Climate Change and Landscape Preservation | Robert Melnick

Climate Change and Landscape Preservation | Robert Melnick

As we lean into the headwinds of this era of climate change, preserving cultural landscapes can sometimes seem confusing, difficult, and thorny. How might those who are committed to resource preservation, protection, and continuity respond and adjust to these long-building but only recently acknowledged developments? We live in a time when it might be easier to deny or avoid the reality of the impact of climate change on our resources, both natural and cultural. This issue of Change Over Time directly addresses, through theory and practice, the ways in which climate change is already affecting cultural landscapes that are significant, in some cases precious, and in all cases worthy of our attention, protection, and caring.
The response to climate change’s impact on cultural landscapes cannot be refined without considering a number of deeper and, in some cases, more deeply rooted issues and concepts. These stem not only from our collective frustration with forces that are well beyond our control, but also from long-held contradictions as we seek to contain, redefine, and disassemble the nature/culture dichotomy. In most cases, these issues could not have been anticipated in the Venice Charter (1964), the Historic Preservation Act (1966), the Burra Charter (1979), or other fundamental declarations of preservation/conservation tenets. In the dedication to protect critical and valued resources, climate change issues require that we be nimble and flexible, yet adhere to basic beliefs and ideals.

Cultural landscapes are a relatively recent addition to the historic preservation glossary. That issue has now been effectively settled, and does not need to be reargued here. Nonetheless, it is instructive to remember that cultural landscapes are often on the verge of historic preservation orthodoxy, even as the term has reached a level of often illinformed use and popularity. Not all old structures are historically important; not all cultural landscapes are significant.
Perhaps the most challenging concept in cultural landscape preservation is the fundamental understanding that change, unlike for most other cultural resources, is not merely tolerated; it is often an inherent and desired characteristic. “Landscape” is a noun and a verb; it is a “thing” and it is an “activity,” a “development,” or a “process.” Into this already complex mix comes climate change, those big, broad, often subtle, and sometimes overwhelming forces that moderate the very processes that have informed the cultural landscape.
As we settle more deeply into the twenty-first century, questions and concerns around climate change are clearly ever more pressing. Although it may seem that some seasons are cooler, or wetter, or drier, or just as they have always been, the overwhelming scientific evidence is that we have, in fact, embarked on a period of substantial human caused climate change. We need to look at and comprehend the impact of environmental change on the world we know and love. In many ways, it is a bonding of a humanities perspective and a scientific lens.
As with much science, research in climate change is as much an art as it is an exact discipline. We have come to expect, through lifelong indoctrination, that science most often has the right answer. This is, at best, an unreasonable expectation with which to burden those who experiment, take intellectual and professional risks, and seek answers that are often unimaginable or outside our accepted worldviews. We hear of “paradigm shifts,” but, as Thomas Kuhn reminded us, these are really revolutions in our thinking, not merely shifts.1 We need a revolution, and not merely a shift, in our thinking about historically significant cultural landscapes, their preservation or protection, and our response to human-inflicted changes to robust ecological systems.
The best science, it would seem, expects and accepts many errors, mistakes, and miscalculations on the way to establishing new understandings, new paradigms, and new truths. Of course, there is no sure way to know what is truth and what is misunderstanding while standing in the middle of the forest.
The same can be said for work in historic preservation. We need temporal distance and contextual perspective to even begin to assess the importance or significance of historic buildings, sites, structures, objects, and landscapes in our society. We need to take chances and we need to make mistakes. Our strategies and protocols need to be reexamined on a regular and consistent basis. This is particularly so as contextual conditions change or modify our perceptions and understandings.
This is the backdrop for exploring the consequence of climate change on the ways in which we think about cultural landscapes and the societal necessity and urgency to protect those places that visibly reflect and reveal the poetics of the human condition.
While we seek to protect a landscape so that we can understand its meaning in our lives, the processes of landscape dynamics are often overlooked. We are tempted to look at the images and not the processes of a landscape, buoyed perhaps by our reliance on static likenesses initiated by Kodak Brownie cameras and ‘‘Wish You Were Here’’ postcards. In light of sobering climate change predictions and realities, however, we need to rethink and reenvision our strategies for protecting, and perhaps even understanding, significant cultural landscapes in our world.
Landscapes present us with a major challenge, as they are composed of elements and character-defining features that are dynamic by their very nature. As articulated by the National Park Service, the lead federal agency for historic preservation in this country, landscapes are identified, analyzed, recorded, and evaluated using standardized methods. There is a need, in one sense, to codify our approach to historic resources. These methods, many of which are founded on architectural and archaeological principles, are also applied to landscapes. Whether it is through the National Register Bulletin on rural landscapes, the Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes as set forth in The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, or the National Park Service’s Technical Preservation Brief on cultural landscapes, the intention is to provide uniform standards by which to achieve the goal of historic landscape preservation or protection.
All of these documents, however, consider the landscape within a constant or predictable context and fail to fully appreciate or duly recognize the dynamic nature of the larger environmental milieu. They each assume that the larger ecological context is predictable within an acceptable dynamic range, such as seasons, warm or cold years, or wet or dry summers. Thus, each of the directions for recognizing, evaluating, and ‘‘treating’’ cultural landscapes assumes a greater level of constancy than we now experience or might reasonably anticipate.
Additionally, these preservation guidelines and standards assume a normative set of societal values that will not shift as resources become scarcer and competition for them increases. What will happen when decisions are made to put a lower priority on nonessentials, and who will make those decisions?
We are left with an approach to landscapes that is not fully adaptable to systemic variations and idiosyncrasies, and that affects, by its broad distribution as official imprimatur, a wide range of efforts and activities. More importantly, perhaps, it sets unrealistic expectations and aspirations. What happens, however, if that context is no longer as predictable as it once was? What happens when the next Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy hits? What can we do?
For starters, we can accept the premise of an uncertain but certainly variable future for these landscapes. We can directly embrace flexibility in our approaches, encourage frequent reassessment of landscape conditions, and plan for the need to alter our course as conditions change. These are not easy strategies, and they demand a dynamic approach. It may mean, for example, that we rethink what we value in a landscape.
When addressing these challenges to historic landscapes, we can adapt to change and ways to mitigate it. We can create resistance to change, in the form of a more flexible understanding of what we mean by character-defining features and how we respond to those changes. For example, which matters more, in preservation terms: that a landscape retains the exact tree genus and species, or that the spatial and visual characteristics of those trees are maintained? Would it be better to plant replacement trees that are more resistant to warming and decreased precipitation, or to replant trees that will not survive our twenty-first century environment? How much do these changes matter in terms of the landscape we are trying to protect? We may need to talk about “protection” rather than “preservation.”
We can seek ways to promote resilience to change. This strategy may mean greater proactive intervention, rather than waiting until undesired change has occurred, in certain highly valued landscapes. This, in turn, implies the setting of priorities. For example, we may want to engage in greater seed-banking or intensive management during revegetation, a labor-intensive and costly process that nonetheless may enable the protection of critical landscape features.
We can be prepared to make difficult decisions about which landscapes to try to save, which landscapes are salvageable, and which landscapes are not. In the extreme, this may mean that we practice a form of ‘‘cultural landscape triage,’’ choosing to save certain places while letting other ones remain only in the historical record. This is not a long-term response but may be necessary as a short-term step while the science for more lasting solutions is developed. It may also require more stringent and demanding criteria for ‘‘significance,’’ especially when compared to what we now practice.

This may also be the most contentious suggestion. How do we make these triage decisions? Who makes them, and are they based primarily on available fiscal resources, as opposed to a reimagined definition of significance for historic landscape resources? When do we recognize the necessity of “landscape hospice”? In this changing environmental context, it may be appropriate to practice caring and grieving as a valued cultural landscape slips from our company.We must recognize the ‘‘historical ranges of variation.’’ Taking both the long and short views is vital in this effort. While it is often tempting or convenient to look at the most recent past, landscape time demands that we consider variations over a long period. Taking only the immediate snapshot in the rearview mirror can result in a failure to recognize the nature and impacts of climate change, as we perhaps rely on last year’s rainfall gauges, this year’s storm data, or next year’s temperature graph. Weather, of course, has not been constant, but there have been understandable and identifiable ranges of “normal” variation that we can use as a baseline.
But how can we begin to organize our decisions about what to do? There are a number of direct adaptation approaches that can be taken in the face of climate change and cultural landscape preservation. These vary in intensity, geographic and temporal scale, and urgency.
It may be possible, for example, to determine that the cultural landscape is not in immediate danger of negative impact and take no action. Or we may attempt to mitigate the climate change stresses through action off-site from the cultural landscape, thereby offsetting the direct impact on the landscape. Another option is to improve the cultural landscape’s resilience to climate change by making compatible alterations and additions that meet The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Climate resilience is generally defined as the landscape’s capacity to absorb stresses and maintain its function in the face of external stresses imposed by climate change; and the capacity to adapt and evolve in order to improve the sustainability of the cultural landscape, leaving it better prepared for future climate change impacts.2
In some instances, we will need to allow change to occur in the cultural landscape, attempting to limit the impact to those character-defining features that are high-priority and have higher feasibility for preservation. We can also allow the landscape to deteriorate without intervention. This implies taking no adaptation action except for extensive and detailed landscape documentation and data recovery.
In all cases, there is a need to assess and determine the urgency and speed of intervention. This requires a clear documentation of the cultural landscape’s character-defining features, climate change projections for the landscape’s ecological zone, and known and anticipated impacts of those projections on the character-defining features. We can then determine whether climate change impact on the cultural landscape is: urgent and must be addressed as soon as possible; in the early stages and needs to be carefully monitored; or projected but not yet occurring. Additionally, as always, there is the opportunity to use this as an educational opportunity, to tell the story of climate change, the integration of natural and cultural systems, and the lasting importance of these places in our cultural heritage.

There are no easy answers or responses, as evidenced by the articles in this issue, but they can be creative, imaginative, and practical. Adhering to our standard or established historic preservation practices, however, is no longer a viable option in a world in which drastic change seems inevitable, if not always predictable.

1. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962, 1996). 2. National Park Service Climate Change Response Program, National Park Service Climate Change Response Strategy (Fort Collins, Colo.: National Park Service, 2010).