There is a “short list” of common threats for those in the business of protecting historic places. For decades, fighting the good fight could typically be classified by one of several categories, including things like insensitive development, neglect, lack of resources, and demolition. Unfortunately, it is time to add another common threat to this list: climate change.
Climate change could pose the greatest threat to cultural resources of our time—similar to the scale of challenges faced during the beginning of the modern preservation movement when postwar development patterns of highway construction and suburban growth resulted in a staggering loss of historic resources. There is a difference this time around, though. We have the opportunity to be proactive in our planning for the protection of resources instead of reactive to the changing tides.
Research shows that climate change is happening, and you don’t need to look hard to see how just a few catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy had a devastating effect on concentrated areas of cultural importance. Sadly, it won’t just be the catastrophic events we need to prepare for. Slow, incremental changes in climate will affect everything from small Alaskan villages to Miami Beach.
When thinking of what is at stake, the problem seems overwhelming. It is nearly impossible to gauge exactly what is at risk, and how best to prepare for the consequences of climate change. Different geographic areas will face different problems, and different types of resources will need different solutions. Perhaps the best way to start is to just start somewhere.
That “somewhere” for the National Trust for Historic Preservation is Annapolis, Md.
Annapolis is a National Historic Landmark and contains more original 18th-century structures than any city in the country. Annapolis is also regularly affected by high tide flooding, and recent storm surges have increased the danger to these irreplaceable resources. In the Chesapeake Bay, the combined effects of sinking land and rising seas have resulted in a rate of sea-level rise that is twice the world average, which means for Annapolis elevations exceeding 3-4 feet by 2050 are a distinct reality. For that reason, the National Trust has recently added Annapolis to its portfolio of National Treasures.
While some municipalities are beginning to plan for climate change impacts, very few are considering what this means for historic and cultural resources, even in places like Annapolis where historic architecture and local heritage are a vital part of the economy. That’s why the National Trust is using Annapolis as a demonstration project to provide guidance for other coastal cities around the country. The Trust plans to assemble a team of national and international experts to research, evaluate, and report on strategies that protect historic coastal properties. Although the report will produce specific short-term and long-term recommendations for Annapolis, it will serve as a case study to assist other seaports around the country that face similar threats. The impact of climate change to other major cities could be substantial, with estimates of rising water levels threatening an average of 9 percent of the land within 180 U.S. coastal cities by 2100, many of them rich with cultural resources, such as Boston, Miami, New York, and New Orleans.
Work on the ground for this effort has already begun. The City of Annapolis, with support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Maryland Historical Trust, and Preservation Maryland is conducting a Cultural Resource Hazard Mitigation Plan that will specifically address disaster mitigation measures to better protect the historic context and properties within the National Historic Landmark District. This work will engage citizens as well as elected officials, and is just the beginning of the important dialogue that needs to take place in Annapolis.
The National Trust recognizes the severity and implications that climate change could have on historic cultural resources nationwide. It aims to be a helpful resource for those of you working to tackle these issues, and looks to bring historic preservation into the broader conversation of addressing climate change.