Why preservationists must be more green to protect our historic places
The District of Columbia historic preservation review board has voted to reject a request by a property owner to install rooftop solar panels to the side facing the street of his historic home. The board approved panels on the rear roof and front porch last year, but now the owner was not so lucky. The panels would “create an incompatible visual intrusion,” a staff report wrote. “I just have this vision of a row of houses with solar panels on the front of them and it just upsets me,” a board member said.
This seemingly inconsequential decision exposes an existential crisis for the historic preservation movement in the United States. To save historic places, preservationists across the country need to align ourselves firmly with environmentalists and stop turning people who should be allies into our enemies. Historic places will exist only if we have a planet left.
As a preservationist, I have long been frustrated at the characterization of my field as a culture of no. Preservationists are guardians and enablers of great places. We fight for tax credits that bring buildings back to life, form coalitions to invest in our main streets, and push for creative reuses of historic spaces. We help people protect sites that illustrate our shared American story. Yet we make mistakes when we prioritize aesthetics over other important pressing concerns, climate change among them.
In cold weather Connecticut, where I live, we have watched as federal bureaucrats prohibit sound energy efficiency measures like insulation and energy efficient windows in historic factories that are being redeveloped for new uses. Nearby in Massachusetts, neighbors have used historic preservation lawsuits to kill offshore wind projects. Even in the places being inundated by rising tides, local historic commissions have denied requests to raise buildings, on aesthetic grounds.
News of these decisions reinforces perceptions that preservationists are too strict or stuck in the past, particularly to many young people who are terrified about climate change. At 40 years old, I am the youngest person on my statewide nonprofit board, and often the only person of color in conversations about preservation. Turning off the next generation of preservation leaders will be the death knell for our movement.
The irony of such alienation is that at its core, preservation is an exercise in sustainability. Older buildings are often energy efficient, made with renewable materials such as wood or brick, and longer lasting. Moreover, maintaining an existing structure avoids the environmental costs of new construction. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has said that most buildings, even energy efficient ones, take 20 years to 30 years to overcome the climate change impacts created by its construction.
Those working to save structures and natural spaces have made effective common cause changes in government before. In the 1960s, advocates joined forces to push Congress to adopt the National Environmental Policy Act, which protects historic places alongside natural places , and the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires federal agencies to consider historic resources before proceeding with big projects.
In recent years, joint national advocacy has been more piecemeal. Some overlapping efforts include the expansion of funding for the National Park System, which has dozens of historic assets, and the fight against the proposal to gut the Bears Ears National Monument. At the national level, however, the environmentalists have been leaving the preservationists behind. Many leading preservationists actively avoided being a part of Green New Deal debates. Preservationists are not, to my knowledge, represented in public discussions about cap and trade regimes.
Players appear to be collaborating more at the state and local level. In California and Connecticut, for instance, state laws prevent local historic preservation commissions from prohibiting solar panels except in very limited circumstances. Here in Connecticut, our State Historic Preservation Office collaborated with climate scientists to map historic places at risk of flooding from sea level rise and, along with the law school where I teach, is developing an agenda to protect historic properties from climate change impacts and needless demolition.
Preservationists certainly need to recognize that in the face of these unprecedented threats, not every significant feature of every historic site can be preserved. Nor should they be, if doing so means preventing adaptation to and mitigation of the effects of climate change. The movement has to evolve once again to reflect this current reality.
The preservation movement has expanded its purview numerous times in the past. When it started in the 19th century, it focused on saving places associated with the founders, such as Mount Vernon and Independence Hall. It evolved in the 20th century to protect neighborhoods home to fantastic architecture, such as those in Charleston and New Orleans. It progressed once again in the later 20th century to preserve a diverse array of sites, from the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan to the Eastside of Los Angeles, which have been associated with specific communities. The two important goals of safeguarding our American heritage and protecting environmental resources should not be difficult for us to reconcile.
Sara Bronin is the chair of real property law and the faculty director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Law at the University of Connecticut.
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