By Victoria Herrmann
This is Part 1 of a series covering the Keeping History Above Water conference which took place April 10–13 in Newport, Rhode Island. [Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]
| Credit: Caroline Goddard/Newport Restoration Foundation
All too often climate change is painted as a faraway and abstract
threat. It is a narrative of distant strangers and disappearing islands
with no noticeable connection to the lives or livelihoods of many
Americans or to the places they call home. While an interesting news
story, climate change is just that—a story to be read over breakfast or
on the train before continuing on with one’s daily routine.
The title of the second day of Keeping History Above Water (the first full day of conference sessions)—Postcards From the Edge—may
sound like it would perpetuate that impression of climate change, but
the presentations, panels, and keynotes did quite the opposite.
Rather than positioning climate change and its effects on cultural heritage at the edge of geography, thought, and policy, Postcards moved
the conversation to the center of historic preservation. With
presentations from practitioners in Texas, Florida, Maryland, Iran, and
the Netherlands, Postcards offered one key take-home message: climate
change affects us all, and we all have a part to play in preserving
buildings, places, and cultures in the Anthropocene.
As noted by Deputy Director of Climate and Energy of the Union for
Concerned Scientists Adam Markham, 65 percent of people living today
have never experienced a year of global temperatures below average for
the last century. What they have experienced is Hurricane Katrina
displacing 400,000 people, Hurricane Sandy costing $65 billion in
damage, and a half-dozen Alaska Native villages voting to relocate as
erosion destroys their homes. Whether in New Orleans, New York, or
Newtok, the effects of climate change are a challenge we must all face.
And we are adapting. In Galveston, Texas,
Matthew Pelz is learning from history and using site-specific designs
to ameliorate wind effects, saltwater intrusion, and sea level rise in
historic buildings. Adrienne Burke is identifying heritage assets
through community mapping exercises on the barrier island of Fernandina Beach, Florida. And the chief of historic preservation for Annapolis, Maryland, Lisa Craig, is building a local network of advocates to inform and engage the public on how Annapolis is adapting to higher tides.
These efforts go beyond illustrating how climate change affects us all
to provide a set of best practices that can be shared and tailored to
fit other communities in need.
Each of the projects presented at Postcards offered a new
way of tackling the challenges of climate change in historic
preservation by engaging a diverse set of stakeholders from various
disciplines to better identify, plan for, and execute cultural heritage
preservation. David Waggonner of Waggonner & Ball Architects
in New Orleans proposed combining blue-green urban design with
protecting cultural assets when master planning projects in coastal
areas. From Kiribati to the United Kingdom, Sara Penrhyn Jones is
connecting people around climate change and heritage through her film, Troubled Waters. And across the United States, Jeana Wiser of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab
is working with scientists, community leaders, the Army Corps of
Engineers, and lawyers to preserve the fabric of neighborhoods and older
buildings in a changing climate. These novel approaches combine
methodologies from different fields because we all have a part to play
in cultural preservation.
All six of these case studies, as well as the many others brought up
at Keeping History Above Water, are moving the conversation around
cultural heritage practice and policy toward reckoning with the threats
of climate change. But as the seas continue to rise and storm surges
increase on coastlines across the world, we must move beyond ad hoc
local action. In all three concluding discussions of Postcards,
panelists noted the need for federally supported, locally implemented
climate adaptation and preservation efforts. Panels discussed the need
not only for financial and technical assistance in preservation but also
for guidance on identifying what should be protected, salvaged, moved,
or abandoned. That is the larger issue at hand: in spite of climate
change affecting us all, there is still no guiding policy at the federal
or international levels to help community leaders and preservation
specialists make difficult decisions for coastal heritage and historic
|View from the audience at Keeping History Above Water. | Credit: Caroline Goddard/Newport Restoration Foundation
As American communities face rising seas and shoreline erosion, they
will need new tools to preserve their built environments and cultures as
well as to make the difficult policy decisions regarding what to leave
behind. Postcards presented some of those new tools, like the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation’s program to visualize
sea level rise and Annapolis’ 3D modeling of climate impacts. And these
are just the beginning of multidisciplinary opportunities in
The most vulnerable populated geographies of the world need a
different kind of guidance and policy, one that allows practitioners of
historic preservation and community leaders to plan for a future when
thousands of coastal communities will be permanently inundated.
Solutions that address several problems concurrently, like the case
studies shared from Galveston, Texas, and Rotterdam, Netherlands, will
increasingly become an efficient and cost-effective norm for fostering
the preservation of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
Problems of preservation can no longer be analyzed or solved in
isolation. They must be evaluated holistically alongside issues from
varied sectors of government, management, and academic disciplines. Sara
Penrhyn Jones’ multimedia work on understanding and documenting
heritage loss, Tom Dawson’s community engagement,
and National Parks Service Coordinator Marcy Rockman’s collaboration
with the U.S. Department of State all testify to the need for
multidisciplinary teams working together to ensure that policies and
adaptation actions augment one another. Policymakers, historic
preservationists, architects, climate scientists, knowledge holders,
urban planners, community members, and financiers must work together to
invest in the capital and ingenuity required to meet community and
national preservation needs resulting from climate change.
But beyond specific tools and policy changes, the preservation
challenges of tomorrow will require a new way of thinking about cultural
heritage and historic buildings located on rapidly eroding coastlines.
The relationship between the built environment and the policies that
govern its preservation must be rethought across the United States to
better prepare for rising oceans.
The Pocantico Call to Action on Climate Impacts and Cultural Heritage
was created in February 2015 to consider strategies and develop an
action agenda for preserving and continuing cultural heritage in a
changing climate. Nearly a year later, Keeping History Above Water moved
that conversation forward by convening 200 people to network and share
solutions being implemented today. To truly address historic
preservation and climate change, we must take the next step toward
national and international policies that support these local efforts. We
must ensure that we are saving the places that matter to our families,
communities, and nations.
Victoria Herrmann is the U.S. director of the Arctic Institute.#SeaLevelRise #Annapolis #PreservationGreenLab #ClimateChange #Sustainability