By: Cara Bertron
An essential role of preservation advocates and planners is to help create healthy, dynamic places while preserving and adapting important heritage. Historic resource surveys are a critical part of that ongoing process. On a basic level, they provide information about the local history and landscape that allows for the identification of potential historic resources. Those resources can then be considered in large- and small-scale discussions around neighborhood plans, new developments, and demolitions. As preservation planners and advocates, we can use this data to become more effective, proactive participants in developing a strong planning framework for the built environment.
Collecting the right information for the tasks at hand is a key strategic decision that depends on the scale of the area, time constraints, and budget. Sometimes an intensive survey is appropriate: When San Francisco was considering zoning changes in certain neighborhoods, every building more than 45 years old was surveyed. Other situations might require reconnaissance-level surveys. Planners in Syracuse, N.Y., conduct windshield surveys of all properties on the city’s demolition list, flagging buildings that appear to be eligible for historic designation for further research. In other cases, thematic surveys yield information on schools, government buildings, postwar public housing, or other property types.
In recent years, technology has greatly expanded our ability to record data about the built environment, as well as to analyze and share the information we collect. Planning tools have incorporated smaller mobile devices and sophisticated data management systems, and these in turn have been adapted to record information about historic neighborhoods, towns, and cities. Today’s surveyors are increasingly likely to use mobile tablet PCs or smartphones rather than paper checklists in the field, and they will probably enter data into a relational database or a spreadsheet instead of a file folder. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software allows preservationists and planners to analyze data on historic significance and integrity alongside other variables such as traffic, zoning, demographic shifts, and foreclosures. More than ever, we are able to tease out complex relationships to help inform complicated decisions.
Yet these tools alone do not solve the challenges of scale, time, effectiveness, and funding. In most cities, towns, and rural areas, potential survey areas are huge, complicating data collection even with the most sophisticated field tools. Large-scale plans or small-scale redevelopments may require data to be available more quickly than the traditional survey timeline. As yet, there is no standard model for integrating survey data with planning efforts. And few cities and preservation organizations have the ability to pay for surveys that document every building over 45 years old.
Several innovative survey approaches have been developed that leverage technology even further to pragmatically address these challenges. They collect information using participatory online platforms and high-resolution online maps, in addition to fieldwork. These technologies allow surveys to quickly cover large areas at lower costs by providing a means for the broader public to participate in survey work and by viewing entire blocks in birds-eye view. One approach redefines the survey unit from one building to a multi-parcel unit, scaling up data collection at a lower cost. Each survey methodology facilitates information-sharing between agencies by linking survey results in GIS databases to planning and other systems.
Austin Historical Survey Wiki
Developed by the University of Texas at Austin, the Austin Historical Survey Wiki brings preservation into the crowdsourcing age. The publicly accessible online database allows anyone to register as a user and enter information about any property in the city. After preservation professionals vet the information entered into the wiki for accuracy, Austin’s Historic Preservation Office reviews it and enters it into the city’s official inventory.
Surveying Los Angeles’s 880,000 parcels across 466 square miles required a new approach and a significant community engagement effort. SurveyLA’s MyHistoricLA program invites community members to help professional survey teams identify significant properties, which are then vetted as part of the reconnaissance surveys. For historic context statements, detailed historic context tables identified themes that were loaded into the survey database and used directly in the field to evaluate potential historic resources.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to assess large swaths of Philadelphia in a very short time to inform a new comprehensive planning effort and rezoning across the city. They devised coarse-grain, very low-cost surveys using digital aerial photographs and historic maps to identify groupings of properties constructed at a similar time with similar forms. GIS analysis based on property age and/or type then led to targeted windshield surveys for integrity, and ultimately maps of historic character areas.
Cara Bertron is the director of the Rightsizing Cities Initiative at PlaceEconomics and works as Real Estate Lab coordinator at the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority. She previously developed and managed the Character Study Project in Philadelphia.
You can learn more about innovative field survey techniques at “Survey Slam: The Latest in Survey Techniques and Approaches,” an educational session at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis.
A version of this post also appeared in Forum Journal in summer 2013.