CRM Journal


Preservation and Sustainability

by Erica Avrami


With the publication of the Brundtland Report(1) and the pursuant Rio Earth Summit, the past two decades have seen a growing synergy amongst the environmental, economic, and social agendas. The three have been politically wed in the international arena as the pillars of sustainability and are often referred to as the "3 P's": planet (environment), profit (economic), and people (social). Although economics and the environment have been the drivers to date, this tripartite of sustainability reinforces intergenerational and intragenerational equity and social justice concerns, and advances a more integrative approach to human and natural systems.

The evolving sustainability discourse has given rise to greater environmental awareness in planning, architecture, and preservation. Climate change, energy consumption, and demographic shifts have made apparent, if not dire, the need to revolutionize the way we design and manage the built environment. However, changes in policy and practice are often ad hoc and poorly integrated, without adequate assessment of the combined environmental, economic, and social costs and benefits.(2)

More than thirty years ago, James Marston Fitch called out trends in the field of architecture that remain salient to today's sustainability debate, and indeed our failure to heed his foresight has compounded our current situation. The emphasis on form over function, the over-reliance on technology to control environments, the failure to take into account the embodied energy in existing buildings, the lack of understanding about construction of the past and vernacular traditions—all are germane to sustainable policy development today. The great challenge of the preservation field, and of all disciplines associated with the built environment, is how to engage effectively in this quest for sustainability from all three perspectives: environmental, economic, and social.

With regard to preservation's forays into environmental sustainability, attention has favored "adaptation" (how to prepare heritage sites for climate change), rather than "mitigation" (how heritage preservation can help to achieve sustainable practices). Our limited engagement in the mitigation dialogue has been primarily through advocating that old buildings are inherently green, given their embodied energy and often efficient designs. That is indeed true sometimes, and a growing number of cases help to illustrate that assertion. However, the preservation field has yet to generate the research necessary for legitimizing that position consistently through quantitative analyses. As life cycle assessment models become more sophisticated and data regarding all phases of building energy consumption (embodied, grey, induced, operating, and, demolition/recycling) become more available, preservation will need hard numbers to advance its cause.

If we do not do the research and generate the data required to effectively engage the environmental agenda, we will undoubtedly face similar challenges to those of the past, when preservation tried to hitch its wagon to economic development. Recent studies demonstrate a net positive gain in property values for residences in historic districts versus those in similar undesignated neighborhoods. The Trust's Main Street program boasts that it is "one of the most powerful economic development tools in the nation," generating $27 in community returns for every dollar invested in the program.(3) The Federal Historic Tax Credits have leveraged more than $55 billion in private investment to rehabilitate historic buildings.(4) A number of statewide impact studies demonstrate the positive effects of preservation on job creation, tourism revenue, and more.(5)

Yet, the field still claims that the economic benefits of preservation are not adequately supported. And in fact, that may be true. Most of this research is advocacy-based, meaning it is undertaken with the clear agenda of supporting the cause of preservation. We do not run comparative numbers, for example, to see if rehabilitating that main street generates more revenue than turning it into a strip mall or if a new high-rise generates more jobs than a five-story rehab. We don't often make those comparisons because it's a numbers game we can't always win. Indeed, the greenest and most cost-effective/revenue generating building may be the existing one, but we are going to have to crunch the data to prove it if preservation is to gain traction in the economic and environmental sustainability dialogue.

Efforts to demonstrate how preservation contributes environmentally and economically should clearly be pursued. However, one can argue that a preservation agenda will never prevail on those justifications alone. The fundamental rationale for why we preserve is the contribution it makes to social sustainability. Yet it is precisely this rationale that is most lacking in research and scholarship, as well as policy debates.

In the last half-century, social theorists challenged the rationalist tradition,(6) thereby questioning the notion that the human condition could be improved through design. The function of deliberation in social action was championed, and the application of these ideas to the planning and management of the built environment questioned top-down, expert-driven models and promoted more robust community participation. Preservation has in turn advocated value-driven methodologies for heritage decision making that engages a range of stakeholders. Such bottom-up, participatory processes are believed to promote community building, foster tolerance and understanding of difference, and enhance social cohesion. They also ensure intergenerational equity by stewarding heritage for future generations. However, the preservation field has done little to demonstrate these societal benefits, in part because of the complexity of the research required, but also because we remain somewhat conflicted as to how these concepts are operationalized in practice.

Fitch asserted decades ago that we are, all of us, participants in the built environment.(7) Despite his concerns over the democratization of certain forms of material culture, he had a very Jeffersonian outlook on architecture and understood it not only as works of design and construction, but as an ongoing social invention. His perception of aesthetics was driven largely by the dynamic between form and function—how we interact with buildings and landscapes, how the man-made and natural environments interrelate. This is what led him to the issues of embodied energy and the lessons to be learned from pre-industrial and vernacular building traditions. However, his ideas were still framed within a curatorial, top-down paradigm that is now robustly debated. While Fitch acknowledged the pitfalls of a preservation agenda too reliant on artistic and historic values, he saw the work of preservation as an expert-driven, professional endeavor.

The decades hence have produced more standardization and professionalization within the field of preservation, while at the same time scholarship has revealed the concept of heritage and its conservation as a subjective relationship between people and places. Our understanding of aesthetics in the context of preservation has evolved beyond a particular set of values into a way of incorporating multiple and often changing values into our ongoing work. Indeed, one of the great challenges of our generation is to reconcile the tension between the preservationist as expert on the built environment and preservationist as facilitator of a value-driven social process.

Balancing those roles requires an enhanced understanding of the social implications and outcomes of the work of preservation. Preserving heritage has the potential to engage communities in decision making about their shared past and future, forge bonds and bridges between peoples, and foster awareness of the differences and similarities among cultures. In researching and articulating these processes and effects, the field will both inform practice and build the most compelling rationale for its cause. Developing economic and environmental motivations for preservation are critical to forging convergence and collaboration in the pursuit for sustainability. However, defining preservation's unique role in this pursuit requires renewed focus on and reinforcement of the fundamental purpose of our work: promoting social sustainability through the collective stewardship of the world's cultural heritage.


About the Author

Erica Avrami is Director of Research and Education at the World Monuments Fund. She is also a doctoral candidate in planning and public policy at Rutgers University, where her research focuses on the intersection of preservation and sustainability. She may be contacted at:



1. World Commission on the Environment and Development, Our Common Future (London: Oxford University Press, 1987).

2. The adoption of LEED and other green building programs pose particular challenges as municipalities and other regulatory entities begin to incorporate these as "standards," while research is still evolving regarding their long-term efficacy.

3. Main Street reinvestment statistics are available at:, accessed on July 16, 2010.

4. National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, Technical Preservation Services, Federal Tax Incentives for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings: Statistical Report and Analysis for Fiscal Year 2009 (February 2010), 1.

5. For information about these studies and further analysis of the economics literature as it relates to historic preservation, please see: Randall Mason, Economics and Historic Preservation: A Guide and Review of the Literature (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, September 2005).

6. The work of Jürgen Habermas was seminal in this discourse, especially The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. Thomas McCarthy, 2 vols (Cambridge: Polity, 1984).

7. James Marston Fitch, "The Future of Architecture," in Selected Writings on Architecture, Preservation, and the Built Environment, ed. Martica Sawin (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006), 280. This essay was published in several forms, beginning in 1965.