributed to a Scots urban planner and social activist, Patrick Geddes, who advocated consideration of a wider regional environment when making local planning decisions. With regard to the environment, he urged people to “consider the health of the entire planet, and then take action in their own communities and cities. Long before governments began enforcing environmental laws, individuals were coming together to protect habitats and the organisms that live within them.” Millennials and young professionals embrace this concept in their use of a grassroots approach to recognizing and protecting diverse communities. Through grassroots activism, emerging preservation professionalsare raising awareness of places that matter to more people.
Expanding the definition of historic preservation to incorporate this environmental perspective considers the sensitive issues of climate change, severe weather patterns, sea level rise, and appropriate strategies for mitigating damage to our fragile historic resources. This requires interdisciplinary collaboration and reliance on new skill sets to make changes that result in improved resilience in all communities.