Top Tips from SurveyLA, Los Angeles’ Citywide Historic Resources Survey

By Special Contributor posted 07-28-2017 10:26


By Janet Hansen and Sara Delgadillo Cruz

This year marks a milestone for historic preservation in Los Angeles with the completion of SurveyLA. The concept for the project began in 2000, when the Getty Conservation Institute initiated a multiyear feasibility study to review best practices and produce a framework for conducting the survey. The resulting blueprint provided the basis for a grant agreement between the city and the Getty Foundation, and by 2006 the new Office of Historic Resources was established within the Department of City Planning to manage the survey.

HistoricPlacesLA | Credit: City of Los Angeles, Department of City Planning

Now, more than 10 years later, the citywide survey has recorded more than 30,000 individual resources and historic districts that reflect Los Angeles’ rich architectural, social, ethnic, and cultural history. This massive effort covered 880,000 legal parcels and almost 500 square miles, making it the largest and most comprehensive survey ever completed in an American city.

Along the way SurveyLA not only developed and refined tools and methods that made a survey of this magnitude possible but also modernized long-established survey practices to take advantage of new technologies that allow data collection to serve multiple uses and users. The challenges, successes, and lessons learned from this unprecedented project could fill several volumes and cover topics ranging from funding and public participation to data management and sharing.

Over the last decade, many national and international agencies and organizations have followed SurveyLA, using it as a model for their own survey efforts. We have shared our stories and found that the goals and objectives of survey work are remarkably similar worldwide. With the field surveys for SurveyLA now complete, we are moving forward to long-term maintenance and management of the city’s publicly accessible historic resources inventory system, The inventory is designed to grow and be updated over time as properties age; more surveys are completed; new information is uncovered; and resources are designated, rehabilitated, or adaptively reused.

Vermont Knolls Historic District | Credit: SurveyLA

As we reflect on SurveyLA, we have developed “top tips” for historic resources surveys based on the questions we are asked most often by those planning or conducting the early stages of survey work. These tips assume that a survey project will be managed by a full-time project manager; will use digital, geographic information system–enabled survey methods to collect data; will be based in historic context; and will have as its ultimate goal the creation of a historic resources inventory for multiple purposes and uses.

  • Develop clear, upfront goals and objectives.
    What type of data will be collected, and how will data be used? Who are your intended users, and how will the information be presented to them in a meaningful way? How will you ensure that your survey meets local, state, and federal standards and practices? How will field surveys be sequenced and prioritized?

    SurveyLA included an “initiation phase” designed to address these and other questions and carefully put into place a project methodology before starting any fieldwork. The overall goal of SurveyLA was to provide a foundation for the city’s preservation program and provide data to inform sound planning policies and processes. This vision structured the sequencing of the surveys.

  • Research existing survey/data management software to avoid reinventing the wheel by developing software.
    Arches, a development project of the Getty Conservation Institute and World Monuments Fund, is an open-source data management platform purpose built for the heritage field. The software is free and can be customized to fit various survey needs. HistoricPlacesLA, which is now the most advanced historic resources management system in the United States, is a customization of Arches.

    Since this software was not available at the time SurveyLA began, it was not used to conduct field surveys. However, it is now readily accessible to agencies that are planning survey data collection and dissemination. The system allows, among other things, for the customization and integration of existing historic resources data, controlling vocabularies by using standardized terminologies.

  • Conduct pilot surveys to test all methods and tools before taking on any large-scale field surveys.
    Start small, and consider a few pilot areas with a mix of geographical areas, challenges, and property types. Assume that pilot areas may need to be resurveyed as methods are honed.

  • Use the same surveyors over the life of your survey.
    Whether you use in-house staff or contract consultants to conduct surveys, it is most efficient to use the same field surveyors over time. This is not only because there is a learning curve for data collection but also because surveyors will gain a comparative perspective, which is essential to property evaluations, on resources citywide or within a particular region. Consistency in survey teams will lead to higher-quality data. SurveyLA used contract consultants, with multiple firms often working together. All team leaders exceeded professional qualification standards in historic preservation and had a strong knowledge of Los Angeles’ history and resource types. Survey teams received both classroom and field training.

  • Develop a context-based strategy for data collection efforts in the field. Developing a citywide historic context statement (HCS) was an integral part of SurveyLA. The HCS used the Multiple Property Documentation approach developed by the National Park Service. Context content was “fielded” and preloaded into the survey database so that recording the context, themes, and associated property types was part of data collection, which streamlined the evaluation process. This required upfront time to develop contexts before field survey work started. Over the life of the project, survey work informed the context and the context informed survey work.

  • Develop public participation tools and outreach strategies early in the planning phase of the project.
    Outreach should target a wide range of people and involve a variety of stakeholders. Tools and strategies should keep the public informed throughout the life of the project, create community buy-in, recruit volunteers, and solicit information about important places that should be included in the survey. Among the tools developed for SurveyLA are a project website, translated brochures, video, and a guide to public participation in SurveyLA.
SurveyLA field surveyor training. | Credit: SurveyLA

  • Make prudent use of volunteers.
    Volunteers can greatly supplement a project’s budget, though managing a volunteer program is a time commitment and can be a challenge for project staff. Though not used for field survey work, volunteers were a huge part of SurveyLA. Over the years the program mobilized more than 200 scholars, writers, historians, student interns, preservation enthusiasts, and others to assist with tasks including photography, research, and historic context development as well as serving on the project’s speaker’s bureau.

  • Plan for short- and long-term data management.
    During the field surveys, data management will likely take more time and staff than anticipated. Raw data require processing and quality control to ensure consistency among various survey teams that are working concurrently. There should also be a long-term and ongoing commitment to re-assess, reconcile, and manage the historic resources inventory over time. In order for the dataset to remain relevant to all users, it must be kept current with revisions and attachments after the survey is over.

Janet Hansen and Sara Delgadillo Cruz work for the City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning, Office of Historic Resources.

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