Postcards from the Edge

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Postcards from the Edge

author: Victoria Hermann

From the National Trust’s Preservation Leadership Forum, May 11th, 2016 | a contribution to their series on climate change and cultural heritage by Victoria Hermann, U.S. Director of the Arctic Institute. This is Part 1 of a series covering the Keeping History Above Water conference held April 10–13 in Newport, Rhode Island. [Part 1| Part 2| Part 3 | Part 4]

All too often climate change is painted as a faraway and abstract threat. It is a narrative of distant strangers and disappearing islands with no noticeable connection to the lives or livelihoods of many Americans or to the places they call home. While an interesting news story, climate change is just that—a story to be read over breakfast or on the train before continuing on with one’s daily routine.
The title of the second day of Keeping History Above Water (the first full day of conference sessions)—Postcards From the Edge—may sound like it would perpetuate that impression of climate change, but the presentations, panels, and keynotes did quite the opposite.

Rather than positioning climate change and its effects on cultural heritage at the edge of geography, thought, and policy, Postcards moved the conversation to the center of historic preservation. With presentations from practitioners in Texas, Florida, Maryland, Iran, and the Netherlands, Postcards offered one key take-home message: climate change affects us all, and we all have a part to play in preserving buildings, places, and cultures in the Anthropocene.

As noted by Deputy Director of Climate and Energy of the Union for Concerned Scientists Adam Markham, 65 percent of people living today have never experienced a year of global temperatures below average for the last century. What they have experienced is Hurricane Katrina displacing 400,000 people, Hurricane Sandy costing $65 billion in damage, and a half-dozen Alaska Native villages voting to relocate as erosion destroys their homes. Whether in New Orleans, New York, or Newtok, the effects of climate change are a challenge we must all face.

And we are adapting. In Galveston, Texas, Matthew Pelz is learning from history and using site-specific designs to ameliorate wind effects, saltwater intrusion, and sea level rise in historic buildings. Adrienne Burke is identifying heritage assets through community mapping exercises on the barrier island of Fernandina Beach, Florida. And the chief of historic preservation for Annapolis, Maryland, Lisa Craig, is building a local network of advocates to inform and engage the public on how Annapolis is adapting to higher tides. These efforts go beyond illustrating how climate change affects us all to provide a set of best practices that can be shared and tailored to fit other communities in need.

Each of the projects presented at Postcards offered a new way of tackling the challenges of climate change in historic preservation by engaging a diverse set of stakeholders from various disciplines to better identify, plan for, and execute cultural heritage preservation. David Waggonner of Waggonner & Ball Architects in New Orleans proposed combining blue-green urban design with protecting cultural assets when master planning projects in coastal areas. From Kiribati to the United Kingdom, Sara Penrhyn Jones is connecting people around climate change and heritage through her film, Troubled Waters. And across the United States, Jeana Wiser of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab is working with scientists, community leaders, the Army Corps of Engineers, and lawyers to preserve the fabric of neighborhoods and older buildings in a changing climate. These novel approaches combine methodologies from different fields because we all have a part to play in cultural preservation.

All six of these case studies, as well as the many others brought up at Keeping History Above Water, are moving the conversation around cultural heritage practice and policy toward reckoning with the threats of climate change. But as the seas continue to rise and storm surges increase on coastlines across the world, we must move beyond ad hoc local action. In all three concluding discussions of Postcards, panelists noted the need for federally supported, locally implemented climate adaptation and preservation efforts. Panels discussed the need not only for financial and technical assistance in preservation but also for guidance on identifying what should be protected, salvaged, moved, or abandoned. That is the larger issue at hand: in spite of climate change affecting us all, there is still no guiding policy at the federal or international levels to help community leaders and preservation specialists make difficult decisions for coastal heritage and historic sites.
The most vulnerable populated geographies of the world need a different kind of guidance and policy, one that allows practitioners of historic preservation and community leaders to plan for a future when thousands of coastal communities will be permanently inundated. Solutions that address several problems concurrently, like the case studies shared from Galveston, Texas, and Rotterdam, Netherlands, will increasingly become an efficient and cost-effective norm for fostering the preservation of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage.As American communities face rising seas and shoreline erosion, they will need new tools to preserve their built environments and cultures as well as to make the difficult policy decisions regarding what to leave behind. Postcards presented some of those new tools, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation’s program to visualize sea level rise and Annapolis’ 3D modeling of climate impacts. And these are just the beginning of multidisciplinary opportunities in preservation innovation.

Problems of preservation can no longer be analyzed or solved in isolation. They must be evaluated holistically alongside issues from varied sectors of government, management, and academic disciplines. Sara Penrhyn Jones’ multimedia work on understanding and documenting heritage loss, Tom Dawson’s community engagement, and National Parks Service Coordinator Marcy Rockman’s collaboration with the U.S. Department of State all testify to the need for multidisciplinary teams working together to ensure that policies and adaptation actions augment one another. Policymakers, historic preservationists, architects, climate scientists, knowledge holders, urban planners, community members, and financiers must work together to invest in the capital and ingenuity required to meet community and national preservation needs resulting from climate change.

But beyond specific tools and policy changes, the preservation challenges of tomorrow will require a new way of thinking about cultural heritage and historic buildings located on rapidly eroding coastlines. The relationship between the built environment and the policies that govern its preservation must be rethought across the United States to better prepare for rising oceans.

The Pocantico Call to Action on Climate Impacts and Cultural Heritage was created in February 2015 to consider strategies and develop an action agenda for preserving and continuing cultural heritage in a changing climate. Nearly a year later, Keeping History Above Water moved that conversation forward by convening 200 people to network and share solutions being implemented today. To truly address historic preservation and climate change, we must take the next step toward national and international policies that support these local efforts. We must ensure that we are saving the places that matter to our families, communities, and nations.

Victoria Herrmann is the U.S. director of the Arctic Institute.

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