Welcoming a New Generation of Preservationists

By Special Contributor posted 10-05-2017 16:19

By Andy Grabel and Diana Tisue

From attending dynamic events at historic house museums to staying at character-rich hotels to dining at unique restaurants, millennials seek diverse, authentic experiences in old and historic places. And whether leading the fight to save threatened old buildings or simply helping to celebrate them on social media, young people are finding new, engaging ways to strengthen communities through historic preservation. 

The Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists pauses for a photo during the Rust Belt Takeover in Rochester in July 2017. | Credit: The Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists

Celebrating Old Places in New Ways

Young preservationists have the drive to show up and stand up for historic places. In cities like Rochester, New York; Houston; and Los Angeles, they have formed both highly structured and loosely organized groups to engage with historic places and help save threatened buildings. They engage preservation as a tool to advance sustainability and social justice—and ultimately to build up their communities.

And they have found their own ways of celebrating historic places. From preservation-themed bike rides in Cincinnati to “funerals” for demolished buildings in Buffalo, young preservationist groups step beyond civic board meetings and op-eds in their advocacy efforts, often by organizing events that attract others who share their interest in the built environment. Through these advocacy efforts, as well as by hosting meetings at local watering holes, younger preservationists are diversifying the movement by welcoming a wave of people without preservation degrees.

That millennials value historic preservation and older buildings is not a new revelation. But new data are shedding light on how this generation views preservation and offering opportunities to strengthen that connection. This past spring, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in partnership with American Express, commissioned a survey on the subject.

According to Millennials and Historic Preservation: A Deep Dive Into Attitudes and Values, 97 percent of the nation’s largest and most diverse generation appreciate the value of historic preservation. The survey finds that millennials tend to value a mix of old and new buildings where they live, dine, shop, and travel. It also finds that:

  • More than three-quarters (80 percent) of millennials would rather spend money at businesses that support efforts to preserve and protect buildings, architecture, and neighborhoods than at those that don’t.
  • When sightseeing, 71 percent of millennials enjoy exploring the history of an area.
  • Two-thirds (67 percent) are interested in lodging at historic hotels. 

Cincinnati Preservation Collective taking a break from their Annual Preservation Ride in front of Union Terminal in May 2014. | Credit: Cincinnati Preservation Collective

Enhancing and Accelerating Preservation Advocacy

While millennials’ attitudes toward preservation are overwhelmingly positive, the data reveal an opportunity to improve the impact and frequency of their advocacy for historic places. Millennials are virtually unanimous in their appreciation of historic preservation, but only 36 percent have taken action in support of the cause. In light of this information, the National Trust is working with young people and local and statewide preservation organizations across the country to improve millennial engagement.

For example, this summer the National Trust joined the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists in St. Louis and Rochester, New York, for what the group calls “Rust Belt Takeovers.” These three-day events offer an opportunity to explore cities through a preservation lens. The young people who show up—about 70, on average—may not always consider themselves preservationists, but they are often drawn to urban exploring, admiring the built environment, or meeting new people.

These takeovers are one simple way to bring more young Americans into the movement to save and restore historic places. Whether they visit a local bar or restaurant during their visit, learn about changing neighborhoods on a walking tour, or pose with the group and their “This Place Matters” flag, each participant is engaging with historic places just by showing up, meeting like-minded people, and learning about the community. Offering such opportunities will help us to get more millennials actively involved in preserving the places that matter to them.

As the preservation field changes and grows, new preservationists are expanding the conversations about saving places. The movement to preserve old buildings and cultural resources should welcome and encourage the input of young people, who as the survey shows, represent a great deal of untapped potential for preservation efforts. Their voices can and will continue to help guide the future of the movement. 

Andy Grabel is associate director of public affairs and Diana Tisue is project manager for community outreach at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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