PastForward Reading List: Introduction to Health and Historic Preservation

By Tom Mayes posted 08-08-2017 16:50


Over the coming months, we’ll be publishing our annual reading lists leading up to PastForward 2017. As always, these lists present curated videos, articles, and projects that we hope will spark discussions in Chicago come November 14–17. Early bird registration ends September 15. Register today!

Many people are surprised when I refer to the preservation of old places impacting people’s health. Place—where someone is raised, where they work, where they live—has a profound impact on health across a range of factors, from a sense of general well-being and emotional stability; to whether people are exposed to cancer-causing toxins, asbestos, or lead paint; to whether the community encourages walkability or fosters social engagement. Old places are key parts of that overall “place,” and they affect people for good or for ill. As I explore these ideas, I keep asking: How can our work as preservationists support greater health outcomes for people? At PastForward 2017, which will be held in Chicago in November, we will devote an entire track to the health impacts of historic preservation.


I divide—somewhat arbitrarily—the relationship of old places to health into three broad categories:

  1. mental and emotional health, including the sense of continuity, belonging, memory, and identity that is at the heart of historic preservation;
  2. the neuroscience and other physical science of architecture and place—and what we might learn from this emerging information; and
  3. physical health, including walkability and access to green space, recreational activities, and healthy food, as well as potential negative physical health impacts from lead paint, code violations, mold, asbestos, and other harmful materials.

These categories overlap with each other—physical health has an impact on emotional health and vice versa—and much of the research on this subject is nascent. Newly emerging information about neuroscience and other biometrics tell us how our bodies and minds perceive and respond to places, but these factors can’t necessarily be isolated. We’re only at the beginning stages of understanding the role that old places play in health, but it seems to me that doing so will help us shape our work in preservation to support people’s health and foster human flourishing.

The PastForward 2017 track on health and preservation will explore the possible health impacts of old places and older communities, many of which are just now being studied for the first time. While the National Main Street Center convened stakeholders in Denver in July to consider the relationship between health and Main Streets—and will be publishing a report based on that convening—and the field of placemaking has long focused on health—such as through the Project for Public Spaces—the specific health impacts of older places have not yet been explored deeply. Part of our purpose in focusing on preservation and health is to spur more research and to identify the questions that need to be answered.

The health track TrustLive, which will jumpstart the conversation, will feature speaker Holly Morris, a documentary filmmaker. In The Babushkas of Chernobyl, Morris documents the women who, having returned to their former homes in the radioactive area of Chernobyl, had better health outcomes than their peers who remained displaced. These outcomes raise a host of questions about the relationship between displacement, our homes and communities, and our health. Why did the women who returned to their homes live longer than their peers? How important to their health was their connection to their historic villages, homes, and traditions?

In addition to the TrustLive, four Learning Labs will explore key questions about preservation and health.

“Old Places, Healthy Minds” will focus on the mental and emotional aspects of place, including environmental psychology. One of the core ideas in the Why Old Places Matter series is the notion that keeping and reusing old places gives people a sense of continuity and identity that is emotionally and psychologically beneficial and grounding. Although many of the scientific studies from environmental psychology use older places and communities, the difference that age of place makes has not been studied extensively, and the National Trust is hoping to spur more research about the mental and psychological impacts of old places. Jeremy Wells, assistant professor of historic preservation at the University of Maryland and the incoming chair of the Environmental Design Research Association, will moderate “Old Places, Healthy Minds.” Along with a panel of other experts, Wells will review what is and is not known, from a scientific point of view, about the relationship between old places and mental and emotional health.

“This is Your Brain on Preservation” will focus on neuroscience, biometrics, and other physiological indicators that can help us understand how people perceive and respond to place. While much is still unknown about people’s reactions to old places—as opposed to, for example, new places with similar design characteristics—new research is rapidly changing our understanding. Sometimes findings confirm the beliefs that preservationists have held for decades—such as the idea that there is a close relationship between memory and place—and sometimes they surprise us. For example, recent studies suggest that people are hard-wired to prefer premodern buildings because their facades read as people and faces. And we can now measure people’s reactions to different places while they are in or near those places. Does a building make people feel happy or stressed? Do they sweat? Does their heart rate go up? Or do they feel soothed and comforted? And how might we change our practices in response to what we’re learning? Kim Coventry from the Driehaus Foundation will share cutting-edge thoughts from a symposium on human perception and the built environment, held as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

“More than Walkability” will focus on physical health. Beyond the fact that the walkability of many older communities promotes better physical health, this Learning Lab will examine other characteristics of older and historic places that determine their health benefits: access to greenspace; healthy food from multiple food stores, farmers’ markets, or community gardens; and recreational facilities. The session will also explore the potential negative health aspects of old places, such as the presence of lead, asbestos, or toxins; accessibility limitations; and code violations. How can we work to make our Main Streets, older communities, and existing buildings more healthful? How can we promote better access to healthy food; increased walkability; and parks, greenspace, and bike trails? Elizabeth Hartig from the Plan4Health program of the American Planning Association will moderate the panel. Sara Bronin from the University of Connecticut will describe how Hartford, Connecticut, revised its zoning code with a focus on historic resources and health.

Finally, “Sharpening our Preservation Tools: Enhancing the Positive Health Aspects of Historic Preservation” will explore the practical applications of all this research, examining how we might shape our tools to promote better health outcomes for the people who live, work, and play in older and historic places. As we look to the future of preservation, how might our tools and standards change to support more people-centered and health-centered practices? Moderated by Jim Lindberg from the Preservation Green Lab, this session will examine tools that can improve health outcomes in communities—from incentives like grants that foster farmers markets in Main Street communities to design guidelines that support ideas of place attachment. This Learning Lab will focus on the importance of people determining the places that matter to them in preservation processes, a key recommendation from “Preservation for People, a Vision for the Future.”

Additional Resources

Place and Health

Mental and Emotional Health

Neuroscience and Biometrics

Intended to spur innovation and collaboration between the preservation field and national leaders in health and place, the discussions about health and old places at PastForward 2017 will explore new ideas for additional research and study. I hope you will join us in Chicago to be part of the conversation.

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

If you are participating in the PastForward Challenge (Gamification) for points and prizes, please enter the following passcode for the "Read: Health Reading List" challenge: HEALTHPLF.

#health #PastForward #Chicago2017

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