The devastation caused by this spring’s historic flooding is just the latest reminder of how vulnerable our communities are to extreme weather. As flooding, coastal storms, wildfires, and other climate-related disasters become more frequent and severe, none of the historic places we care about will be immune to climate impacts. Climate change is a threat multiplier that requires preservationists to work hard to protect our heritage and cultural traditions.
The U.S. response to climate change has been uneven at best. In the absence of federal leadership, many cities and some states are taking climate action into their own hands. However, even jurisdictions that have developed robust climate action plans that address both climate adaptation and mitigation efforts have, by and large, failed to consider, much less integrate, historic properties into planning.
In this regard, Maryland stands out as a national leader. The Maryland Commission on Climate Change implements the state's climate action plan through four working groups, and the state historic preservation office (SHPO)—the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT)—serves on the Adaptation and Response Working Group to ensure that historic and cultural properties are part of all planning efforts.
In 2014 MHT launched a statewide program to help local communities address the natural hazard risks to historic properties. The program is called Weather It Together—inspired by the Annapolis’ work planning for sea level rise in its historic district. Through it, MHT provides training and assistance in hazard mitigation planning, disaster response and recovery, and climate planning and adaptation.
This year, MHT added a new resource for local communities: the “Flood Mitigation Guide: Maryland's Historic Buildings,” which MHT staff produced in partnership with Dominique Hawkins of Preservation Design Partnership, LLC and with support from the National Park Service’s Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Fund. The guide, which can be browsed by chapter on the Weather It Together homepage, is intended to help local governments and preservation advocates plan for flooding from tides, coastal surges, flash floods, and sea level rise and adapt threatened historic buildings and districts .
Importantly, the guide proposes adding climate adaptation as a new stage of the emergency management cycle, which consists of planning and preparedness, response and recovery, mitigation, and now adaptation. This approach can help practitioners incorporate climate planning into established planning frameworks. MHT invites other SHPOs and nonprofits involved in preservation to use and share the resource.
Building on guidance and grant funding through the Weather It Together program, Baltimore City recently released mitigation design guidelines for the Fells Point Historic District—one of the city’s earliest settlements, which is located in a flood-prone area. The nonregulatory guidelines, which were also produced by Preservation Design Partnership, are intended to teach owners to make their properties more resilient. While the guidelines focus on Fells Point, they will be helpful for property owners throughout the city and could potentially help communities with similar housing stock along the East Coast.
The interplay between cultural heritage and climate change is complex, and many issues have yet to be fully considered, much less resolved. MHT views its guide as a work in progress and welcomes feedback as communities test the strategies therein. Preservationists in states that have not yet considered cultural resources in their climate action planning—or ones that haven’t yet acknowledged the urgent need for climate action—should look to Maryland, California, and other jurisdictions that have taken the lead. Addressing climate change must become a permanent component of preservation practice, and the sooner we rise to the challenge, the better prepared we will be for worse impacts yet to come.
Anthony Veerkamp is the director of policy development for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Research & Policy Lab.