Heritage and Sustainability: The Role of Equitable Development in Preservation

By Special Contributor posted 06-19-2017 16:46


By Carlton Eley 

Pollution can affect public health, weaken local economies, and hinder preservation within communities with environmental justice concerns. When communities are affected by wide-ranging problems, comprehensive and thoughtful solutions are needed. 

Thirty years ago, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development published the Brundtland Report. This study introduced a definition for sustainable development that experts continue to cite: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Although sustainability is often associated with energy efficiency and environmental stewardship, preservation is a sustainable practice. For example, the mission of the National Park Service is to protect America’s treasures for current and future generations.

In the context of sustainability and communities, some scholars have emphasized the importance of “saving history from sprawl.” Examples include the rural landscape surrounding Monticello or the historic Antietam Battlefield. As a result, directing growth to existing communities is an accepted practice for protecting the integrity of nationally significant historic assets.                                      


The African Burial Ground National Monument is stationed in the changing landscape of downtown Manhattan. A 0.34-acre site was designated for the monument. | Credit: Carlton Eley

Unfortunately, this has not been a perfect strategy. To be frank, it is equally important to “save history from urbanism.” In 1991 construction in Lower Manhattan temporarily came to a halt when a burial ground for enslaved Africans and their descendants was unearthed. Although the discovery resulted in the African Burial Ground National Monument, much of the 6.6-acre burial ground was disturbed and lost to history as it was covered by concrete, steel, and asphalt when construction resumed.

This is a teachable moment on many levels. It is also a stark reminder of a troubling trend wherein cultural assets become collateral damage as communities are redeveloped.

It is disingenuous to ignore the clear impacts from place-based interventions while marketing such approaches as sustainable. According to the International City/County Management Association, planning at its best takes into account the social implications of land use and economic development decisions. The loss or compromise of cultural assets of underserved populations is one social implication of community revitalization efforts that requires careful consideration. 

Equitable Development and Preservation

Professions that target the built environment, including preservation, are seeing renewed interest, and many practitioners are asking serious questions about long-standing challenges. Where are the blind spots in addressing social equity, and how can they be corrected?

One solution gaining traction is equitable development, “an approach for meeting the needs of underserved communities through policies and programs that reduce disparities while fostering places that are healthy and vibrant.” And one of the principles associated with equitable development is heritage preservation.


Residents in Gary, Indiana, ask questions about equitable development and preservation during a two-day technical assistance workshop for the Broadway corridor in 2007. | Credit: Carlton Eley

Heritage preservation neatly aligns with the social pillar of sustainability. It acknowledges the value of cultural assets, cherished institutions, and intangibles as contributors to the “place-making dividend” of a community. These elements are just as important as historic buildings, monuments, or sites for creating distinctive and attractive places that capture the affections of residents and visitors.

When treasured cultural assets are lost, they cannot be replaced. According to a position paper prepared for the 2005 U.S. Cultural and Heritage Tourism Summit:

“…[T]ravel industry research confirms that cultural and heritage tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry. For some travelers, cultural and heritage experiences are ‘value added,’ enhancing their enjoyment of a place and increasing the likelihood that they will return. For a growing number of visitors, however, who are tired of the homogenization of places around the world, authentic experiences are an important factor and motivator for their travel decisions and expectations.” 

Heritage preservation protects the social, cultural, and artistic evidence of the human experience. Protecting this evidence is important because the values of future generations, including cultural sensitivity, will be partially informed by acts of stewardship that occur now. 

Reach New Audiences by Making Course Adjustments to Sustainability

Having deliberate conversations about equitable development is constructive. It does not shift attention from improving communities, but rather results in better outcomes, especially for underserved populations and vulnerable groups.

Attendance at the Equity Summit has increased five-fold since 2002, according to data from PolicyLink. | Credit: Carlton Eley

Public interest in sustainability is expanding. For example, when PolicyLink convened its first Equity Summit in Los Angeles in 2002, 650 people attended. In 2015 PolicyLink returned to Los Angeles for its fifth Equity Summit. Attendance exceeded 3,000. At the same time, public expectations for sustainability are maturing. Although the handling of issues that fall along the social pillar of sustainability has left a lot to be desired, there is increasing interest in “next generation” solutions that are just, equitable, smart, and green.

These shifts are evident, for example, in the design professions. When the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) unveiled the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system in 2000, the system was criticized for having virtually no metrics for social equity. By 2005 a group of architects and designers, including minority architects, had created a certification and evaluation system called Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED). The USGBC added new social equity credits to the LEED rating system in 2014, after having worked with several partners including the SEED Network and the National Organization of Minority Architects.


“Social Equity by Design” was the theme of the 2015 National Organization of Minority Architects Conference in New Orleans. | Credit: Carlton Eley

Further, the importance of preservation as a place-based strategy and as an economic driver is not lost on environmental justice proponents. In 1996 the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council submitted a report entitled “Environmental Justice, Urban Revitalization, and Brownfields: The Search for Authentic Signs of Hope” to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report included recommendations concerning preservation and the protection of cultural resources. Specifically, it encouraged “strategies and efforts which serve to support, enhance and protect a community’s culture and history.” Equally important, the report is an official record that captured the concerns of low-income and minority populations about the built environment.

Equitable Development in Action

Encouraging equitable development through preservation is not aspirational—there are plenty of tangible examples that demonstrate the application of this approach. Accessible and inspiring solutions are not difficult to find. 


The Colman School was vacant for 18 years before it was purchased by the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle in 2003. The repurposed structure includes a museum on the ground floor and residential units on the upper floors. | Credit: Carlton Eley

In the Southwest, Ohkay Owingeh is the first Pueblo tribe to develop a comprehensive preservation plan that guides housing improvements according to cultural values. In the Pacific Northwest, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle purchased the vacant, historic Colman School property and converted it to provide 36 units of affordable rental housing while repurposing the ground floor to function as the Northwest African American Museum. In the Midwest, Kansas City officials created the 18th and Vine Jazz District in order to balance the goals of economic and cultural development. In the Southeast, a citizen-led commission worked with the Department of the Interior to prepare a cultural management plan for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

These projects demonstrate that it is possible to rise above the false choice between development and preservation. The sustainable management of cultural assets improves social cohesion, supports the economy, and celebrates the unique treasures that distinguish communities. Through equitable development, practitioners can improve public trust by encouraging preservation solutions that are responsive to the needs of impacted populations. 

Carlton Eley is an urban planner, sociologist, and civil servant for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He regularly organizes educational content on the topic of equitable development for audiences around the country through lectures, workshops, panels, and webinars.

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