Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Historic Preservation is Sustainable Development

Recently, during a discussion about misconceptions of preservation in Buffalo, several local preservationists came to a conclusion: someone should write a manifesto. Once and for all, the "preservationist agenda" needs to be laid out in the open, not just to rally preservation-friendly individuals, but to highlight what preservation is, and is not, to people around the country.

500 Seneca, a great example of
sustainable development in action
A few months ago, this blog featured several points from Donovan Rypkema's book, The Economics of Historic Preservation. The misconception and mislabeling of preservationists as anti-progress and anti-development has gone on long enough, and while this post is not that manifesto that the movement needs, a speech by Mr. Rypkema in 2009 provides the groundwork for any such undertaking.

The speech covers a wide breadth of topics, and set in 2009 to the backdrop of a still-struggling nation as well as a recent election, some of his points have already been addressed (his points concerning LEED-certification, for instance).

Though long, the transcript is worth a read through for anyone passionate about preservation, development, and most importantly, their communities. I will provide this one spoiler, however, to entice you to read this cornerstone of 21st-Century Preservation:
We can preserve wetlands and be environmentally responsible…but have no effect on economic or cultural responsibility. 
We can teach local history in the elementary school and be culturally responsible…but have no effect on economic or environmental responsibility.
We can have an equitable tax system and be economically responsible…but have no effect on cultural or environmental responsibility.
But only through historic preservation are we doing all three simultaneously.
These are not normal times. We have a crisis in the economy and we have a crisis in the environment – two of the three components of sustainable development. And the underlying cause for both crises is our failure to consider either the economy or the environment through the lens of sustainability. In many parts of the world the social/cultural element of sustainable development is in peril as well.
I particularly appreciate that the broadened concept of sustainable development is made up of responsibilities – environmental responsibility, economic responsibility, and social responsibility.
Historic preservation is not a hanger-on to sustainable development; historic preservation is sustainable development.
You may recall that we had an election last year. Well virtually every side in every race was supported by dozens of advocacy groups. And most of them were “rights” movements: animal rights, abortion rights, right to life, right to die, states rights, gun rights, gay rights, property rights, women’s’ rights, and on and on and on. And I’m for all of those things – rights are good. But I would suggest to you that any claim for rights that is not balanced with responsibilities removes the civility from civilization, and gives us an entitlement mentality as a nation of mere consumers of public services rather than a nation of citizens. A consumer has rights; a citizen has responsibilities that accompany those rights. Historic preservation is a responsibility movement rather than rights movement. It is a movement that urges us toward the responsibility of stewardship, not merely the right of ownership. Stewardship of our historic built environment, certainly; but stewardship of the meaning and memory of our communities manifested in those buildings as well.
Sustainability requires stewardship. There can be no sustainable development without a central role for historic preservation. Those who are doing that today, future generations will thank tomorrow.
Excerpted from Donovan Rypkema's 2009 speech at the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans Heritage Club Luncheon. It can be found in it's entirety here.

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