The federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), one of the Preservation50 partners that was created by the NHPA, launched an effort to examine the challenges and opportunities facing the national preservation program on its golden anniversary. The intent is to develop policy recommendations to shape the future of the program that can be transmitted to the next Presidential Administration and Congress.

An important component of the process to develop these recommendations is obtaining the views of the preservation community and the public. To that end, the ACHP  posted some initial observations on the challenges and opportunities facing the national preservation program today, and solicited feedback from the American public during 2016. [These observations concern U.S. policy. For lessons from around the globe see the With a World of Heritage so Rich project.]

In March 2017, the ACHP released its final report, The National Historic Preservation Program at 50: Priorities and Recommendations for the Future. They also produced an executive summary of their recommendations. Review the documents here and here.




A Look at the Future

(Previous update from May 10, 2016)

The United States of 2016 is a vastly different nation from 1966, and over the coming decades it will continue to change significantly. Likely changes include the country’s overall population size and demographic composition; settlement and work patterns as they relate to the economy; the relationship of communities to the environment, including interaction with climate change and adaptation; changes in technology and how it is accessed and used; the interrelationship of all these factors as well as yet-to-be-determined shifts in the global economy, energy production and consumption; security; and other cross-cutting issues.
Why preserve, what should be preserved, and how should it be accomplished in the future? The focus since 1966 has been on the built environment of communities as well as other tangible historic resources and their preservation. Many now believe that insufficient attention has been paid to the social and cultural values and traditions—the “intangible” aspects of heritage-associated with properties. Other factors may come into play in deciding priorities, such as a desire for enhanced public engagement or considerations of social and environmental justice. The “why” of preservation matters just as much as the “what” and the “how.”

Development and Other Pressures

There continue to be activities carried out by both the public and private sectors, and often supported by the federal government, that threaten the nation’s historic resources in much the same way that federal urban renewal and highway construction programs did 50 years ago:

Energy development and transmission. Large-scale traditional and renewable energy projects are impacting cultural landscapes, traditional cultural sites, and archaeological resources in a massive way.

Infrastructure development. Rail and highway construction, harbor development, bridge replacement, transmission corridors and pipelines, and broadband build-out are posing preservation challenges.

Urban change and redevelopment. Economic and demographic shifts have left communities with abandoned properties, excess infrastructure, and insufficient financial resources to maintain services and facilities, threatening historic properties and neighborhoods in both large cities and small towns.

Sprawl and suburbanization. Many regions of the U.S. have experienced extensive suburban and exurban sprawl, transforming both rural landscapes and communities and older suburbs.

Reducing the federal footprint. Changes in government priorities and the methods of delivering public services leave historic federal properties without a current use and ripe for demolition or sale.

Continuing Challenges and Priorities for the Preservation Program

Developing public and political support. Even after fifty years, there is a broad lack of public understanding of and appreciation for the value and relevance of historic preservation to contemporary America. While many individual communities may “get it” with regard to thriving, culturally vibrant downtowns or historic residential neighborhoods, this does not necessarily translate to legislative or public funding support. In particular, the economic and environmental benefits of preservation are insufficiently measured and explained by the preservation community. Building an appreciation for history, the historic built environment, cultural landscapes, and cultural diversity among the American public, especially young people, is a critical part of this challenge.

Obtaining adequate and sustainable financial support. Competition for scarce public dollars and chronic underfunding of the governmental structure for preservation affects the delivery of needed services to stakeholders. Failure to provide the full amount of funding authorized in the Historic Preservation Fund hampers the effectiveness of the tools provided in the NHPA. Among other things, this includes critical support for protection of properties not eligible for tax incentives, as well as adequate support for tribal preservation programs. Repeated calls for simplifying the tax code threaten the continuation of highly-successful federal tax credits for rehabilitation of historic structures and the ensuing uncertainty undermines public-private partnerships that are increasingly important for preservation. The credits could also be made more useful for a wide range of preservation needs.

Providing leadership and expertise. The national preservation program needs forceful and consistent leadership at the policy level in the federal government to advance preservation as a national policy and priority. At the professional level, there are insufficient numbers and types of qualified and experienced practitioners (in both public and private sectors) in the various preservation fields and succession planning is needed to address an aging workforce.

Promoting inclusiveness and diversity. Historic preservation needs to foster and support environmental and social justice considerations in community planning and preservation. Similarly, the changing face of America needs to be better reflected in the resources recognized as historic and in the composition of the professional preservation community. A more expansive approach to significance is needed, and diverse communities must be more effectively engaged and supported in preserving their own heritage and telling their part of the American story. This includes telling difficult or complex stories that illustrate both the positive and negative interactions of different people and institutions over the course of the nation’s history.

Recognizing the full range of the nation’s heritage. In addition to acknowledging the heritage of the many diverse groups that will increasingly comprise the American public, the preservation program needs to do a better job of incorporating concepts of intangible heritage and non-traditional resources within the place-based context of historic preservation. This includes not only cultural landscapes and sites sacred to native peoples, but also less obvious culturally significant sites that do not meet other typical preservation tests like age or integrity. New tools, skills, and standards will be required to do this. Approaches to archaeological resources need to be examined to distinguish those that warrant long-term preservation from those appropriate for research that genuinely contributes to scientific knowledge. Historic sites associated with the recent past, including 20th century “modern” architecture, need to be evaluated to identify those worthy of preservation.

Improving preservation processes and systems. Current criteria for evaluating historic significance and legal protective mechanisms need to be updated to reflect the values communities place on their heritage and to elevate outcomes over process. Complexity and over-reliance on professional expertise often stifles public engagement and impedes the preservation of what citizens really value. A fresh look at the procedures and criteria that guide the recognition, protection and enhancement of historic properties offers opportunities for achieving greater transparency, stakeholder and public participation, and efficiency. Such a re-examination could also promote better integration of preservation with other environmental and social impact assessment systems and spur innovative thought about tools, techniques, and technology.

Respecting the cultures, views, and concerns of indigenous peoples. While the NHPA provides for formal participation of Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, in practice they are often overlooked or excluded. The result is that the resources important to their identity and culture, and the intangible and tangible cultural heritage associated with them, are not properly recognized or valued by the larger society. They are often not fully considered in mandated preservation processes.

Additional Opportunities for the Preservation Program

Democratizing preservation and encouraging public engagement. Social media, technology, and an expanding perception of historic significance can open the preservation program more broadly to the public. This could have the added benefit of building public support. Community engagement in deciding what is important and how it should be managed can strengthen public and political support and promote diversity throughout the program. Preservation planning and the Section 106 process need to look at ways to make public involvement more effective.

Furthering collaboration and partnership. Increasing recognition of the contributions historic preservation can make to economic development and quality of life can foster greater public-private partnerships that benefit preservation. Focusing on collaborative solutions can redirect regulatory review processes constructively and better reflect federal agency mission needs and program goals. More effective outreach to the business community, to organizations beyond typical preservation constituencies, and to other non-traditional partners could expand preservation’s horizons and potential.

Expanding environmental sustainability. Pioneering work done on the environmental benefits of historic preservation demonstrates its value as a tool for sustainable development as well as its relevance in addressing the challenges of climate change. Historic preservation and concern for historic resources at the community level need to be fully integrated into climate adaptation and resilience planning as well as local and regional sustainability goals in order to maximize the potential environmental and economic benefits.

Enhancing appreciation for heritage through formal and informal education. Integrating cultural heritage awareness into education systems can build a better understanding among young Americans of the importance of history and historic preservation. Targeted youth conservation and service learning programs along with expanded professional and vocational training can lead to careers in preservation and broaden participation in the field.

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