Fighting the fight for Historic Preservation


The fight for historic preservation creates livable citiesNext week, next month, or next year we may have an opportunity to enlighten those groups [business interests and elected officials] on the cultural, social, and aesthetic importance of preservation. But if we want that historic building saved today, we had better be prepared with economic arguments.” Donovan D. Rypkema, The Economics of Historic Preservation: A Community Leader’s Guide (1994:4).

Over 20 years ago, Donovan Rypkema penned the aforementioned statement in the introduction to the second edition of his landmark book The Economics of Historic Preservation. Today, Rypkema is the principal at PlaceEconomics (http://www.placeeconomics.com/), a planning group dedicated to proving the economic validity of historic preservation. He is an oft-quoted preservation advocate and I’ve frequently benefited from reading his writings as I make my way through the University of Arizona’s Heritage Conservation Certificate (http://cala.arizona.edu/heritage?destination=node/899).

Historic preservation is one of the common topics of the Succinct Research Blog and it’s a personal interest of mine. Cultural resource management archaeology and historic preservation should be closely allied fields, but, oftentimes, I see that practitioners of both fields are talking past each other. CRMers and preservationists acknowledge the need to preserve our knowledge of the past and we draw upon the same philosophical sources. However, we do not always read each others’ literature and join each others’ causes. I feel like this is primarily because archaeology destroys the resource while preservation preserves it.

I feel like cultural resource management practitioners are in a unique position to advocate heritage conservation, which, in my own personal definition, is the quest to improve quality of life by learning more about the past and selectively preserving material culture made in the past. Heritage conservation is a more holistic approach to cultural resource management. This is really what cultural resource management and historic preservation is about because we understand the necessity of human cultures to have firm roots in our pasts.

Over the past year, I’ve discussed ways cultural resource management dovetails with historic preservation. Highlighting this synchronicity is one of the goals of this blog:

What is the goal of historic preservation?

We all want to live in vibrant communities that serve multiple uses and diverse communities. We want to live interesting, meaningful lives in interesting places. That’s why historic preservation is at the heart of creating durable, intriguing, vigorous communities.

Amenity is at the heart of historic preservation. However, I’ve noticed that it has also become a big business. In March, 2014, I asked “Is amenity STILL at the heart of historic preservation?” Highlighting the fight for histpres in the West University Neighborhood of Tucson, I noted that business interests and development often usurp the power of historic preservation for financial gain.

Making our world more livable is the reason why historic preservation and cultural resource management was created. Despite financial wrangling, amenity is still at the heart of preservation:

“I still believe that historic preservation, including CRM archaeology, adds and preserves amenity. The case is easier to argue for buildings because the average Joe can relate to the feel and aesthetic beauty of those neighborhoods. With a little communication, I believe we can also explain the ways archaeological sites enrich local aesthetics. In the end, the ethos behind historic preservation and environmental protection remains. We all want to live in beautiful places. These laws are an important way we can advocate for this protection. Some places are lost/damaged, as is the case with West University, but, on the whole, preservation continues to preserve the amenity of the places in which we live.”

Why does development always seem at odds with historic preservation?

In February, 2013, I asked the cosmos, “Do developers hate historic preservation? It came on the heels of a project I was just wrapping up where a developer destroyed part of a known archaeological site on a historical ranch just to create a dirt road so his project’s Chinese investors didn’t have to walk in the mud (He was worried about the women’s high heels sinking in and getting dirty!?!). It was just one more instance where a developer decided making money on a project was worth the fines, delays, and hassles involved with trying to circumvent historic preservation laws.

Why does this happen?

I proposed several possible reasons why this happens, but, since writing that article, I’ve come to the conclusion that the American public really doesn’t recognize the benefit of historic preservation. They know why it’s bad to kill endangered plants and animals, but they really have no idea what they’re sacrificing when a historical site is destroyed.

Educating the Masses

Rypkema and the other vocal preservation advocates are doing an excellent job of conveying the benefit of historic preservation to the masses. We don’t need to convince everyone of the need for historic preservation. We just need to reach the folks that care enough to mobilize in the best interests of preservation.

In the post “Explaining the benefits of historic preservation” (March, 2013), I highlighted several of the different elements to historic preservation for communities around the world. This post covered a range of topics, from building subterranean luxury lairs in London in order to adhere to histpres codes to teaching the next generation of preservationists in Washington State. The underlying theme was historic preservation touches the masses in myriad ways and preservationists are reaching out to the world.

Historic preservation is good for city economies’ the bottom line

A killer research project conducted by the Green Lab, Seattle’s branch of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, that demonstrated the financial benefits that older, quirky neighborhoods bring to large cities. This project was definitive proof that preservation aids local economies, is a business incubator, aids diversity, and is something that young people crave.

In the post “Never Forget: Historic Preservation is what makes Seattle a place where people want to live”, I summarized the reasons why my wife and I loved living there and why the condoization of Seattle needs to proceed with caution. Seattle is the epitome of a vibrant community and old buildings are what give that town its charm. The wrecking ball of progress needs to be very selective in how it moves forward if Seattle is going to remain an awesome place.

The elimination of uniqueness and grittiness that comes along with gentrification is another thing the Green Lab report does not address. It’s fine and dandy that young, college-educated folks with money are attracted to older neighborhoods, but these people change the existing social milieu of the places they love to live and hang out in. Most importantly, their money attracts developers like bees to honey.

Are the standards good enough?

The Secretary of Interior has pretty well-defined standards for preserving historic properties. These are codified in The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, 1995 (http://www.cr.nps.gov/local-law/arch_stnds_8_2.htm). One of the central reasons for having such rigorous standards for building and structure preservation is because of the tax benefits. In order to qualify for the tax breaks associated with preserving historical structures, you have to follow the regs. These tax breaks can be huge in some instances.

Historic preservation and archaeology professional qualifications are the same (http://www.cr.nps.gov/local-law/arch_stnds_9.htm). But the quality of the services rendered by these professionals varies widely. While standards for preserving buildings are very high, the standards for dealing with archaeological sites are not necessarily as rigorous. Because of the nature of archaeological work, there is really no way we can create unified standards for site treatment and documentation. Not all sites are the same. Not all archaeologists and research designs are the same. This results in a wide range in quality and thoroughness of archaeological documentation. The same is true with the preservation of buildings, but, at the end of the day, a two-page letter report is sometimes all it takes to approve the destruction of an archaeological site.

In September, 2013, I brought this up in my LinkedIn group, the Archaeology Careerist’s Network, and asked: Are the Secretary of Interior’s Archaeology Standards good enough? Do we need to tighten up the way we do cultural resource management archaeology in order to better serve communities? The biggest problem is the way so many CRM projects use the government minimum standards as their highest standard. They employ the cheapest labor in order to win contracts and complete projects on bare-bones budgets. Many of us are treating the bare minimum like it’s our guiding star without realizing we need to start doing more.

“Most companies already realize the value of quality field folks. If you look at job descriptions and then scan the Secretary of the Interior’s qualification standards, you can easily see there is a huge disconnect between what companies are asking for in project managers and field directors and what the minimum federal requirements. I think we can improve the quality of our research and reporting by making the minimum standards for archaeology work correspond with the qualifications companies are already asking for.”

A number of studies, like the aforementioned one by Seattle’s Green Lab, have demonstrated the economic viability of historic preservation. Cultural resource management hasn’t done as good a job with regard to conveying the financial benefit of archaeology and anthropology, but, as anthropologists, CRMers are in a particularly good position to help with heritage conservation. As I’ve mentioned before, if CRM is going to survive in the future it is going to have to embrace heritage conservation with an emphasis on creating communities that raise the quality of life for all residents. Doing commodity-esque, compliance work is a losing endgame. We won’t be able to keep our industry alive if only walk the path of “compliance solutions” because doing simple compliance work sells ourselves short. We’re going to have to listen to Rypkema and devise a narrative that explains the importance of cultural resource management to the communities in which we work.

The Succinct Research Blog will continue aiding the interests of heritage conservation by providing quality content that can help cultural resource management archaeologists and historic preservationists forge meaningful, fruitful careers. I believe historic preservation and CRM archaeology are companions that help make communities better places to live. I also believe both niches can learn much from each other.

Write a comment below or send me an email.

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