Building on the PastForward Town Halls: Climate Change

By Jim Lindberg posted 02-19-2021 11:21


Last October, more than 500 preservationists participated in the PastForward Online 2020 Town Hall on climate change. This virtual gathering generated a range of opinions, ideas, and suggestions for how the preservation movement can more effectively engage in climate change advocacy and action.

What did we learn and how can we build on this important discussion?

The Town Hall on Climate Change began with a series of short video commentaries from practitioners around the country. A brief overview summarized the scope and severity of climate change impacts, from more frequent storms along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to severe flooding in the Midwest and unprecedented wildfires in the West. Examples highlighted historic communities that are adapting to climate change and how the reuse of older buildings can reduce carbon emissions.

Through live polling questions, Town Hall participants shared their opinions about climate change and the role of preservation. More than 95 percent of poll respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “preservation can play a meaningful role in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change.” Yet only 17 percent described their current preservation work as significantly connected to either climate change adaptation or mitigation.

With this disparity between intent and action in mind, Town Hall participants broke into small groups to discuss how preservation practice can best respond to the challenges of climate change. Based on notes from the small group facilitators, several common themes emerged from these discussions. Below is a summary of key ideas that could help preservationists across the country become more effective in responding to climate change.

Communication and Messaging

Almost all small groups pointed to the need for effective messaging about the connections between climate change and heritage. Participants noted the importance of storytelling to highlight the challenges faced by people in historic communities, particularly in underrepresented communities of color that are often most vulnerable to climate impacts. More robust communication about the threats to historic places could also help bring needed funding for adaptation. Several groups pointed to the need to expand on the familiar message of “the greenest building is the one that already exists.” More examples and case studies are needed to demonstrate the carbon savings that can be achieved through adaptive use as well as strategies to reduce operating emissions from older buildings.   

Partnership and Collaboration

Small group participants highlighted the importance of partnerships to bring preservation into larger conversations about climate change. This will require breaking out of silos to collaborate with planning departments, resiliency offices, tribal organizations, environmental groups, and others. To avoid being left out of climate policy discussions, preservationists need to claim their seat at the table and be ready to offer ideas and solutions. 

Image of flooding along the harbor in Annapolis, Maryland
Rising sea levels and more frequent flooding are forcing many communities to develop adaptation plans for historic districts and structures. Weaving together flood risk data, local history, and practical guidance, the city of Annapolis worked with consultants and partners to develop a GIS-based story map to help residents and property owners better understand threats from rising waters. | Credit: City of Annapolis.

Planning and Policy

Many of the small groups discussed opportunities for policy change that could help strengthen preservation’s role in addressing climate change. For example, consideration of historic sites and districts should be more fully integrated into community, regional, and statewide resilience planning. Participants noted that preservation and reuse are not supported by many local building and zoning codes. Several specific ideas for policy innovation emerged from the small group discussions, such as adding an evaluation of carbon impacts when planning and zoning decisions are made regarding demolition, new construction, and reuse. Deconstruction ordinances would help conserve embodied carbon in building materials and demolition ordinances could be more directly linked to carbon reduction targets.

Standards and Guidelines

An often-discussed topic in the small groups was whether the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards are working as well as they should be at a time when reducing carbon emissions and adapting to climate change are such high priorities. Differing views were offered as to whether the Standards need tweaking and clearer guidance or if a more significant overhaul is required. Participants also pointed to the need for more specific local design guidance for adaptation treatments as well as energy retrofitting. For example, should solar panels be encouraged through preservation guidelines, rather than simply allowed?

Funding and Incentives

Responding to climate change is enormously expensive. To better prepare for future impacts, several small groups pointed to the need for funding to document vulnerable resources, including archeological sites, to guide planning, adaptation, and mitigation projects. Participants also pointed to the opportunity for additional funding, perhaps as part of new federal green energy investments, that could support building reuse and energy retrofitting. Noting that federal funding for the Historic Preservation Fund comes from the leasing of offshore oil and gas drilling rights, one participant asked whether leasing for renewable energy projects could provide additional revenue for preservation activities.

Houston Rendering
 Building reuse avoids the carbon emissions that occur during new construction. In downtown Houston, 525,000 square feet of vacant space in the former Barbara Jordan Post Office (1960) is being repurposed to create a new retail, office, and cultural center, including an indoor food hall and rooftop park and farm. The National Trust Community Investment Corporation is providing historic tax credit financing for the project, which is being designed by OMA, the architecture firm founded by Rem Koolhaas. | Credit: Luxigon.

Case studies and Best Practices

Many of the small groups called out the need for more examples of what is working out in the field – from historic site adaptation plans and risk management strategies to carbon saving adaptive use projects. Case studies, best practices, and success stories could help translate abstract concerns into concrete action. An accessible compendium of these examples and resources could be built through collaboration among preservation groups and partnerships with public agencies.

New Climate Change “Working Group”

The ideas and suggestions generated through the Town Hall on Climate Change are informing the work of a new “Preservation Priorities Task Force.” The PPTF is a two-year collaboration between the National Trust and National Preservation Partners Network (NPPN) to address four key issues facing the preservation movement:

  •  Diversity, inclusion, and racial justice
  • Affordable housing and density
  • Climate change and resilience
  • Historic preservation trades training and workforce development

 “Working Groups” consisting of NPPN members, National Trust staff, and National Trust Advisors have formed around each of these four issue areas. Each of the Working Groups is currently researching some of the preservation challenges and opportunities related to their respective topic. The overall goal of the PPTF is to produce new resources (message points, policy examples, case studies, etc.) that can be used by preservationists across the country.

 For more information about the Climate Change Working Group and how you can share your ideas and suggestions, please contact one of the Climate Change Working Group co-chairs, Jim Lindberg (jlindberg[at] and Lindsey Wallace (lwallace[at]

 Jim Lindberg is Senior Policy Director at the National Trust. Special thanks to Lisa Craig of the Craig Group, who co-facilitated the Past Forward Town Hall on Climate Change and helped review and summarize the results.