Preservation at a Crossroads: The Need for Equity Preservation | Caroline Cheong

Historic preservation in the United States has an image problem. The field has evolved from a conversation among an elite few regarding select monumental buildings judged solely for their appearance or national significance, to a dialogue among many about collections of buildings appreciated for their pluralistic contexts and meanings. Despite these advancements, the discipline is still regularly accused of being elitist, exclusionary, and opposed to equity. A 2019 Forbes article, “Historic Designations Are Ruining Cities,” calls preservation a “good idea that’s gone too far” by constraining cities’ ability to adapt to changing economic conditions and provide for various segments of the population.1 Though such allegations belie the substantial efforts made in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to diversify and broaden the field’s scope, they are not without merit. In the United States, this is in large part due to the disjuncture between preservation’s expanded theoretical ideology and the narrow, architecture-centric preservation policy infrastructure, the latter of which is embedded with structural barriers that favor mainstream narratives over those belonging to underrepresented, marginalized communities.

Today, preservationists are called upon to demonstrate near fluency in a wide variety of fields—economic and urban development, community development, climate change, disaster management, Indigenous rights, earthen architecture, public health, and others—in addition to showcasing native expertise in skills ranging from documentation to values-based planning approaches. Said differently, the preservation field is in a pubescent stage of figuring out what it wants to be when in grows up, and it has no shortage of parental voices offering opinions about its future. Of these voices, one that undergirds the rest calls for an improved focus on equity and diversity both in process and outcome. Preservation’s supporters and critics increasingly demand greater and more comprehensive inclusion of minority and marginalized communities in the preservation process to ensure fairer distribution of preservation’s costs and benefits. Given the current climate of political and social unrest and dialogue, ignoring such a clarion call threatens to stagnate the preservation field and its contributions to contemporary issues, as well as substantiate accusations that the field is incompatible with equity.

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