I’ve just been to a public forum, presented by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museums Commission (PHMC) and hosted by DVRPC, which sought comments on the draft state Preservation Plan. Many of the participants were fellow preservation-geeks, but it was great to see Fairmount Park folks, staff from the Philadelphia City Plan Commission, the city Historical Commission, higher ed people and reps from the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (@CreativePHL) as well.
It was a lively and thought-provoking discussion about how to position historic preservation and the agency’s work out in the world for the next five years. And the findings of a non-scientific, self-selecting online survey that the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) of PHMC undertook formed the basis of the discussion. Most of the survey results weren’t too surprising: people who responded are mostly over age 45, and don’t list “historic buildings” as the places that best reflect what they value about their communities. But if you think about it, the character-defining features of the communities themselves – the neighborhoods, the landscapes, the trails and waterways – that were the top rated selections in the survey actually embody the heritage that we preservationists seek to, well, conserve.
One of the forum-goers even articulated what I’ve been thinking for some time: maybe we should consider a language change, to what our British and Canadian colleagues call “heritage conservation.” They avoid “historic.” What’s historic, anyway? The definition gets fuzzier all the time. And “preservation,” which sounds like we promote encasing cherished architectural artifacts in amber.
It was also good to hear from the City Plan Commission staffers, and to get some context for their decision to create a stand-alone historic preservation category in the newly adopted Philadelphia 2035 Comprehensive Plan. As I have read the plan during the past few months, I’ve had the slightly annoying feeling that perhaps creating a unique preservation section in the Plan suggests that it’s an afterthought.
It’s great to be singled out in positive ways: historic preservation is important and gets its own chapter. We’ve all arrived! But shouldn’t conserving the heritage we’ve got be woven in as an integral part of our planning and development goals and strategies? Is positive, but separate, attention a way of marginalizing?
The PCPC folks agreed that they’d asked themselves the same questions and decided that education of a public that is largely uninformed and at least consciously uninterested in the built heritage of Philadelphia could benefit from a definitive discussion about the issue in a focused section of the Plan. They’re likely right.
That same kind of education and conversation need to be a compelling part of the Pennsylvania Preservation Plan as well. We heritage conservators (see, it didn’t hurt) and our partner, the SHPO, will have to make new friends and allies in the environmental, energy conservation and outdoor recreation worlds. We will have to learn to lobby more aggressively, network more strategically, communicate more broadly and look at what we want to conserve more diversely. So onward with more work to craft a meaningful and powerful Preservation Plan for the Commonwealth.