Show Me the Studies! Environmental Design Research and Historic Preservation

By Tom Mayes posted 07-21-2017 09:44


What scientific evidence supports historic preservation? We study the economics of historic preservation and know that it supports a vibrant and sustainable economy. We research the environmental and energy impacts of historic preservation and know that the greenest building is the one that is already built. We research what people like and know that they prefer old places. But what about the so-called “softer” benefits of historic preservation? What studies support those notions of belonging, continuity, memory, and identity that we all feel?

Memorial Union Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin. How do everyday people perceive and value historic places? | Credit: Tom Mayes

Although there is abundant anecdotal evidence indicating that older and historic places provide a sense of belonging and identity that is beneficial for people’s emotional and mental health, the health benefits of retaining and reusing such places have not been studied extensively. In four decades of research about the impacts of place attachment and place identity, very little has focused specifically on the factor of age of place or the distinction that age provides. Although I don’t doubt the deeply held attachments people feel for old places, I do think we will be more influential with policymakers if we have solid scientific studies to back up the perceived softer benefits of preservation. Or, as one of the other fellows at the American Academy in Rome said to me, “Show me the studies!” 

It helps to go to the source. At the invitation of Jeremy Wells, professor of historic preservation at the University of Maryland and incoming chair of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), David Brown, chief preservation officer at the National Trust, and I spoke at a plenary session of EDRA’s annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin, in June. EDRA’s purpose is to advance and disseminate research, teaching, and practice toward improving an understanding of the relationships among people, their built environments, and natural ecosystems. The theme of the conference, “Voices of Place: Empower, Engage, Energize,” sounds exactly like a preservation conference theme. And, in addition to a historic preservation track, the conference also featured tracks about cities and globalization; health and place; cultural aspects of design; and sustainable planning, design, and behavior—among others. Jeremy has long been an advocate for conducting more scientific research about people’s relationships with old places. He invited us to speak expressly for the purpose of spurring EDRA members to conduct more research that could help us shape preservation practice to better meet people’s needs. 

Period Garden Park in Madison, Wisconsin. People appreciate the layering of historic communities and the associated sense of discovery and mystery. | Credit: Tom Mayes

The timing of the EDRA conference couldn’t have been better. This spring the National Trust released Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future, which, as David Brown said, “signals a philosophical shift toward using preservation to serve people and help them flourish.” Preservation for People recommends that the preservation field “support and publicize research on the health, economic, community, and sustainability benefits of preservation,” including through partnerships with entities performing environmental health research to study the impact of older and historic places on human health. And in November, when we gather in Chicago for PastForward 2017, an entire track of sessions dedicated to health and historic preservation will include a panel on environmental psychology and historic preservation.

At the EDRA conference, David and I shared information about what preservationists say and believe about historic preservation, beginning with the ideas of continuity, memory, and identity from the “Why Do Old Places Matter?” essays and highlighting key themes from Preservation for People—especially the idea that historic preservation should be about helping people flourish. Jeremy discussed which aspects of historic preservation have been studied from a social science point of view and which haven’t. He focused on the following ideas: 

  • People prefer older buildings (with some caveats).
  • People prefer the more complex design of older architecture over the simple design of contemporary architecture.
  • People prefer historicized design in the blending of old and new.
  • People appreciate the layering of historic communities and the associated sense of discovery and mystery.
  • People can distinguish between real and “fake” historic architecture.
  • A sense of patina or decay is necessary for perceptions of authenticity. 

For more information about these, see Jeremy’s article in the spring 2015 issue of the Forum Journal or his website


Jeremy Wells, incoming chair, welcomes attendees to the Environmental Design Research Association conference (EDRA 48) at Momona Terrace, the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed convention center in Madison, Wisconsin. | Credit: Tom Mayes

Jeremy also raised a number of questions about historic preservation, hoping to spur additional research: 

  • How does the age (evident from decay or patina) of place affect people?
  • What makes a place “historic” to most stakeholders?
  • How do everyday people perceive and value historic places?
  • How does the historic environment affect people?
  • How do most stakeholders describe historic places and their importance? 

The audience was engaged. People who spoke to us afterward said that they hadn’t thought that preservation focused on people, only on buildings—and that they were pleased with this forward-looking direction. From my perspective, this ties directly to the concepts in Preservation for People. How do we find out more about what people value in our work? How do we shape our preservation tools to be more responsive to the values that help people? How do we hear what they value? 

We must be open to the possibility of reshaping preservation practice in response to what we hear. For example: 

  • If people prefer old places only when they’re well maintained, should our policies and practices place greater emphasis on maintenance—such as through maintenance credits and repair grants?
  • If people prefer traditional design for infill, should the current standard that “new work will be differentiated from the old” be further refined?
  • If people prefer historic buildings with rich detailing, how do we shape the preservation of buildings that do not have those characteristics, such as many Midcentury Modern buildings?

Additional research could guide the field in answering these questions from a people-centered and evidence-based point of view.

Carillon Tower at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. | Credit: Tom Mayes

In addition to the plenary session on historic preservation, the conference included a meeting of the Historic Environment Network and a full historic preservation track. Here are some key, relevant ideas I heard while attending some of those sessions:

  • In a presentation reporting on “The Livability Audit: A Tool for Measuring Perceptions of Urban Design Qualities,” which is still under review, Deni Ruggeri and one of his co-authors, Chester Harvey, noted that general perceptions of age contributed to greater perceptions of livability and that a general feeling of age was more indicative of the perception than the specific details of a historic building.
  • In “An Analysis of Aesthetic Quality of Buildings and Urban Scenes,” the authors Antonio Reis, Maria Seadi, and Camila Biavatti concluded that people preferred buildings and scenes that were ordered with complexity from an aesthetic perspective and that people generally preferred historical buildings because they were ordered and complex, but not because they were historical.
  • Anna Marie Bliss presented a paper comparing social media reactions to three interventions at historic places, looking at online “boldness” and identity and at how historic and adapted architecture is portrayed and understood online—that is, with some amazingly harsh criticism.
  • Finally, Jeremy shared the results of a recent content analysis of six months of historic preservation job announcements, concluding that preservation job skills should better reflect an understanding of how environments impact people’s perception, behavior, and values. 

These are only a sampling of the papers and ideas presented, and sessions from other tracks were also relevant to the work of preservation. Preservation for People encourages greater partnerships and research to bend the work of preservation more forcefully in the direction of benefiting people. In the past, the practicing preservation field has not generally participated in the meetings of EDRA or considered the potential impact of social science research on our work. I’m grateful to EDRA for inviting us to present, and I hope that this session will spur more research in the field.

We will further explore the health aspects of preservation further at PastForward 2017, Jeremy will be moderating a Learning Lab titled “Old Places, Healthy Minds.” Look for more information forthcoming on the Forum Blog, including additional background and a reading list on the relationship between historic preservation and health.

Tom Mayes is vice president and senior counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

If you are participating in the PastForward Challenge (Gamification) for points and prizes, please enter the following passcode for the "Read: Show me the Studies! Post" challenge: PLFSTUDY.

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