Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Preservation Vision: NYC-Ideas and Actions for a Robust Future 

12-09-2015 17:35

In early 2007, under the leadership of the Bloomberg administration, New York City released PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York. Touted as “a comprehensive sustainability plan for the city’s future,” this document lays out strategies to reduce greenhouse gases, accommodate an anticipated one million more residents, improve infrastructure, and safeguard the environment over the next 25 years.

Although not perfect, PlaNYC put forward with unprecedented clarity some key issues, challenges, and opportunities ahead. But the document—while full of analysis on topics such as housing, water quality, transportation, environmental issues, energy, air quality, and climate change—was notably lacking expert input regarding historic preservation. Why?

While historic preservationists have made significant contributions to the prosperity and growth of New York City over the past 60 years, a question remains about the ability of the profession to play a major role in citywide planning efforts. With so many pressing issues facing preservationists on a daily basis, taking time to discuss the future of the field and its contributions to citywide issues seems like a rare indulgence.

Using the new focus on 2030 created by PlaNYC, a small group of New York City preservation funders and advisors set out in 2007 to orchestrate an organized effort that would provide the space and opportunity for candid discussion within the preservation community about the future. While inspired by PlaNYC, the effort was not intended to be a direct response to it.

As a result, the Preservation Vision: Planning for the Future of Preservation in New York City project was launched in January 2008 as a temporary forum for the profession to consider concrete long-term goals, inspire new alliances, focus on common ground, and compile an “idea bank” of good ideas for the future. The one-year project asked members of the preservation community in New York to submit, discuss, and develop their most compelling ideas to position historic preservation for substantial, lasting contributions to the most pressing issues facing New York City while anticipating new collaborations and increased threats to the city’s historic resources.

This project imposed few requirements on participants, with two exceptions. First, participants were asked to think beyond the pressing issues, realities, and limitations of today to consider the broad goals and possibilities of tomorrow. Second, participants were encouraged to contribute as individuals, not as institutional representatives answering for, or advocating on behalf of, their organization or group. To maximize opportunities for participation, glean “big picture” insights, and encourage candor, many conduits for exchange were created and often professionally facilitated—an anonymous survey, a series of roundtables, a weekend retreat for emerging leaders, and a participant-driven one-day workshop. From January 2008 to January 2009, nearly 500 people contributed. The results of all phases of the project and the final report can be found on the project website at

Project Results and Findings

There is no easy way to summarize all the outstanding participant responses collected over the course of the year-long Preservation Vision: NYC project. However, across all phases of this project, 10 key categories emerged as areas in need of an active, strategic response from the preservation field in New York City over the next 25 years.

In the final project report, published online at the end of February 2009, recommended action items are detailed under each key category to compose a Preservation Vision “idea bank” of 102 ideas. Some are new ideas, some twists on old ideas, some no doubt are currently being carried out to some extent by groups or individuals—but all were sincere expressions that came directly from participants of actionable steps and ideas to generate forward momentum.

Following is a brief description of each of the 10 categories, listed in order of priority.

1. Environmental Sustainability. Throughout the project, the role of preservation in a citywide response to climate change was among the most often repeated future concerns. Many agreed that the moment is ripe for convergence with others sharing an interest in environmentally sound, energy efficient, and socially conscious approaches to housing and real estate development. The need for firm steps toward clarity and unity of purpose was often articulated when discussing preservation and sustainability, and may reflect more broadly a growing frustration with the lack of tools and capacity within the historic preservation community to address urgent situations and emerging trends.

2. Research. Consistent emphasis was given to the need for research to build a strong foundation of data and analysis on which the historic preservation profession of 2030 might rest. It was recognized that the field does not have general research foundations, nor do practitioners have a shared vocabulary with which to compare findings. Accordingly, there is no obvious way to resolve or prove many claims of the “significance” or “relevance” of preservation work without serious research. Producing factual information to back up intuitive arguments constitutes a pressing need. The absence of a solution poses significant challenges to the field and hampers its evolution toward greater collaboration and effectiveness. Further, research must be separated from advocacy and regulation; it must be independent and reliably objective.

Setting a New York City preservation research agenda and priorities could take many forms, including moving away from the abstract and connecting historic preservation issues to the cause-effect relationships of social policy—concerning mental health, carbon emissions, productivity, waste management, economics, housing, and class and races dynamics. Consideration should also be given to the options for executing a research agenda—done by a consortium of organizations, a university, an existing think-tank in a related field, or perhaps a newly created entity.

A first step in tackling any research agenda would have to include compiling existing data—from the National Park Service; New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission; city agencies (housing, urban development); New York State Historic Preservation Office; borough presidents’ offices—to create a nonaligned, information-sharing baseline. Setting the groundwork for new data sources by inserting preservation issues and questions into ongoing data gathering tools by city agencies and others would also prove advisable.

3. Incentives. Enhancing incentives to encourage preservation work and simplifying the process for their utilization were considered key issues for the future success of historic preservation. It was routinely suggested that a bundle of incentives should be developed and presented to the public in a clear, concrete, and persuasive way, invoking the logic of sustainability, energy-modeling, and long-term agendas for financial benefit. Some incentives are already in place—federal, state, grant programs, transfer of development rights, etc.—but they do not seem to be a major factor in encouraging more preservation work. Problems with current incentives, designed for average homeowners and nonprofit owners, such as churches and schools, seem too complicated, while payoffs for the added time and trouble are not guaranteed.

4. Land-use Regulation. In New York City, unlike many other U.S. cities, the strong landmarks law dominates the preservation tool kit. With abundant attention given to individual buildings and some historic districts defined by architectural significance, some preservation tools and techniques used in other cities are marginalized. The perceived limitations embedded in NYC’s current regulations, specifically associated with landmarking, might be eased by exploring and adopting other land-use regulations and policy adjustments. New land-use tools might include the creation of neighborhood conservation districts with their own, context-driven historic ordinances for areas worthy of protection but not at the level of the existing landmarks law; creation of written guidelines for aesthetic regulation in design districts that are controlled locally with a system of appeals through the zoning board and the landmarks commission; or creation of historic asset ordinances for outlying areas. In addition, attention should be given to the need for comprehensive zoning reform, more effective planning, the adjustment of the rules governing the transfer of air and development rights, and adjustments to federal rehabilitation tax credits in cities with a population greater than one million.

5. Strengthening the Landmarks Law. Discussion among participants was often dominated by concerns regarding the future of the New York City landmarks law, considered by many to be the centerpiece of the preservation arsenal, and by many others to be a growing liability. Some suggested that the law should be updated; some suggested that it should be discarded and replaced by an entirely new law; and some suggested that it should be strengthened in its current form. A number of suggestions focused on expanding the law to provide more opportunities for designating cultural landmarks (often without architectural significance), create a more transparent and democratic system, compensate commissioners, lobby for more funding to hire more staff, and push for required review of all demolition permits.

6. Community Livability. Affordable housing and small-business retention were considered to be priorities for New Yorkers and issues to which preservation should make more substantial contributions in the future. In these conversations, affordable housing was defined as both low-income or subsidized housing as well as general affordability for middle-class New Yorkers. In both cases, it is clear that the link between affordable housing and preservation is important because it draws preservation closer to broader social issues such as public health, quality of life, social diversity, and social justice. If preservation is seen as a positive force for the creation and perpetuation of affordable housing, it might in turn garner much-needed public support and increased relevance. Likewise, addressing small-business retention more strategically could expand preservation’s ability to protect neighborhood character and constituent communities.

7. Messaging and Branding. Throughout the project, serious consideration was given to the way historic preservation is perceived by the general public in New York City today and how these perceptions can be reframed in a more positive way. The question of target audience was discussed and many participants observed that a diverse, relatively young audience is highly desirable. It was noted that preservationists are often perceived as stodgy, elitist, negative, and scolding—not yet associated with flexibility, new options, new spaces, new technologies, and profitability. It was also suggested that there is a problem with the words “preservation” and “historic.” These give the impression of old, fragile, and highly important places and things fixed within the realm of the connoisseur, not the layperson.

8. Alliances and Diversity. Building alliances, seeking coalitions, and expanding opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration emerged as major concerns for many participants. Equal emphasis was given to the need for more conversation within the field and to the need for new collaborators outside the field. Many participants believe that more structured exchanges, like the ones supported by the Preservation Vision project, would be helpful, along with deliberate efforts going beyond crisis response to build common ground and shared agendas. For the moment, it was frequently observed, the field is bogged down with infighting between groups. Seasoned voices noted that successful collaboration calls for negotiated trade-offs, well-defined priorities, and reliable data in hand to support rational comparisons, decisions, and arguments.

9. Funding. Not surprisingly, the need to bring more revenue into all aspects of preservation work in the city—budgets for existing organizations, programs, new initiatives, physical work, and acquisition—was frequently mentioned by participants as a high priority topic. Respondents spoke in favor of increased tax revenues accruing to a fund for preservation projects derived from various sources. It was noted often that strategic planning for expanded funding requires knowledge and experience that preservation professionals often lack; here again the need for alliances and collaborations looms large. In addition, serious research and data were considered integral to enhanced funding because if steps are taken to support research, the strength of preservation arguments improves, and if these arguments improve, previously untapped funding prospects could open to the preservation community. When discussing increased funding flowing in to the preservation field, it seems all boats rise on the tide, attracting to the profession younger professionals with diverse educational and cultural backgrounds, more members, more donors, and enthusiastic volunteers.

10. Education. Many conversations in the course of this project concluded with a call for enhanced education at all levels—for children, policy makers, the general public, etc. This subject was addressed by participants as a two-way street: The preservation community needs to educate and to be educated in order to improve its productivity and effectiveness. It was observed that low “awareness” and a shallow “knowledge base” plagued both the general public in New York, whose appreciation for the benefits of historic places and their protection was often characterized as insufficient, and the preservation profession itself, whose understanding of local community needs and the work of allied disciplines is chronically weak.


As might be expected, New York City’s practitioners and advocates of historic preservation do not share a plan for how to make measurable impacts on New York of 2030. Historic preservation professionals in New York hold convictions so diverse—about what the field is, what it could be, and what it does well—that one is left to wonder where lively debate ends and lack of internal coherence begins.

But there is no question that a range of energetic professionals, committed players, savvy strategists, and resourceful advocates share a strong interest in seeing the preservation profession evolve. And, despite differences of opinion, many agreed that the field is at an important juncture—a three-to-five year window of opportunity opened by the convergence of economic realities and popular trends concerning environmental issues.

To step through this window, the field must be ready—armed with data, partners, and examples—to question assumptions, forge alliances, and seize prospects. To be sure, the big transformative ideas in preservation often take decades to enact. It is the hope of the project coordinators and steering committee members that this project has provided a first, tentative step on the route forward—demonstrating in the process new forms of engagement in constructive conversation within the preservation community. And while this project was carried out with New York City’s specific political, professional, legal, and cultural issues as its context, it might provide a model for similar efforts as well as a few insights transferable to other communities. For example, a surprising amount of discussion and consensus in this project focused on the need to undertake serious research. Obviously, reliable, independent research is a pressing need throughout the preservation field, and its continued absence hampers preservation’s evolution toward greater effectiveness.

In the end, the Preservation Vision project was built on participant-determined content, interaction, and commitments. Already several projects, related to specific action steps in the final report, have been developed to further some of these ideas. Examples include a year-long research study on land-use regulations, a university course studying two topics in depth from the Preservation Vision findings, a neighborhood preservation group celebrating its 25th anniversary by creating a vision for its future, and discussion groups being formed to continue the dialogue. It remains for other stalwart individuals with exceptionally keen vision to extend this exploration, taking from these deliberations whatever may be of use along their way.

Preservation Vision: NYC 10 Key Action Areas

1. Address environmental sustainability
2. Undertake serious research
3. Expand incentives
4. Implement more land-use regulations
5. Strengthen the Landmarks Law
6. Contribute to community livability
7. Focus message and branding
8. Expand alliances and diversity
9. Identify new sources of funding
10. Enhance education

Publication Date: Fall 2009


Author(s):Kirstin Sechler and Jon Calame