Challenging Social Exclusion in the Urban Built Environment

by Anna Gasha |December 29, 2020
two men at a gate

A gate outside the White House, cerca 1920. Source: Library of Congress

The field of historic preservation — which seeks to preserve buildings, landscapes, and other objects of historical significance, along with the histories associated with those places — has long recognized the power inherent in its storytelling about the past. Preservationists give space to history, not only through discussion, but through physical, literal space and built environment, by preserving, curating, and displaying tangible remnants of the past. Such a practice naturally raises questions: What is represented of past histories and why? Whose histories are told and remembered? Whose perspectives remain unrecognized or actively suppressed? In trying to answer these questions, another emerges: How can we remediate structural legacies of exclusion and strive for a more equitable built environment?

The second and most recent publication from the Urban Heritage, Sustainability, and Social Inclusion research initiative seeks to deepen the conversation on such issues. The volume, Preservation and Social Inclusion, is now available in print and online through Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, and brings together perspectives of preservation professionals, government officials, activists, and academics. To expand upon the effort of the publication, the initiative has also launched “Building a Foundation for Action: Anti-Racist Historic Preservation Resources,” an open-access, collaborative document to compile readings, ideas, and projects to push preservationists to decenter whiteness within their work.

Urban Heritage, Sustainability, and Social Inclusion

book cover

A new book from a project at Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development offers ideas to decenter whiteness within historic preservation.

The Urban Heritage, Sustainability, and Social Inclusion project has worked since 2017 to facilitate conversations about the role of historic preservation—as an urban policy tool—in supporting sustainability and equity. The initiative comprises three core inquiries: preservation and the new data landscape; preservation and social inclusion; and preservation, sustainability, and equity. Each emerges out of a symposium focused on a dialogue about the theme. Some of the rich conversations from these discussions are captured in each publication, with the aim of informing the next generation of preservation policy in the United States.

Housed by the Columbia Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CSUD), the project is led by Professor Erica Avrami of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation in partnership with CSUD and The American Assembly, with critical funding from the New York Community Trust, a public charity that provides grants to build community and improve the lives of New York City-area residents.

The CSUD and its mission to address issues of sustainability, equity, and planning within urban environments presented an opportune home base for the research initiative. The center’s vision focuses on creative, interdisciplinary, and engaged research that advances the translation of academic knowledge and discussion into action—in the form of policy and real-world change. This resonates strongly with the project’s goal of bridging the communicative gaps in preservation policy that hinder advances toward a sustainable, equitable future.

“CSUD considers environmental and social injustice linked to histories of racism and exclusion a core issue that needs addressing within our sustainability work,” says Jacqueline Klopp, CSUD co-director. “Rethinking and reframing historic preservation, translating this into the built environment, and engaging a broader public in this process are critically important. Building a sustainable, just society must be based on a foundation of solid recognition of histories that have shaped our present. It has been a great privilege to be part of the vibrant discussions that have produced such excellent new thinking on preservation encapsulated in these engaging books.”

“Many government agencies dealing with preservation lack the mandate and the resources to independently explore emerging questions about [exclusionary] policy, and the same is often true for not-for-profit and community groups. Though scholarly research on the topic is expanding, it remains fragmented,” explains Avrami, the project’s principal investigator, in her introduction to the first publication, Preservation and the New Data Landscape. “This initiative aims to counter that fragmentation and foster communication and collective action toward socially and environmentally responsive change.”

Preservation and Social Inclusion

Within this larger framework, the latest Preservation and Social Inclusion volume presents essays and interviews with a remarkable cohort of practicing preservationists, activists and academics who use various lenses to explore the questions of existing exclusionary preservation practices, ways to shift preservation policy toward inclusion and to challenge existing historic narratives, and how to enhance preservation’s synergies with community development.

The book incites action within the preservation field by maintaining a process-oriented focus. Preservation is a multi-stage, extended process involving numerous stakeholders and actors. From collecting information on a historic site, to filing for designation, to interpreting it for a public audience, the act of preservation entails many interacting parts and potential opportunities for involving and empowering various publics. In this vein, the introduction, “Preservation’s Reckoning,” highlights themes that not only resonate throughout the contributions but also suggest specific methods by which preservationists can become more mindful of and proactively work with more inclusive practices and policies.

Indeed, the broad span and variety of affiliations among the contributors, and the careful thought they have put into issues of aligning preservation with social justice and impact, point to a hopeful direction for the future of the field. At the same time, there is still more work to do. The aim of the book, as well as the overarching Urban Heritage, Sustainability, and Social Inclusion project, is to push for broader shifts in policy to foster widespread change in how preservation operates in relation to society and climate. While case studies on their own are helpful as examples, “systemic change won’t be achieved site-by-site,” Avrami notes. “It will happen by focusing on the governance structures and decision-making processes that guide preservation.”

Extending the Conversation

The past months have been marked by salient conversations about racism, anti-Blackness, and social inequities in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans at the hands of police. Within this context, many academic and professional disciplines have taken a much-needed, if not overdue, self-reflective stance: How are the communities and practices in which we operate and take for granted complicit in enforcing social divisions or inequity? How do we tackle and begin to break down these engrained parts of the status quo and de-center whiteness? Given this context and climate, Preservation and Social Inclusion has become available as a resource and framework at a time when there appears to be more general, public interest in conversations about spatial justice and historical reckoning.

Many organizations and interest groups have put forth discipline-specific reading lists and resource guides to compile entry points for further learning and engagement with anti-racism. The realms of architecture and urban planning, fields closely allied to historic preservation, have so far been well-represented in such efforts.

Meanwhile, the area of historic preservation has yet to see similar initiatives, despite the significant overlap between preservation and the conversations on anti-Blackness and institutional racism. To acknowledge this overlap and the productive conversations that could be gleaned within it, the Urban Heritage, Sustainability, and Social Inclusion project has initiated an online reference guide for preservationists to advance the unlearning of whiteness. In this way, the end product will aim to continue the dialogue on preservation and social justice beyond Preservation and Social Inclusion.

This new resource list aims to be a collaborative, continued effort that evolves over time. Addressing problems as deep-rooted as social inequity is inherently a process, not a one-off task, that requires multiple perspectives to supplement each other. In Avrami’s view, accountability, self-examination, and driving change are not just a best practice, but may be a mandate for preservationists due to the power their work holds: “As a critical medium of shared identities, values, and stories, heritage practice and policy are uniquely positioned to promote more equitable and inclusive communities through hope, justice, and healing.”

For further questions on this work, contact Professor Erica Avrami (eca8@columbia.edu).

Anna Gasha is a doctoral student in Historic Preservation at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. She assisted with the creation of the Anti-Racist Historic Preservation resource list as Prof. Erica Avrami’s research assistant in the summer of 2020.


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