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By Tom Mayes, vice president and senior counsel for the National Trust, USA
What scientific evidence supports historic preservation? We study the economics of historic preservation and know that it supports a vibrant and sustainable economy. We research the environmental and energy impacts of historic preservation and know that the greenest building is the one that is already built. We research what people like and know that they prefer old places. But what about the so-called “softer” benefits of historic preservation? What studies support those notions of belonging, continuity, memory, and identity that we all feel?
Memorial Union Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin. How do everyday people perceive and value historic places? | Credit: Tom Mayes
Although there is abundant anecdotal evidence indicating that older and historic places provide a sense of belonging and identity that is beneficial for people’s emotional and mental health, the health benefits of retaining and reusing such places have not been studied extensively. In four decades of research about the impacts of place attachment and place identity, very little has focused specifically on the factor of age of place or the distinction that age provides. Although I don’t doubt the deeply held attachments people feel for old places, I do think we will be more influential with policymakers if we have solid scientific studies to back up the perceived softer benefits of preservation. Or, as one of the other fellows at the American Academy in Rome said to me, “Show me the studies!”
It helps to go to the source. At the invitation of Jeremy Wells, professor of historic preservation at the University of Maryland and incoming chair of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), David Brown, chief preservation officer at the National Trust, and I spoke at a plenary session of EDRA’s annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin, in June. EDRA’s purpose is to advance and disseminate research, teaching, and practice toward improving an understanding of the relationships among people, their built environments, and natural ecosystems. The theme of the conference, “Voices of Place: Empower, Engage, Energize,” sounds exactly like a preservation conference theme. And, in addition to a historic preservation track, the conference also featured tracks about cities and globalization; health and place; cultural aspects of design; and sustainable planning, design, and behavior—among others. Jeremy has long been an advocate for conducting more scientific research about people’s relationships with old places. He invited us to speak expressly for the purpose of spurring EDRA members to conduct more research that could help us shape preservation practice to better meet people’s needs.
Period Garden Park in Madison, Wisconsin. People appreciate the layering of historic communities and the associated sense of discovery and mystery. | Credit: Tom Mayes
The timing of the EDRA conference couldn’t have been better. This spring the National Trust released Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future, which, as David Brown said, “signals a philosophical shift toward using preservation to serve people and help them flourish.” Preservation for People recommends that the preservation field “support and publicize research on the health, economic, community, and sustainability benefits of preservation,” including through partnerships with entities performing environmental health research to study the impact of older and historic places on human health. And in November, when we gather in Chicago for PastForward 2017, an entire track of sessions dedicated to health and historic preservation will include a panel on environmental psychology and historic preservation.
At the EDRA conference, David and I shared information about what preservationists say and believe about historic preservation, beginning with the ideas of continuity, memory, and identity from the “Why Do Old Places Matter?” essays and highlighting key themes from Preservation for People—especially the idea that historic preservation should be about helping people flourish. Jeremy discussed which aspects of historic preservation have been studied from a social science point of view and which haven’t. He focused on the following ideas:
Jeremy Wells, incoming chair, welcomes attendees to the Environmental Design Research Association conference (EDRA 48) at Momona Terrace, the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed convention center in Madison, Wisconsin. | Credit: Tom Mayes
Jeremy also raised a number of questions about historic preservation, hoping to spur additional research:
We must be open to the possibility of reshaping preservation practice in response to what we hear. For example:
Carillon Tower at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. | Credit: Tom Mayes
In addition to the plenary session on historic preservation, the conference included a meeting of the Historic Environment Network and a full historic preservation track. Here are some key, relevant ideas I heard while attending some of those sessions:
This post originally appeared on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog. Preservation Leadership Forum is a network of preservation professionals brought together by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Forum provides and curates cutting edge content, offers online and in person networking opportunities, and brings new, diverse perspectives to the business of saving places.
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