What’s Good for Preservation is Good for the Greens

Author: Katlyn Cotton
Jan 09, 2009

I have ranted with regularity that the environmental movement as a whole absolutely does not get the connection between historic preservation and sustainable development. But there are notable exceptions. One of them is Knute Berger who is, among other things, an environmental journalist in Seattle. He writes for a couple of publications including the online periodicalCrosscut.

A week or so ago Knute was preparing a two-part article about preservation issues that will be facing Seattle in 2009. As part of his research he emailed me some very thoughtful questions. With Knute’s permission I’m including below both his questions and my answers to them. I knew at the time that my answers were far more than Knute needed or wanted. But his questions were so good that I answered them more fully than he needed, but for as much as clarifying my own thinking as for his use.Read the below if you wish, but certainly read Knute’s two-part series. Part 1 is entitled “Recession, wrecking balls, and history” and Part 2 is headlined “What’s Good for Preservation is Good for the Greens” which I’ve stolen from Knute as the title of this blog. While the articles are specifically about Seattle, many of the issues raised will face many American cities.

By the way, Knute has a new book out entitled Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. I have to think it will be a great read.

Anyway, below are Knute’s great questions and, for what they are worth, my answers.

I checked your blog and saw an entry from August about the Obama campaign being preservation-friendly. Is that still your view? Is there anything tangible that would indicate how that could take form in ’09?

I think there is at least a chance that this new administration will be good for historic preservation for a number of reasons. First, Obama is going to establish an office of urban issues within the White House. While there are certainly wonderful historic resources in this country in rural areas, most of them are in cities. And for anyone with a more macro view of things, historic preservation and urban quality go hand in hand. Historic preservation is certainly not the solution for every urban problem, but it is part of the solution for most of them. And Obama is nothing if not a sophisticated, nuanced thinker.

Second, potentially is Michelle Obama. In the Clinton years Hillary Clinton was a big preservation supporter through the Save America’s Treasures initiative. Laura Bush followed that tradition and established the Preserve America program. A bipartisan bill was introduced in the last Congress, co-sponsored by Senator Clinton and notably supported by the First Lady. The bill would make those two programs permanent within the federal structure. The “champion of American cultural heritage” mantle is one that Michelle Obama could take for herself and that would have significant benefits both for historic preservation and for the future First Lady.

Third, Obama has included in his list of stimulus programs retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency. If that initiative isn’t hijacked by green gizmo manufacturers, historic preservation can play an important part.

Is preservation the kind of economic booster/shovel-ready work that could be part of the new administration’s economic package?

Absolutely, and it should be front and center. And others in the world are beginning to get that. In March there will be a hearing at the European Parliament on Heritage Conservation as a Counter-Cyclical Economic Development Strategy.

I wrote a blog about the criteria for the stimulus package that you may or may not find useful. But my basic argument is: 1) because it is my grandchildren who aren’t even conceived yet who will be paying off what will end up being $2 trillion in additional Federal deficit spending, we at least ought to make investments with that money from which they will derive some benefit; and 2) the components of the stimulus plan should advance a comprehensive sustainable development approach.

But, unfortunately, it appears that the bill has simply become a Christmas tree with every imaginable interest group saying, “We’ll help the economy. Give a couple billion of that money to us.” That represents the pork barrel approach that we’ve seen far too much of in recent years and certainly not a “change” approach that Obama promised us. There ought to be an established set of principles as to how that money should be spent. And if there were, I have no doubt that historic preservation would emerge as a priority.

Also, I wondered if you had anything to say about the state of relations between greens and preservationists. Seattle will get the National Trust Green Lab in ’09. Is there anything there we should be watching for?

That’s a tough question but, I have to say, I do see some positive signs. But as usual, it’s from the bottom up, not the top down. Look, maybe 10% of what the environmental movement does advances the cause of historic preservation. But 100% of historic preservation activities advance the cause of the environment. But I see no movement at the leadership level of organizations such as the Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club to understanding that at all. It looks like to me the US Green Building Council is taking the “check is in the mail” approach, promising more sensitivity to historic buildings, “in our next revision”. I, frankly, haven’t seen much movement there beyond lip service.

But more and more environmental journalists such as you and Lloyd Alter at Treehugger, are at least beginning to reflect the argument that “green” is more than solar panels and that existing historic buildings contribute significantly to environmental responsibility.

And then there is a handful of architects, planners and academics who are quickly moving to the sustainable development approach that recognizes there are far more components than just green buildings.

As to the National Trust’s Sustainability initiative, its whole original premise was “Beyond Green Buildings”. Hopefully the Seattle Green Lab will finally do that. We’ll see.

Be curious if there’s anything else on your radar for ’09 too.

If there is anything that the economic chaos of 2008 should teach us, it is that we absolutely need to adopt a sustainable development strategy that includes not only environmental responsibility, but economic and social/cultural responsibility as well. Einstein was once quoted as saying, “Things should be made as simple as possible but not more so.” Thinking that a green building approach is sufficient for sustainable development is vastly and myopically oversimplifying the complex challenges ahead of us.

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