The Future of Preservation

by Barbara  Pahl, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Presented at Rock Creek Resort near Red Lodge, MT on June 2, 2016 during the Montana Preservation Road Show

Thank you Chere for that kind introduction and for this opportunity to join you all in a conversation about the future of preservation.   Although many think of us as people who are only concerned about preserving the past – preservation has always been about what we want for the future.  And there is no better time than now-- on the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act-- the legislation that ushered in the modern preservation movement ---to have this conversation.  

It is often said that the National Historic Preservation Act was a governmental response to the devastation of American cities that occurred as a result of the building of the federal highway system that began in the 1950s followed by urban renewal where millions of federal dollars were put to work to demolish entire commercial and residential neighborhoods in cities across the country deemed blighted to make way for new development.  It was the “if you tear it down, they will come” idea of urban revitalization – they being the celebrity developers who knew better than local governments and local citizens what their cities their towns and their neighborhoods should look like. 

But it was the Special Committee on Historic Preservation of the US Conference of Mayors who called for a national preservation policy in the report they published in 1966 called, With Heritage so Rich that really got things started.  The report, later published as a book, was written after the committee had traveled to Europe to learn how cities there treated their historic patrimony.   And from their travels, they concluded that their fellow Americans were a restless, wasteful people by comparison to the rest of the world. 

Much of what was ultimately written into the National Historic Preservation Act came directly from this report including the need for a National Register of Historic Places that would be our nation’s list of historic properties worthy of preservation.  And so for the last 50 years, we have been following a course that was set out for us by these visionaries.   

Today there are over 90,000 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  But less than 5% of American cities have been surveyed for properties that could be eligible for the National Register and the same can be said of the state of Montana.   So while 90,000 is a big number, there are many more places in America yet to identified and listed on the National Register.   

For the last year the National Trust has been convening conversations around the country on the Future of Preservation.  And we have been learning a lot.  Others, like the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Preservation 50 and several academic institutions have been doing this as well.   At one convening held earlier this year at Goucher College in Baltimore,  Ned Kaufman, a consultant and Professor of Historic Preservation at Pratt Institute, identified four themes that were not imagined in 1966 that will affect historic preservation in the future and probably do today. 

Demographics; while America has in immigrant history, no one in 1966 predicted that 50 years in the future America would be on the eve of becoming a non-majority country.  And yet, less than 10% of properties on the National Register are about diverse Americans.

Climate Change:  The 1960s and 70’s saw the passage of landmark legislation protecting wilderness, endangered species, clean air and clean water.  But few then predicted that climate change and sea level rise would represent the greatest single impact on the protection of heritage here and across the globe. 

Sprawl:  In 1966, suburbanization was a well-established trend in America and suburban living pretty much defined the American dream.  But what was not foreseen was the scale of building that would both test our infrastructure and ability to provide services while presenting future preservationists with an enormous inventory of buildings that would be have to be evaluated for preservation.

Income Gap: The 1960s are now widely credited as a time when the inequality of income was at its lowest; today, that gap is larger than any time in our history.  While this may not seem like a trend that will impact historic preservation, it certainly affects the psyche of Americans today who can no longer assume that succeeding generations will live better than their parents.

Congressional Dysfunction:   My colleague, Susan West Montgomery added a 5th trend she believes is a major difference between 1966 and today and that is the inability of our members of Congress to work together to pass major pieces of legislation that benefit all Americans not just one party or theother.

Can we as preservationists rely on Congress to provide the funding needed for state preservation offices? to survey and protect historic and cultural sites on our public lands?  to protect and expand historic tax credits so they become a tool not just for large projects in cities but for smaller buildings in main street communities across the country. Understanding the differences between 1966 and today, what should we focus on to achieve the preservation of historic places that matter now and in the future?

Here are some of the themes we have been hearing in ourdiscussions on the Future of Preservation. 


The preamble to the National Historic Preservation Act says that the historical and cultural foundations of the nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people.

People are, after all the intended beneficiaries of the work we do.  You might not think so when you look at the photographs we take of old buildings.  Not a person in them.  I used to be really good at that.  Not only did my photographs lack people, I also made sure I took them in the fall or spring when there were no leaves on the trees that would get in the way of the beautiful architectural detail I thought was so important. 

It is time to put a face on the place. Notjust white faces but faces of all races.   We need to strive to be more inclusive and recognize the broader spectrum of cultures, experiences and stories that are embodied within the physical environment of our communities and work to protect them.

As I said less than 10% of the 90,000 properties on the National Register today are about the stories of diverse Americans including women.  Fortunately, our friends at the National Park Service are working to correct this and for the second year have asked Congress for an additional $500K to be used to conduct surveys and write National Register nominations for places that tell diverse stories. 

New Tools:

When you think back on the enormity of the loss of significant buildings and architecture that occurred in the name of urban renewal in the 1950s, 60s and 70’s it comes as no surprise that our focus for the last fifty years has been on saving buildings for their architecture. Classic, vernacular, rustic, art deco.   Most of our surveys, National Register listings, and preservation ordinances are meant to protect architecture.    

But it wasn’t just buildings that were torn down in the 1950’s 60s and 70s through highway building and urban renewal projects.  Communities of people were also torn apart.  Neighbors, friends and family members who had been living side by side, some for generations, saw their homes condemned and were forced to move elsewhere.   Many of these people are still suffering and wondering if their lives matter.  Our tools that work well to protect buildings don’t necessarily protect the people who live or work in them and yet it is often these people and their stories that give these places their true meaning.  

Historic Preservation is often blamed for displacing people from their homes as their neighborhoods become gentrified.  Gentrification often results in neighborhoods that are safer, healthier, have better schools.  But with this comes higher property taxes and rents which can make it more difficult or impossible for the existing residents to remain.  So we need new tools that enable people, who want to, to be able to stay in their place.

It’s not just residents that get pushed out, so do long time businesses.  In San Francisco, they have started a register of Legacy Businesses.  Last fall, the passed Proposition J which provides financial incentives to help the owners of legacy business renew their leases so they can stay in their historic space.   

We need tools to protect intangible heritage.  Here in the West, we have some experience with this through our work helping Native Americans protect not just sacred sites like the Sweet grass Hills but their language. Some time ago we gave a grant to the Salish to support a language preservation program.  If you live near Missoula, you know how important their native language is to the Salish people every time you drive north to the Flathead and see highway signs in Salish along the way. 


We have technology today that was not envisioned 50 years ago, yet in many places we are not taking full advantage of it to do our work.  When I was the Historic Sites Survey Coordinator for the Colorado State Preservation Office, I could complete a paper inventory form for an historic building in 6 hours.   Today, using new technology, this can be done in 10 minutes.  And it can be done by volunteers using smart phones or tablets.  This is happening right now in cities like Detroit, Denver and Muncie, Indiana and probably many more.  The point is, it could be done everywhere.

We can use technology to make it easier for individuals, communities, states, and even the federal government to do surveys and nominate places to the National Register of Historic Places.   Washington State has a wonderful GIS based program called Wissard.  It is password protected, but contains all of their survey data on archaeological sites, survey reports, structures, even assessor data.  I know there is a comparable system here in Montana at least for archaeology, but in the next 50 years, there needs to be a database of digitized site data for all fifty states.  And we need to get the federal government to pay for it.  Only then, through GIS mapping can cultural data be overlaid with other data to ensure land use planners can make better decisions that reduce costly conflict between protection and land use. 

And finally, there is climate change

As I said earlier, climate change may be the single largest threat to heritage in this country and across the globe.  And yet, the Park Service has made it clear that they won’t be moving any more light houses.  Their answer to the effects of climate change on historic resources is to record the most significant places and let the rest go.  So if that is the least we can do, it is time to start thinking about the best we can do. 

Some cities are already hard at work developing plans like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.  We recently worked with Annapolis to help them develop their plan. 

The good news is some cities have developed plans; the bad news is that most of them say nothing about cultural resources.  So we have our work cut out for ourselves and the clock is ticking.

There is one thing that has not changed.  We still believe today what the authors of With Heritage So Rich believed back in 1966 and that is that historic places have enormous power to contribute to our identity, creativity, dignity, and economic and social well-being.  Connection to place provides a sense of security of knowing who you are and where you come from.  Connection to place helps to define an individual’s identity, family identity, community identity and ultimately, our national identity. 

Saving places, matters because they tell us, they show us who we are as a nation and it is up to us to make sure they protected not just for today but also for tomorrow because there is no better place to learn the lessons of history than in the place where that history happened. 

The decision to save an historic building must be made over and over again – every time there is a costly repair or when a building no longer works for its original intended use and appears to be obsolete – at these moments, its future is at risk because the decision to tear it down is only made once -- -- demolition is forever. 

We need historic places to provide meaning, context, and in the words of the 1966 Act, a sense of orientation to the American people.  And while we know we cannot save everything.  We can never agree to lose everything.  Because if we do, we will lose our memories, our identify, ourselves. 

The National Trust is working on our elevator speech, the answer we can give when someone asks us what we do.  Here is our current working draft. 

We save the places that shape our American experience to honor our personal and shared stories to inspire a more sustainable,  just and vibrant future. 

You can tell me later what you think of it.

Thank you for your time this evening.