A New Historic Preservation for the New Year

By Susan West Montgomery posted 01-02-2018 15:54

I once heard a developer observe, of preservationists, "For people so concerned about the past, you spend an awful lot of time talking about the future." I knew he was on to something. I used to think historic preservation was principally about protecting the past, but have come to learn that it is really about securing our future. So, as we begin the new year and go about the business of saving places, I’d like to suggest three ways in which we might secure the future.

TrustLive Tech at PastForward 2017 | Credit: David Keith Photography

First, look at your cell phone. Imagine all that it allows you to do, from the mundane to the profound. Now imagine what you might like it to do. If you can imagine it, chances are someone is working to make it a reality—in fact, chances are the application you imagine will be available within a few short years. In 2018 take time to familiarize yourself with technologies like geographic information systems (GIS), laser scanning, virtual reality, augmented reality, and more. You can do this by conducting research of your own, by being part of Forum Connect conversations about technology, and by following this blog. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is dedicating a forthcoming Forum Journal to this topic, and we expect to have many sessions and demonstrations devoted to tech at PastForward 2018 in San Francisco. Technological innovations are already revolutionizing our work. Let’s make sure we find even more applications that can help us document, save, and steward historic places and keep them vital in the future.

Second, take a walk. Visit a rural or urban district, a place that is historic or new, commercial or residential. As you walk around, take note of how you feel, physically and emotionally. Is the trek exhausting or pleasurable? Do you find yourself drawn to specific details? Are you happily reminded of people or events? Do you feel secure, invigorated, at ease? Humans are intrinsically affected by our surroundings, for good or bad. Fresh air, greenery, and beauty make us happy. Pollution, lack of light, and noise make us edgy. Understanding exactly how buildings and places affect our health—physical and emotional—can inform historic preservation practice in profound ways. It can serve as an argument for saving places as well as inform how we might rehabilitate those places to maximize human flourishing. The National Trust is working on a research prospectus around health and historic preservation that we hope will inspire our allies in behavioral psychology, neuroscience, public health, and other fields to consider the potential contributions of older and historic place to human well-being. You can learn more about the topic here and in an upcoming issue of the Forum Journal. More and more, health impact analyses are becoming part of planning and development projects of all kinds. Layering the value of historic places into these analyses could be transformative for our work and contribute significantly to the quality our communities.

Finally, dig a little deeper into the history of the places you hold dear. Ask meaningful questions about the people who lived there, the events that took place there. I recently heard Ana Edwards, chair of the Defenders' Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, speak about Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a city rich in history, historical figures, and influence, but the contributions, achievements, and struggles of its African American citizens are often omitted from its official history—and the same is true of the city’s other underrepresented communities. How can we really know or understand the histories of our communities if we leave out entire segments of their populations? Here again, preservation has a unique and profound role to play in reclaiming and lifting up these histories to better understand current events and to ensure a more just and equitable future. The National Trust’s own historic sites have been pioneers in creating fuller interpretations of the histories they steward. Read the recent difficult histories issue of the Forum Journal as well as our 2017 blog series about social justice and women’s history.

These are just three ways of thinking about the role of historic places moving forward—many more can be found in "Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future." This vision imagines a broader, more diverse and inclusive, and more effective historic preservation movement. And if we can imagine it, we can make it.

Susan West Montgomery is the vice president for preservation resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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