Them’s Fightin’ Words!: Reflections and Reactions to “Evidence is Not Enough”

Posted on: December 7th, 2012 by Preservation Leadership Forum Staff 1 Comment

Are we winning or losing? Are we picking the right battles?  Do we have the right tools?  I found myself asking all of these questions as I listened to Don’s speech.

Don’s speech at the National Preservation Conference was more than a morning wake-up call; it was a cold  shower.

NTHP Trustee Jorge L. Hernandez, NTHP President Stephanie K. Meeks, and Donovan Rypkema at the Richard H. Driehaus National Preservation Awards in Spokane, WA

Crowninshield Award winner Donovan Rypkema’s thought-provoking special lecture at the National Preservation Conference  was published last month in the November 2012 Forum Focus. We  asked some of the attendees of the lecture to respond to his comments and to explain how his speech has affected their work. Here are three of those opinions.

What do you think? How can we address some of Rypkema’s concerns? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Kathy Kottaridis
Executive Director
Historic Boston, Inc.

Don Rypkema may be a number-crunching economic development expert, but on Saturday, November 4, he was an angry one might even say unhinged preservationist. Don’s speech at the National Preservation Conference was more than a morning wake-up call (it was 7 a.m.); it was a cold shower.  The icy point: preservation is in trouble and anyone who calls themselves a preservationist should be irate at the dismantling of so many public policies and resources built over the last 50 years.

Don’s speech makes me wonder if preservation has lost its zeal, forgotten how to fight, let go of scrappy grassroots political strategy. Sure we need to have a clear and engaging message. Certainly we need research and data. But Don’s speech made clear to me that our message of preservation = economic development, preservation = jobs, is not getting out there despite hard data to show its exponential impact.

One segment of Don’s speech really pricked up my ears. It went something like:  “We have to hold policy makers’ feet to the fire and, if they don’t do the right thing, we will remember.” Them’s fightin’ words! Politicians have long memories and so should we. If you don’t support us now, don’t expect our support later. Think about it:  We have lost our national grant programs, we’re fighting elementary battles with municipalities and states about preservation authority, and now the federal historic tax credits are in question.

All Crowninshield Award winners have this in common: they’re fighters, and it’s that special mix of great ideas and unfettered resolve that underpin their success. A lot of inspiration comes from conviction and tenacity. Don Rypkema may be known for feasibility studies and technical analyses, but in Spokane, he reinforced for me the values of speaking up and making sure I’m heard.

Jim Lindberg
Field Director, Western Field Office
National Trust for Historic Preservation

Wake up!  That was Don Rypkema’s first message to the hundreds of conference goers who ventured out to hear him at a dark, early hour in rainy Spokane. Gracious and subdued in accepting his Crowninshield Award on Friday night, Don’s tone the next morning was blunt and forceful.  Much of what we have come to take for granted in historic preservation is at risk, he said. Some of our favorite tools -- grants, enhancements, historic districts, tax credits -- have been removed from the toolbox or might soon disappear.  If current trends continue, Don concluded, the preservation world as we know it will soon come to an end.

In some ways, it already has. One of the most striking statistics that Don shared was that just one new local historic district has been established in the entire state of North Carolina over the past 20 years.  That is hard to believe, but I have seen the same trend elsewhere. Recently I worked with my colleagues Amy Cole and Jennifer Sandy to assess the preservation movement in the Omaha - Council Bluffs metro area. We found that no new local historic districts have been established in Omaha since the 1980s and only three individual local landmarks have been designated since 2000. Yet the climate for preservation in Omaha has never been better. Tours of historic mid-century homes are sold out, downtown Omaha is coming alive, all kinds of interesting old buildings are being rehabbed, and good, new ones are getting built on formerly vacant lots. The preservationist’s vision is becoming reality.

Are we winning or losing? Are we picking the right battles? Do we have the right tools? I found myself asking all of these questions as I listened to Don’s speech. Though he began darkly, Don’s closing comments gave cause for hope. In his typical “Top Ten” format, he touched on several ideas for how preservation could grow and evolve rather than wither away. His suggestions that we consider a “graded” designation system, revisit the tax credit review process, and integrate preservation into the full spectrum of planning practice seemed particularly timely to me. Don left us with reasons to believe that, despite recent setbacks, we could find ways to leverage our success and take the preservation movement into the next 50 years.

Will O’Keefe
Communication and Programs Coordinator
Preservation Alliance of Minnesota

This talk encouraged me to think more broadly about preservation. More often than not, we're approached by individuals concerned about a specific building. While that building is the most visible piece, the neighborhood and community are integrally involved in the fate of the building and all need to be included when working toward solutions. I also appreciated his argument that preservation should be appealing to all as we prepare our legislative agenda for the coming year. Preservation is incredibly unique in that it touches so many fields and so many issues. From Donovan's talk, I realized that we can all do a better job of using this flexibility and the strong numbers backing us up, to advocate for preservation to politicians of all different stripes.


Advocacy, Economics, Forum Benefit, PastForward

One Response

  1. Jim Jarvis

    December 7, 2012

    I have great respect for Mr. Rypkema’s work over the years. I have heard him speak on several occassions, and regret I was not able to attend his award lecture.

    As to the question of whether historic preservation is losing its relevancy, I feel the answer is yes. Not because there is a diminishing public interest in the subject, but because we haven’t changed our message from the 1960s. Our concerns over rampant distruction of historic resources is no longer applicable, and the public is tired of the same old “threaten” call to action.

    Based on my 10+ years working as the historic preservation officer for two communities in Montana, I feel concern for historic resources is now a part of America’s mainstream consciousness. I hear it expressed at all levels of society. Historic resources may not always be saved, but their significance receives consideration. I believe that was the primary goal of the NHPA and its amendments. In effect we have won.

    We should celebrate that accomplishment and build stronger relationships with those who have helped us along the way.

    What do we do with this hard earned respect, I suggest we change our message and act like we are a partner, not a regulatory obstacle, in the world of development planning. We have earned a spot at the table. Much like an engineer or contractor, we can add value to an otherwise mediocre project, if preservation is willingly factored into the standard cost-benefit analysis that all projects involve. Mr. Rypkema has provided data to support this assertion.

    Ultimately, the public will continue to support historic preservation into the future, because they want to, not because they have to. We should back off with the regulatory message and reliance on federal subsidies and trust the public to apply what we have been preaching for the past 50 years. My observations suggest they are good students and they are receptive to our message. It will just take some time for the full effect to be realized.

    Beside younger people love the old cities and walkable neighborhoods. It’s their opportunity to live in a more environmental friendly way, and rebel against the auto-centric suburbs that their father and grandfather worked so hard to build.


    Jim Jarvis