Preservation in the 21st Century: Preservation is a Political Movement

Posted on: July 16th, 2014 by David J. Brown

The preservation movement’s most important piece of legislation—the National Historic Preservation Act —will mark its 50th anniversary in 2016. That same year, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Parks—often called America’s best idea. Chief Preservation Officer David Brown has been considering what it takes for organizations and movements to not only survive but thrive past 50 or 100 years of age. In this series of three blog posts, he looks at the future of the preservation movement and how we adapt to change, remain relevant, and win new supporters for our work.

Read Post 1: Preservation in the 21st Century: Change Is the Constant
Read Post 2: Preservation in the 21st Century: Preservation Is About People

Interior of the Astrodome | Credit:  Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Interior of the Astrodome | Credit: Photo courtesy Library of Congress

When the voters of Houston, Texas, narrowly defeated a referendum to save and rehabilitate the Astrodome, a local newspaper felt perfectly comfortable in saying that the voters had rejected nostalgia.

Nostalgia? The Astrodomethe 8th Wonder of the World, a modernist icon, and a symbol of the brashness, big vision, and can-do spirit of Texas with a bright futurecannot be defined as nostalgia. Yet preservationists have too often allowed ourselves to be framed by others as seeking to return to the past because we cannot cope with the reality of life today. Nothing could be further from what preservation is really about.

Nostalgia can lead to memory, which is a good thing for preservation. However, there is a problem with the language used to describe preservation. Fundamentally preservation is a political movement. We have to convince people to join us, if we are going to be successful. Yet few people understand the changing nature of preservation because our language looks backward and is often architecture-centric.

Writing on the planning blog Greater, Greater Washington, David Alpert brought this point home in a post about an especially difficult fight over the Brutalist-style Third Church in Washington, D.C.:

If there's ever an example of winning the battle and losing the war, (Alpert wrote) this church fight is it….I admire the strict preservationists' fortitude in standing up for what they believe, but preservationists need to realize an important fact: preservation is a political movement.

For all the talk about how preservation retains even buildings that are unpopular (since tastes change), preservation got started saving buildings that were popular. Masses rose up unsuccessfully to save the old Penn Station, still New York City's most deeply-felt loss. Our historic preservation laws came from the political force of many citizens dismayed at the changes happening around them.

Since then, the political climate has changed. If I were a leader in the historic preservation movement, I'd be very worried that the movement is heading…toward irrelevance in pursuit of ideological purity.

| Credit: David Brown

Voters advocate for thier site during the Seattle Partners in Preservation program. | Credit: David Brown

Political movements succeed when they find issues where undecided people agree with their side. They succeed when they work hard to educate the public about why thingssuch as modernist buildingsare important from an architectural, sustainability, and a (small "c") conservative point of view. We should be more respectful of all places and not assume that everything is going to be rebuilt every 30 years.

While our work is forward-looking, the framing others do of our workand often the language we use as preservationistshelps make the case for our critics. Right now, preservation is often defined based on our most traditional and regulatory traits. We are the “NO Police.” Sometimes the shoe fits. If we let that thinking lead our movement we are doomed.

As preservationists, we are not here to stop change or keep things as they are, but we are here to manage change, to envision a future as opposed to accepting what we are given if we simply leave things alone. The reality is that preservation is at the heart of much of the renewal of American communities over the past 30 years. But preservation as nostalgia often gets pigeon-holed as a niche, a “nice-to-do” but not “critical-to-do” activity. Preservation as NIMBYism gets pigeon-holed as obstructionism, to be avoided. Thankfully, a new generation is providing a sense of how to approach preservation holistically.

They are making the casein path-creating, forward-thinking, active languagefor preservation. My colleague Tom Mayes has just spent six months on sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome focused on the language we use in describing why places matterfinding that old places create a sense of continuity and identity that helps people feel more balanced, stable and healthy. This is very important work.

Our political movement must compel others to believe that saving historic and older buildings should be a priority for decision makers. We must show that the livable city—the thriving, alive city—is diverse. Wholesale demolition and new construction destroys the connectivity that made places unique and desirable.

coverA new National Trust studyentitled Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitalitybegins to make this case by highlighting preservation’s key role in economic vitality and the intensity of human activity. Our Preservation Green Lab found that neighborhoods made up of a diverse mix of older and newer buildings support the local economy, with a high percentage of new businesses as well as women and minority-owned businesses.

We also show that young people love old buildings. Night life is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building age. On Fridays at 10:00 pm, there is significantly greater cellphone activity in neighborhoods with mixed-vintage buildings than neighborhoods with new buildings alone.

This work is telling us that we need to step away from the exclusive focus on built assets as “great architecture,” as if buildings matter without the stories of the people who inhabit them. In the 21th century, people crave experiences, community and opportunity, and they will move to, invest in and take care of places that provide these core needs.

Historic buildings and older neighborhoods are uniquely positioned to provide people with identity and creative outlets. However, historic preservation needs a new language to tell of this impact because the words “historic” and “preservation” do not do justice to the fact that our work is an essential element in the future of America’s cities and towns. All of us in the preservation movement need to be involved in shaping a new case that maintaining older and historic buildings provides unique opportunities and experiences that are foundational to the sustainability and success of the places that we love and where we live.

Preservationists succeed politically when we speak of our work to actively build a better future. Do you have thoughts about how we can succeed as a political movement? I would like to hear them.

About David Brown

David J. Brown is the executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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