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Moving Forward with Historic Preservation and Climate Resiliency

Moving Forward with Historic Preservation and Climate Resiliency

wall support on an old building facade for a historic preservation construction project in downtown Charleston, South Carolina

By Luke Carothers

Conversations about climate resiliency planning almost always contain talk of the future, but there is something in the idea that better understanding our past will help us in our ongoing pursuit of equitable solutions to climate change.  Across the United States, historic places are facing existential threats of climate change in the form of rising sea levels and erosion and damage from major storms to name a few.  Many communities are responding with climate resiliency planning that will preserve these resources.  However, as these communities continue to plan, there are opportunities to achieve both a more equitable future and protect communities and historical resources from the effects of climate change.

Many communities are facing these issues–from New England to the Gulf Coast–and the decisions made around preserving these sites will directly impact the lives of the people living around them.  The threat of climate change means a threat to places that hold significant importance for the communities in which they exist–be it through the loss of a significant cultural area or loss of tourism revenue.  Kyle Johnson, Climate Resiliency Engineering Specialist at Kleinfelder, notes that many communities, particularly coastal ones, are in varying stages when it comes to protecting historical sites.  For some areas, such as New England, the tourism draw from historical places constitutes a massive percentage of the area’s visitors, putting preservation efforts at the forefront.  

Preservation efforts directed at places like Jamestown and other significant Eurocentric historical sites are likely to receive funding, but the process by which we determine the value of other historic sites moving forward has the potential to provide a more equitable future.  Adding to this conversation is the question as to what constitutes a historic resource.  Kate Willis, an Architectural Historian for Kleinfelder, believes that pushing a more equitable understanding of our historical assets will not only provide a more equitable understanding of our history, but it will also lead to a more equitable distribution of resources for fighting climate change. Willis further points out that 

the places that are most climate vulnerable are also those that have 

been historically marginalized or excluded, citing the effects of Hurricane Katrina as an example.

Under the current paradigm, a significant number of historic sites, particularly within rural, historically marginalized, and other disadvantaged communities, are not being prioritized when considering their holistic value to communities.  Johnson believes the first challenge in shifting this paradigm comes with reexamining the way we prioritize these assets that takes into account their place within the fabric of the community, something not easily measured within the traditional cost-benefit methods oft-used in the AEC industry.  When it comes to advocacy and funding resources needed to adapt or protect these resources, much of the support depends upon engaging from the local community.  Fnding ways to include advocates in climate resiliency planning at the community level means including historic planners, community-based organizations, and residents.  This allows communities to better self-identify and prioritize these historic resources and integrate them into climate resiliency planning.

There are several towns and communities on the East and Gulf Coasts that are advancing this very notion.  Conferences such as the Keeping History Above Water Conference in Annapolis are driving these conversations forward as well as cities such as Charleston in South Carolina and Nantucket Island off the coast of Massaschussetts.  However, as Johnson points out, many of the communities that have thus far been able to approach climate resiliency planning from an intersectional perspective can often do so because they have more capacity to funding and documented historical sites.   Both Johnson and Willis agree that there needs to be a push to identify and document cultural and historical resources as part of an overall effort to reduce the negative impacts of climate change.  

In the same process, there is also a need to identify what constitutes a historic resource and what relationship these resources have to climate change mitigation efforts.  The most common understanding of historical resources is that they are buildings or monuments, but Willis believes that this definition needs to be expanded further, particularly in coastal regions.  Willis also believes that the conversation of historic resources should include landscape elements.  One of the most pertinent example of this is the Mississippi Delta where massive swaths of mangrove trees and wetland have been lost as a result of levees upstream.  The loss of this natural landscape has resulted in increasingly intense hurricanes, which affect millions of people living in the region.  Viewing this area, as well as countless others, as historic, multi-beneficial resources means that we can more effectively build resilient communities.

As shapers of the built environment, the AEC industry should be a large part of the effort to provide a safe and equitable future for the people living in that environment.  The identification and preservation of historic resources from underrepresented communities in the face of climate change is an essential step in this endeavor.  By identifying these historical resources and including them in earlier climate resiliency planning efforts, communities can begin shifting resources to these historically underrepresented groups and taking the first steps towards building a more equitable future in which the community fabric, identity, and sense-of-place may endure in the face of increasing threats, or adapt meaningfully on their own terms.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.