Historic Preservation and Environmental Justice: A Q&A with Jeana C. Wiser

By Jacquie Johnson posted 8 days ago

  

The United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in early June ignited an international conversation about global climate change and its disproportionate effects on the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable communities. Given that the United States is responsible for almost a third of global carbon emissions and, historically, the most greenhouse gas emissions, we might well be expected to honor our commitment to limiting the impact of climate change. But figuring out what issues to prioritize—and how to prioritize them—is the responsibility not only of government but also of citizens. Thus, when an issue is not adequately addressed at the federal level, our movements and activists must be the ones to effect change.

The Forum Blog is publishing a series that responds to the question: When does historic preservation become social justice? The series explores multiple themes, including how preservationists can apply environmental justice to protect our most vulnerable communities. Two posts in the series share insights from environmentalists working at both the national and local levels about how and why preservation should address environmental inequality in vulnerable and under-resourced communities, present resources and best practices for environmental justice work, and provide notable examples of preservation and environmental justice working in tandem. Interested in starting a discussion about the series? Sign up for Forum Connect.

The first of these contributors is Jeana C. Wiser, regional sustainability director for LifeCity, where she leverages her passion for people, place, and sustainability to lead Value Louisiana, LifeCity’s for-benefit development initiative. Wiser also has more than six years of experience working for the National Trust for Historic Preservation on issues of community preservation, climate change policy and advocacy, resilience, and sustainability. In addition to her work in cities around the country, Wiser has spent the last seven years as a member of the executive committee of New Orleans–based nonprofit, Greyspace Collective + Building Resilience Workshop. She has developed an extensive network of local leaders, practitioners, and experts at the intersection of community, resilience, and the future of South Louisiana. Her lifelong dedication to environment and community serves as a strong foundation and guiding philosophy, and we asked her a few questions to kick off the environmental justice portion of our social justice series.

How can preservationists help address environmental inequality in our most vulnerable and under-resourced communities? What are the benefits and challenges of doing so?

The preservation movement has a long history of effectively using laws to advance historic preservation and benefit communities and historic preservation. As a result, we are well equipped to help address environmental inequality by sharing those skills with the environmental justice movement. Preservation policies, such as historic district oversight and federal laws like Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), are tools that provide us with well-defined roles as well as a mechanism for respectful entry into communities. For example, historic preservation law, as formed by Section 106, provides a clear role for the public in considering the impacts of federal agency actions to properties listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places or as a National Historic Landmark. Similarly, the National Environmental Policy Act provides mechanisms for involving the public as part of the Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement processes.

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Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, faces extreme land loss due to climate change. | Credit: Photo by Karen Apricot is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The preservation movement has been responsible for preventing harmful and toxic development, ranging from out-of-context new construction to major infrastructure projects that would have compromised historic neighborhoods. We must now apply this track record through an equity lens to help right the many wrongs that our country’s frontline communities and communities of color have endured for generations. It is a critical step preservationists must take to explicitly reach out in solidarity with environmental justice or emphasize the goals that the two movements have in common.

Moving forward, we should be aware and intentional when working with local communities, meeting them where they are and respecting their unique and valuable local and traditional knowledge. Communities must be actively involved, rather than being told what to do by “expert” preservationists. Those who seek to assist a community with historic and cultural heritage preservation must understand what community members value and why as well as how they believe that their community’s condition can best be improved.

Specifically, preservation has an opportunity to advocate for communities that are facing displacement due to climate change. Members of the Biloxi-Chitimatcha-Choctaw settled on coastal Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles in the early 1800s in an attempt to escape the impacts of the Indian Removal Act and the ensuing Trail of Tears. As a result, the community’s relationship with place is particularly acute and integral to identity. Today they face relocation once again, this time due to extreme land loss. Coastal Louisiana loses a football field worth of land every hour as the combined result of climate change; coastal erosion; storm surge; and the oil industry’s web of pipe infrastructure, which accelerates land lost through storms and surge. Since 1955 Isle de Jean Charles has lost a staggering 98 percent of its land. Though the choice is not easy and not all members agree, the tribe is currently working on plans to communally relocate to higher ground. Preservation can support communities like Isle de Jean Charles as they reconcile the impacts of climate change on their historic and cultural heritage. Communities that are forced to abandon their current homes must fight to maintain and preserve their histories, traditions, and cultural heritages. Preservationists must stand alongside these communities and play a key role in protecting the identities and resources of communities that are forced to relocate.

What resources and expertise does the field offer?

If the preservation movement wants to contribute to and support environmental justice, as well as other justice and equity–based local movements, we should share our successes, challenges, and best practices. Our movement has virtually perfected this unique skillset: engaging in public processes, particularly those involving federal agencies or other government entities. We should embrace a new role of sharing what we’re good at by helping other movements navigate this terrain.

In particular, we have perhaps held the processes for landmarks and register nominations too close. We should now focus on making these tools accessible and available, especially because preservation surveys and landmark nomination methodologies are successful tools not only for documenting and protecting historic places but also for creating regulation, review, and oversight mechanisms. They can effectively transfer more control to communities, enhancing their ability to advocate for themselves in the face of toxic and unsafe developments.

The Climate Heritage Coalition was formed in 2015 to bring together a multidisciplinary and diverse group of experts and advocates to elevate climate change issues impacting vulnerable frontline communities and their cultural heritage. The coalition represents the first time that scientists, tribal leaders, and preservation experts came together to develop a shared vision of the preservation movement protecting cultural heritage and historic places from climate change. Its first meeting resulted in the Call to Action on Climate Impacts and Cultural Heritage, in which coalition members concluded that “cultural heritage is a human right and that the changing climate puts some aspects of cultural heritage at additional risk.”

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#NODAPL emergency rally outside the White House in February 2017. | Credit: Photo by Stephen Melkisethian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Coalition has continued to offer the collective experiences of its members, as well as technical expertise and tools, to sustain environmental equity efforts. For example, several individual and organizational members of the Climate Heritage Coalition rallied together to help the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (SRST) fight to protect their sacred land from dangerous and invasive construction associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation held a timely webinar about the legal landscape of the issue. At the federal level, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP)—a member of the coalition—joined the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior to echo concerns that had been raised in public comments on the Army Corps of Engineers' draft environmental assessment. Citing risks to water supplies, inadequate emergency preparedness, potential impacts on the SRST reservation, and insufficient environmental justice analysis, the agencies urged the Army Corps to revise its assessment.

In a May 2017 letter to the Army Corps, the director of the Office of Federal Agency Programs for the ACHP, Reid Nelson, wrote, “Based on the inadequacies of the tribal consultation and the limited scope for identification of historic properties that may be affected, the ACHP questions the sufficiency of the Corps' identification effort, its determinations of eligibility, and assessments of effect.”

Give us an example of an environmental equity effort in which preservation was a key component.

Public housing in New Orleans suffered greatly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not only were some of the buildings damaged or flooded as a result of the storm but the city also lost nearly all existing public housing, regardless of whether it had been damaged by the storm. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans provided public housing for 5,000 families. Ten years after the hurricane, the number had rebounded only to 1,900 families. Some of the housing has since been replaced with new construction, consisting mostly of mixed-income developments. This is a clear example of environmental injustice: in addition to doing environmental damage, the storm became a justification for eliminating public housing all together.

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Momma Glo sits patiently behind her housing development, waiting for volunteers to help clear out the moldy remains of an apartment left in disarray by looters. She had not been able to enter her home more than 16 months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. | Credit: Photo by Culture:Subculture Photography is licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Today, New Orleans is the site of some of the best preservation and environmental justice stories, as true affordable housing is being restored in perpetuity using historic properties. New Orleans preservation and housing advocates recently came together to find new solutions to housing needs using historic buildings, community land trusts, and affordable housing frameworks. For example, the recently completed renovation of the historic Pythian Building and the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative's Palmyra apartments both used community land trusts, which ensure community stewardship of land and can be used for commercial, retail, or housing development. The 99-year lease held by community land trust nonprofits ensures permanent affordability. This is just one of the many fruitful outcomes of preservation and environmental equity working together toward a common goal—the possibilities are endless.

Jacqueline Johnson is the manager of programmatic diversity for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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  • Climate Change
  • Inclusion
  • Sustainability

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