In 2014, I challenged students with a mock exercise: How would you develop a cost-benefit analysis of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)? Using the Clean Air Act as an example, I demonstrated how a periodic cost-benefit analysis, mandated by law, examines the direct and indirect effects of the legislation. Metrics range from the purely economic to monetized social and environmental indicators, like asthma prevention and better view shed visibility. What would be the metrics—social, cultural, economic, and/or environmental—for preserving heritage?
Students bristled at the assignment, arguing that preservation cannot be reduced to a financial calculus. I explained how economics is a predominant rationale for municipal preservation ordinances across the country and a critical tool for policy evaluation. I pointed them to economic studies on the impacts of preservation and heritage tourism, on property values in historic districts, and on rehabilitating versus building anew. We went through the variety of metrics used to inform these economic studies. Then I asked them to focus on the social and environmental indicators we might use to measure the costs and benefits of the NHPA.
They proffered benefits that aligned with typical preservation narratives: social cohesion, civic pride, cultural diversity, public education and storytelling, energy conservation, and more. I told them to come back the following week with a bibliography of studies that investigated these metrics.
As expected, their bibliographies were slim. Most of the research they identified was advocacy-driven, produced by organizations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation to demonstrate the positive effects of preservation, not its costs and benefits. I explained that our exercise could not assume that benefits always outweighed costs, that preservation is always the best option, or that preservation equally serves all publics.
Preservation is More than a Movement
There is a long history of preservation activism, and advocating for heritage places and their communities will always be a pillar of the field. But the decades-long development of institutions, regulatory processes, tax incentives, legal cases, and other policy infrastructure validates preservation as more than just a social movement; it is an established form of public policy. This incurs accountability to the body politic, which means examining both the positive and negative facets of policy as they relate to people. Such policy interrogation can build a body of evidence and provide insight to improve the preservation enterprise, by elucidating its unjust processes and disparate impacts as well as its empowering tools and affirmative outcomes.
The student exercise laid bare a number of challenges to interrogating preservation policy: the over-reliance on preservation’s repeated co-benefit narratives; the limited investment in evidence-informed research—both quantitative and qualitative; the lack of systematic data collection; the dearth of researchers with preservation and social science skills; the absence of institutional and government mandates to evaluate policy; and the lack of funders to support such evaluation beyond the public sector.
Preservation-focused institutions of governance and education have neither adequately prioritized this kind of policy work nor forged robust capacities to undertake it. And a fundamental hurdle is extending the frame of reference to people in a field so focused on places. While the discourse of values-driven heritage decision-making has engendered more community participation in preservation and recognized diverse publics, such practices are generally site-oriented. Advancing systemic analysis of just processes and just outcomes means moving beyond site-by-site approaches, and examining preservation as longstanding public policy that functions across geographic scales, complex demographics, and time.
Forging Policy Dialogue
Advancing policy thinking and reform requires critical collaborative opportunities and spaces for threaded dialogue in order to begin the work of policy interrogation and to reframe the terms of inquiry. The Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, the Earth Institute–Center for Sustainable Urban Development, and the American Assembly collaborated to establish the Urban Heritage, Sustainability, and Social Inclusion initiative, with funding from the New York Community Trust, to enable that dialogue and disseminate it through the edited book series, Issues in Preservation Policy. Each book involves developing extensive literature reviews; identifying researchers, administrators, and practitioners working in integrative ways around the policy topic; engaging them in an intensive, facilitated symposium; and then producing a hybrid volume of scholarly research, cases, interviews, and commentaries.
Preservation and the New Data Landscape (2019) explores how the preservation enterprise is engaging, shaping, learning from, and capitalizing on new urban data resources and analytics to forge evidence-informed research, co-produce knowledge with communities, and inform policy agendas. The existing preservation policy infrastructure predates the digital age. The increased accessibility of geospatial technology, open data laws, urban dashboards, the public engagement and multimedia options afforded by online platforms, and the burgeoning arena of civic tech engender a new raft of quantitative and qualitative data, tools, and methods for understanding, informing, and evaluating decisions about heritage geographies and historic built environments, and the diverse publics who inhabit and ascribe value to them.
Preservation and Social Inclusion (2020) centers on questions of justice and exclusion by examining how multiple publics are—or are not—represented in heritage decision-making, geographies, and policy structures. Legacies of exclusion due to race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, and more are embedded in the built environment, and these disparities can often be reinforced by preservation policies and standards. A critical theme is the need to reckon with preservation’s own past and practices to de-center dominant narratives and more justly represent and engage excluded publics. An outgrowth of this volume is Building a Foundation for Action: Anti-Racist Historic Preservation Resources, a collaborative effort to assemble resources that explore Whiteness, racism, and other forms of exclusion in the preservation enterprise, and advance more inclusive learning and decision-making in the field.
Questions of justice extend into the third volume, Preservation, Sustainability, and Equity (December 2021), which takes a more future-oriented approach by examining the agency of the field in confronting the inextricably linked crises of social inequality and climate change. As sea levels rise and extreme weather events intensify, decisions about what places to protect, retrofit, adapt, relocate, deconstruct, or lose may further privilege or dis-privilege certain publics, thus exacerbating longstanding inequities within built environments and their communities.
At its core, historic preservation is about instrumentalizing heritage to sustain communities and promote social resilience, but much of the preservation-climate discourse centers on the threats to heritage places, and echoes the narrative of historic buildings being inherently green with limited evidence. This compendium challenges the field to be more accountable and intentional in promoting equitable resilience and decarbonization, by using justice and sustainability as critical guideposts for policy evolution.
Investing in Policy Reform
These volumes contribute to a growing debate around preservation policy and seek to build momentum for critical reform. Many heritage places and projects are confronting racism and other forms of exclusion in important and productive ways. Similarly, many heritage places and projects are responding and innovating in the face of climate change. Such site-by-site approaches are critical, but they do not constitute policy reform at the level of laws, standards, regulatory processes, incentives, and institutions.
Challenging systemic racism and other forms of exclusion in preservation involves examining how the values and practices of Whiteness are embedded and repeated within institutions and in the levers of governance. Similarly, tackling the global climate crisis means committing to and investing in mitigation and adaption in ways that acknowledge the profound—and profoundly unjust—people-place disruptions that will occur, and accept the need to radically adapt and decarbonize the built environment—historic and otherwise.
The preservation enterprise cannot responsibly nor effectively confront injustice and climate by protecting the policy status quo. As preservationists, we cannot continue to invest in research that simply seeks to reinforce our co-benefit narratives and convince others of preservation’s value. Critical self-reflection and analyses of the decades-long legacy of preservation policy, positive and negative, are needed to prepare and pivot the field in light of evolving knowledge and current challenges.
Back in 2014, I placed heavy expectations on my students with the hypothetical experiment of a cost-benefit analysis of the NHPA. They were unprepared to tackle the exercise, in part, because the preservation field itself was ill equipped. Seven years later, might I revisit this exercise? Are there substantially more policy studies, evaluations, and tools to support students in this type of critical analysis? And if not, what does this mean for the next generation of preservationists?
Erica Avrami, PhD, is the James Marston Fitch Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation and a Research Affiliate at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development—Earth Institute at Columbia University. She interrogates preservation in relation to social justice and the climate crisis, and seeks to transition heritage tools and policies toward equity and resilience.