Planning for what we can't save

By Carlo Urmy, NRF-US/ICOMOS Graduate Fellow

Climate Change and the Inevitability of Loss

As the effects of climate change on our cultural heritage become clearer, preservationists are increasingly facing the reality that it will not be possible to save all of our built heritage, at least not its present state. This realization may force tough conversations about how resources should be allocated moving forward: should we continue to shore up and repair certain historic sites, even if rising temperatures and seas will eventually render them unsalvageable? Or should preservationists and heritage managers accept that certain resources cannot be saved, and plan for their eventual loss?

In a 2015 essay for the George Wright Forum, Michelle L. Berenfeld proposed one possible response to this question:

One approach is a “triage” strategy for cultural heritage management, which requires difficult decisions about what to save and how, as well as recognition that some sites are more important to us than others… A “triage” approach, as defined here, draws on the data we have about climate change impacts, however imperfect, to organize cultural resources and sites into three main categories and to plan accordingly. Those categories include (1) those sites that are, for lack of a better term, “goners”–that is, they are unlikely to survive beyond another generation without heroic measures to save them; (2) those sites that could survive for decades or perhaps centuries with thoughtful maintenance and at a feasible expense; and (3) those that for whatever reason are deemed so important to our national heritage that we will save them at any cost, even in radically different contexts.

Once threatened cultural resources have been sorted into these categories, heritage managers can then make decisions accordingly. For sites in category one, resources can be directed towards documenting existing conditions as well as planning for the “afterlife” of historic sites. For sites in category two, maintenance and monitoring strategies can be adopted to mitigate the effects of climate change. Finally, for sites in category three, managers can plan for relocation, elevation, or other strategies to permanently protect threatened resources, even though this approach may radically change their historic context.

Aspects of such a strategy have already found their way into United States policy on cultural resources. The National Park Service’s 2017 “Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy” proposes scoring cultural resources on both their significance and their vulnerability, and then combining these scores in order to prioritize which resources are most in need of action. Depending on the resource and the threat, these actions may include offsetting stresses, relocation, or documenting and preparing for loss. This last strategy was explicitly mentioned by then-director of National Park Service Jonathan B. Jarvis in his 2014 policy memorandum on climate change and cultural resources. In it, Jarvis wrote:

We will ensure that our management options recognize the potential for loss. Responsible stewardship requires making choices that promote resilience and taking sustainable management actions. Funding temporary repairs for resources that cannot, because of their location or fragility, be saved for the long term, demands careful thought. Managers should consider choices such as documenting some resources and allowing them to fall into ruin rather than rebuilding after major storms.

It is somewhat shocking to hear the director of the National Park Service consider letting culture resources “fall into ruin,” but given the immensity of global climate change, and the recent string of hurricanes and extreme weather events the case for a “triage” strategy is becoming clearer. That said, there remain a number of important questions and concerns that need to be addressed when planning for loss.

One is a question of time scale. How imminent must the destruction of a cultural resource be for it to be considered unsalvageable and no longer maintained? When talking about the impacts of sea level rise we tend to use 100-year projections, but is this the right interval to consider, or an arbitrary one chosen for convenience? Furthermore, if investing in maintenance and repairs can save a historic site for 10 years before it is inevitably destroyed, do we consider that money wasted? Or is there value in maintaining access to historic sites, even on a temporary basis?

Second, we should ask how a “triage” approach could respond to the uncertainty involved in projecting the scale and impacts of climate change. Should we use the best information available to make one-time decisions about which resources to keep and which to lose? Or can we develop plans that respond to changing climate projections, as well as new mitigation strategies and sources of funding? We need to plan ahead and anticipate coming challenges, but we should also remain flexible enough to respond to unforeseen events.

Finally, if we acknowledge “some sites are more important to us than others,” we must also recognize that we do not all value the same places equally. Before designating a historic site as impractical or impossible to save, we should think carefully about who has been consulted, and who was been granted the authority to make final decisions. Different communities will have different ideas about what sites are important, or what features are character-defining. Representing diverse perspectives and communities is always important in heritage management, and it should be doubly so when considering the irreversible loss of historic sites.

Over the coming century, preservationists will increasingly have to accept the loss of some of our cultural heritage. This will present many difficult decisions, especially for a field that aspires towards permanence and stability. We will need to develop new methods, so that if we do decide accept the loss of a historic resource, that decision can be transparent, well reasoned, and defensible to future generations. Furthermore, accepting loss does not mean simply surrendering to it. Instead, it means evaluating current conditions, documenting resources, planning for the future, and interpreting changes as they occur. Even faced with the inevitability of loss, preservationists must take a deliberate and proactive approach to managing our shared heritage.

This post originally ran on US/ICOMOS’ Knowledge Community for Climate Change and Heritage: