I’m Marching for the Same Reason Preservationists Have Always Marched—to Save Places and the Communities They Anchor

April 20, 2017 | 10:16 am
Rising sea levels are already a threat to coastal historic buildings and the communities they anchor in places like Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. Photo: Octavio Abruto/iLCP
Andrew Potts
Partner at the law firm Nixon Peabody

As a historic preservationist, I often find myself in common cause with my nature conservation colleagues. So I took note last year when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature adopted a startlingly blunt message:  The ecosystems that underpin our economies, well-being and survival are collapsing. Species are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates. Our climate is in crisis. This is the moment to get it right, they said, but our window of opportunity is closing.  

Given the inter-linkages of nature and culture in the global landscape, I couldn’t help but wonder what IUCN’s warning meant for our cultural ecosystems and what are the opportunities to safeguard humanity’s heritage? These are big questions… and a big opportunity to help supply some answers is at hand.

An unprecedented mobilization

The end of April will witness an unprecedented mobilization on the climate question. It begins on April 22 with the March for Science to defend science, scientists, and evidence-based policy-making and culminates with the People’s Climate March on Saturday, April 29.

The most recent elections have emboldened climate skeptics, but polls show that 70 percent of Americans say climate change is happening and a majority understands that humans are responsible for it. These marches will help clarify just who among us stands on the side of climate action.

My passion for historic preservation calls me to be counted in that number

Historic preservation is by definition forward-looking. What aspects of the past will the present save for the future?  Melting ice and permafrost, increases in sea level and extreme temperatures, more frequent and intense storms give this question new urgency.

The impacts of climate change threaten historic buildings across the US as well as the communities they anchor and the livelihoods and traditions that define us. National Landmarks at Risk, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that even the country’s most iconic and historic sites including some of our most treasured national parks face an uncertain future.

Thankfully, fighting threats to heritage is nothing new to us. Historic preservation isn’t partisan, but it is political—and it always has been. Anyone who’s ever fought to save a historic building from a wrecking ball knows that. This is a movement that stared down reckless “urban renewal,” and highway building and helped turn the tide on careless sprawl. And now we face a changing climate.

Historic Preservationists at the 2014 Peoples Climate March in New York City. Photo: Andrew Potts

Now it’s time to get to work

As the US National Trust for Historic Preservation has warned, climate change is not merely a physical threat to our cultural heritage; it also challenges our understanding of what it means to “save” a place. While the challenges are complex, all our prior battles have prepared us for this moment. Now it’s time to get to work.

One of historic preservationist’s strengths has always been its practical utility. We win when we stress that preservation and human progress are synergistic, not mutually exclusive. But too few of us our following this proven strategy when it comes to climate change.

Many of the resources we seek to preserve–from archeological sites to traditional and indigenous knowledge–hold valuable information on how earlier cultures responded to changing environments, can be part of a lower energy demand future, and can inform us about the origins of modern climate change. The National Park Service’s 2016 Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy puts it best:  “Through the tangible and intangible qualities they hold, cultural resources are also part of the solution to climate change.”

It’s time for us to lead

As with so many other crises, cultural resources are a source of community resilience, an asset to be leveraged. Historic preservationists have been down this road many times and it’s time for us to lead. Correction: it’s past time. It’s past time for historic preservationist to make clear our commitment to use the tools of our movement in service of climate action.

How could we not stand on the side of those committed to preserving tribal and other communities on the front-lines of global change?  Where else would you expect to find us when sites that weave the very fabric of our shared history—from Ellis Island to the Everglades, Cape Canaveral to California’s César Chávez National Monument—are at risk?

So why will I be marching in the March for Science and the People’s Climate March later this month? And why under the banner of historic preservation?

Simple: as a historic preservationists, I’m in the saving-places business and some places I care about need our help.

Andrew Potts is a partner at the law firm Nixon Peabody, where he focuses on financing for historic rehabilitation projects. He is the former executive director of the US National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. 

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