SUSTAINABILITY: Conflicts between Preservation and Adaptation Entry by Laura Weinstein-Berman

The issue of sustainability and how future challenges intersect with the practice of historic preservation has been one of the most interesting and consistent topics throughout my graduate school education. The tension and future opportunities at the nexus of these two planning disciplines has fostered many debates, research, but most importantly encouraged the need for prospective solutions. And time is of the essence! Sustainability remains an ever-expanding topic, but I would like to focus on thoughts surrounding the adaptation of historic resources in response to long-term sustainability issues facing municipalities prone to rapid development and resiliency changes due to the effects of climate change.

Image: Presidential declarations related to flooding from June 1, 1965 to June 1, 2003: Red shows 4+, Orange shows 3, Yellow shows 2, Green shows 1; Source: FloodSmart.Gov.

Future challenges are here now, and preservation professionals must choose which cultural resource can be saved. Compromises will have to be made with adaptation. In order to implement sustainable communities and protect these resources for future generations, preservation professionals must broaden their understanding of a community’s character and anticipate the best solutions from a matrix of possible tools. This will be imperative to bridge the gap between current resiliency planning and the future of preservation within these certainties.

Image: Cultural resource strategies for adaptation; Source: National Park Service, Preserving Coastal Heritage, Washington D.C.: National Park Service, 2014, 31.

Preservation discourse has begun to incorporate climate change mitigation and environmental sustainability measures in their efforts to preserve existing historic building stock, however these goals aren’t adequate for current projections of sea level rise and the increased need for long-term solutions.[1] Preservation policies that align action with the need for adaptation will be required to counter the inevitable threats of climate change. Conflict among stakeholders and their respective priorities have always been present in preservation battles within the realms of real estate development, urban policy, and issues of sustainability. Now with new threats of increased natural disaster events and sea level rise, whose values will be projected in the outcomes of these resiliency policy decisions?

As Adger, Lorenzoni, and O’Brien further question in Adapting to Climate Change: Thresholds, Values and Governance, “The values that are pursued and those that are ignored can easily become enmeshed in the politics of climate change adaptation.”[2] This provides even more incentive to seek consensus on policies based on eco-regions. New tools need to be implemented and discovered by preservation professionals. Urgency for financially cost-effective and resilient solutions that honor historic resources, in order to protect as much as possible from involuntary loss of place, character, and individual rights, need consensus, not further obstacles. If preservation professionals are not active participants in values-based discussions, priority will reside among other public policy objectives for adaptation that may not be compliant with preservation efforts.[3]

There are, in addition to governmental responses, divisions among preservation theorists, practitioners, and historic property owners, producing conflicts over what the acceptable reactions are to climate change threats. Further delayed management among federal, state, and local policies may not be able to respond in a timely manner to the cultural shifts necessary for the implement of adaptation strategies.[4] This conflict of viewpoints imposed on advancing solutions for cultural heritage preservation, especially in flood-prone environments, will be obstacles fundamental to overcome for successful results.

The ability to analyze and link characteristics between the need for social sustainability in climate adaptation and the impacts of these preservation decisions on communities, can challenge existing notions of culture that go beyond political and economic realities.[5] Community-based adaptation should be an answer within collective concepts for healthy, vibrant cities and will contribute to overall resiliency efforts currently being executed. Though adaptation will require compromises and diverse strategies, inclusive policy-making through public, private and civil partnerships, addressing “the tension between national strategic frameworks and local flexibility for delivery” can begin to set the groundwork to accomplish mutual goals.[6]


  • [1] Benefits of reuse, capturing embodied energy and integrating energy efficiency standards have been documented by the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust of Historic Preservation. Accessed October 25, 2016.
  • [2] W. Neil Adger, Irene Lorenzoni, and Karen L. O’Brien. Adapting to Climate Change: Thresholds, Values and Governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 5.
  • [3] Ibid, 339-342.
  • [4] James G. Titus. Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region. Washington, DC: U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research, 2009. 6.
  • [5] Karen L. O’Brien and Robin M. Leichenko. “Double Exposure: Assessing the Impacts of Climate Change within the Context of Economic Globalization.” The Earthscan Reader on Adaptation to Climate Change. Edited by E. Lisa F. Schipper and Ian Burton. London: Earthscan, 2009. 327.
  • [6] Nicholson-Cole, Sophie, and Tim O’Riordan. “Adaptive governance for a changing coastline: science, policy and publics in search of a sustainable future.” Adapting to Climate Change: Thresholds, Values and Governance. Edited by W. Neil Adger, Irene Lorenzoni, and Karen L. O’Brien. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 379-380.

Cover Image: Michael McIntee, YouTube, “Hurricane Matthew Floods Charleston, SC – Aerial View”