Findings from the 2017 Heritage Preservation and Climate Change Survey

By Special Contributor posted 10-21-2020 10:56


By January Tavel

In 2017, the National Trust for Historic Preservation collaborated with ICF to launch the Heritage Preservation and Climate Change Survey. ICF is an organization with a long history of helping clients and partners overcome big challenges by creatively integrating the diverse expertise of our team in ways that bring new perspectives, engages stakeholders, and challenges the status quo. With guidance from the National Trust and support from the ICF Innovation Fund, we leveraged the combined expertise of specialists in historic preservation, climate adaptation, resilience, and survey research services to develop this study.

As we gather for conversations on resilience and climate change at PastForward Online 2020 the intent, findings, and recommendations of the 2017 study offer a foundation for considering how the preservation community can take meaningful action to address these challenges. 

The study had three fundamental goals: 

  • To determine awareness and understanding of climate change as a threat to heritage among preservation practitioners in the government, nonprofit, and private sectors.
  • To determine what, if any, efforts are being undertaken to incorporate heritage into climate change adaptation strategies, and to consider preservation as a means of mitigating climate threats.
  • To determine perceived needs and priorities regarding climate change as a threat to managing, and preserving culturally and historically significant resources in the United States. 

We hoped the study would not only directly address these questions, but also inform the development of strategy, policy, and programming relevant to both climate resilience and preservation. 


Information was gathered via questionnaire and follow-up interviews. The nationwide web-based survey included 47 questions. These included quantitative questions to allow for statistical analysis, as well as open-ended questions to provide opportunity for qualitative responses. Participation was solicited through direct invitation emails and Preservation Leadership Forum's weekly newsletter. 

Data was collected between June 13-July 3, 2017, with voluntary participation where questionnaire respondents could choose to skip questions. To facilitate submission of frank responses, the questionnaire provided participants an opportunity to answer anonymously. We received 389 survey responses. 

Questionnaire findings and follow-up interview feedback were summarized in a Findings and Recommendation Report and presented at the 2017 PastForward conference, among other venues. 

Highlights included:

Challenges and Tools

  • “Insufficient funding” was the challenge identified most frequently as a barrier to incorporating climate change considerations into preservation practice. Only 6% of respondents indicated that funding was not a barrier. Other frequently cited challenges included limited support from supervisors/leaders and perceived lack of urgency.
  • “Inventory, Survey, or Documentation of heritage resources threatened by climate change” was the preservation planning activity indicated by the highest percentage of respondents (71%) to be a high priority for addressing the impacts of climate change on cultural heritage.
  • When asked to indicate the preferred education and outreach method for addressing climate change challenges, a website platform for information sharing was a high priority for 55% of respondents. Also highly ranked were “online publications” and “case study publications.” 

Preservation Practices

  • There was broad support to reevaluate preservation practices in the face of climate change. The majority of respondents either “agreed” (34%) or “somewhat agreed” (36%) with the statement “Current preservation treatment standards and guidelines may need to be more flexible when considering Adaptation Strategies to address climate change impacts.”
  • Likewise, 66% agreed that “Community Resettlement and Relocation” may be appropriate preservation strategies to address climate change impacts.

Public Policy

  • In terms of legislative advocacy to support climate change policies that address cultural heritage, respondents prioritized focusing nearly equally on state (35%) and local (33%) levels of government, with fewer prioritizing federal government (16%) or regional/multijurisdictional (15%) government.
  • Similarly, 40% of respondents indicated that state laws offered the greatest promise for addressing the relationship between climate change and cultural heritage, with 34% indicating local ordinances, and only 16% indicating federal legislation. 

Key Recommendations

  • Develop an interactive web-based platform for information sharing about strategies, solutions, and examples.
  • Initiate an outreach campaign to promote climate change mitigation and adaptation as issues of relevance to the preservation of heritage and historic buildings or places, and highlight the potential of preservation as a tool to help confront the challenges of climate change.
  • Develop programming addressing sea level rise and other climate change threats to coastal heritage, but also explore programming that addresses climate change impacts relevant to non-coastal communities (such as threats from wildfires, severe storms, riverine flooding, etc.)
  • Prioritize grassroots and legislative advocacy to promote preservation-sensitive climate change mitigation and adaptation policy at the local, state, and federal levels.
  • Consider opportunities to convene and educate key influencers in the preservation community to ensure that cultural heritage is incorporated into climate change policy and planning activities. The audience might include State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs), Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, and representatives from federal, state, and municipal agencies, as well as local advocacy organizations.
  • Recruit SHPOs to collaborate with colleagues in state agencies who are responsible for hazard mitigation planning, sustainability programs, emergency response, and infrastructure management.
  • Identify funding mechanisms and sources to support education and planning activities such as vulnerability assessments, climate action plans, and hazard mitigation plans for cultural heritage.
  • Provide leadership as the preservation community sets precedent for interpreting The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, including collaboration with the National Park Service to develop guidance and to identify state and local guidance examples that can serve as models across regions.
  • Prepare guidance for how communities may successfully respond to climate change impacts by implementing resettlement or relocation as a preservation strategy.
  • Collaborate with specialists in psychology, sociology, and public health to develop guidance for engaging with communities confronting difficult decisions.
  • Engage in future research, such as interpreting survey findings within the context of prior research on the topic of climate change and historic preservation, and engaging in longitudinal data collection via subsequent surveys to identify trends in responses over time. 

PastForward Online 2020 will include multiple sessions related to climate change and resilience, including a Town Hall discussion on preservation’s role in addressing climate change.  This will provide an opportunity to understand how the preservation community’s attitudes and efforts related to climate resilience have evolved since the 2017 study. Future surveys and other forms of documentation will be needed to continue tracking and updating changing perceptions, needs, and priorities, as well as setbacks and successes, regarding the progress of the preservation movement on this issue. Measuring our progress will help justify investment in mitigation and adaptation work and spur further action to achieve community resilience.

About the Contributors

January Tavel is an architectural historian with ICF. She coordinates an interdisciplinary working group of technical specialists who collaborate on the integration of cultural resource management and climate change adaptation planning. She served as primary author and project manager for the 2017 Heritage Preservation and Climate Change Survey Findings and Recommendations Report. Advisors for preparation of the study included representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Anthony Veerkamp (former), Jeana Wiser (former), James Lindberg, and Sarene Marshall; ICF Innovation Fund Committee; ICF Survey Team, Shelley Osborn, Julia Sumner, Adam Lee, Haley Rugh, Annie Pham, Liane Chen; ICF Climate Adaptation and Resilience Technical Advisors, Susan Asam, Anne Choate, and Robert Kay; and ICF Cultural Resource Management Technical Advisors, J. Tait Elder, and Susan Lassell.


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