Keeping History Above Water was everything we expected it to be and more. This groundbreaking international conference on sea level rise and historic preservation drew experts from around the globe and over 350 attendees for four days of issues, ideas, and most importantly, proposed solutions. We heard personal stories from the front lines of sea level rise in historic coastal communities. We learned lessons of community engagement from the indigenous culture of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. We were introduced to the concept of “amphibious architecture” that actually floats off its foundation during a flood.
What was most inspiring about Keeping History Above Water was witnessing the confluence of two distinct but interlocking movements, historic preservation and adaptation to sea level rise. In coastal and riverine communities around the globe, people have been working to address the threat of rising seas through a variety of disciplines – climate science, historic preservation, architecture and engineering, design, government, finance – and this was one of the first opportunities to get everyone in the same room to compare notes. We believe this conference served as a turning point, a moment to galvanize a movement built from diverse efforts happening around the world. Unifying the worlds of historic preservation and climate change adaptation behind a shared purpose somehow feels both revolutionary and like the most common sense pairing in the world.
One of the most important developments to come out of Keeping History Above Water actually happened after the formal close of the conference: on Thursday, April 14, many of the original drafters and signatories of the Pocantico Call to Action reconvened in Newport’s historic Trinity Church.
For those unfamiliar, the Pocantico Call to Action was drafted in February 2015 to draw attention to the risks climate change poses to our collective cultural heritage. The Union of Concerned Scientists, National Trust for Historic Preservation, JM Kaplan Fund, Society for American Archaeology, and representatives of over 20 local, national, and international organizations came together to publish this landmark agreement to raise awareness and collaborate on solutions. (Read the full call to action here.)
This reconvening, just over a year later, was intended to renew and refocus these collaborative efforts, to identify action steps and workable solutions across disciplines and geography. Many of the original signatories were present once again, including Adam Markham from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Tom Dawson from the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project, Jeana Wiser from the Preservation Green Lab at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Andrew Potts from US/ICOMOS. This gathering was energized by the profound sense of shared purpose and common goals that had catalyzed over the previous four days.
As historic preservationists by trade, we never expected to lead a conference of global experts to address climate change, but we recognize that the rising waters that literally surround our island city will not be contained by the silos in which we typically work. We cannot preserve historic buildings if the coastlines on which they stand are washed away. The experience of Keeping History Above Water proved that many other people and organizations have arrived at this same conclusion and unified behind the common goal of ensuring the resilience and adaptability of our coastal communities.
We see now that Keeping History Above Water was not simply a conference, but a movement that already exists in many communities around the world, and will continue to spread as the threats become more imminent and the need for action becomes more urgent. We intend to convene more conferences in more places, develop new partnerships, and make #HistoryAboveWater a conversation that continues all year-round.
In the meantime, we recommend that you and/or your organization sign the Pocantico Call to Action. This is only the first step in building a framework for the scientific and preservation communities to unite in defense of one of our most valuable resources: our collective cultural heritage.