Historic Preservation and America in The World – Part 1

This is an election year. And while this blog is certainly not intended to be a political forum, it is about what I do professionally and that, in part, is historic preservation. Domestically the roles of historic preservation are becoming better known – downtown revitalization, neighborhood stabilization, job creation, heritage tourism, affordable housing, local economic development, sustainable development and others.But less understood is the potential role that historic preservation could play as a central part of the international policy of the United States. So maybe 10 weeks before the general election is a good time to write about those roles. I am also putting this blog on the web site of Heritage Strategies International which is the company through which I undertake foreign assignments.

There are deep divisions within the United States regarding America’s actions in the world in the past few years. And there are strong arguments on every side about the rightness or wrongness of our current policies.

But no objective observer and no one who has traveled to foreign countries in recent years can escape three realities: 1) among both America’s friends and America’s opponents regard for the United States has fallen dramatically in recent years; 2) the regaining of the respect and the reestablishment of the leadership of the United States will take concentrated effort over a long period of time – perhaps a generation or more; and 3) essential to that effort will be the reengagement of the American government with international institutions, most of which were created through the leadership of the United States.

I firmly believe that incorporating historic preservation as a key component of the international policy of the United States can play a central role in our efforts to restore America’s rightful place of leadership in the world.

I know that sounds overreaching … that compared with military bases, massive foreign aid programs to build roads, dams, and hospitals, the CIA, and big embassies, historic preservation cannot possibly play that important role.

I would suggest there are at least twenty reasons why historic preservation not only can play such a role, but needs to:

1. Of the five or six times President Bush has spoken to the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the dozens of initiatives he has announced there, his warmest reception came when he declared that the United States would rejoin UNESCO after an 18-year absence.Banksa Staivnica, Slovakia

2. There is certainly great expertise in some aspects of historic preservation in other parts of the world, especially in Europe, that surpasses ours here in the United States. What we have exceeded in, however, is the market-based strategies for the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. That could constitute a meaningful contribution to countries around the globe.
3. America is the only military superpower left on earth and there are good reasons that it should remain so. However, if there is one vital lesson from September 11th and from Iraq it is this: having far and away the strongest military is not enough to protect us. Historic preservation could serve as a non-military component of a comprehensive strategy that recognizes military strength is necessary but not sufficient for sustained and credible world leadership or for world peace.
4. One of the great economic arguments for historic preservation in this country is the positive local impact on jobs and household incomes that rehabilitation makes relative both to new construction and to most other economic activities. This aspect is demonstrably true in the rest of the world as well. There are few countries in the world where creating local jobs isn’t a high priority, particularly in the developing world.
5. While both the private and public sectors play an important role in historic preservation in the US, it has always been the non-profit sector that has been the strongest advocate, the best educator, and the most innovative problem solver in preservation here. Change in the developing world will be led by the non-profit sector as well (known in the rest of the world as NGOs – Non Governmental Organizations). Using historic preservation as a strategy abroad helps us assist in the establishment and effectiveness of NGOs elsewhere.

Singapore6. A legitimate concern, particularly in World Heritage Cities, is that a heritage tourism strategy can often overwhelm the fragile historic resources. While heritage tourism will still be important, we have been developing the knowledge here as to how to protect those resources from overuse. More importantly, however, more than anywhere else on the globe, we have found economic uses for historic buildings far beyond heritage tourism. My best guess is that 95% of all the historic buildings in economically productive use in this country have nothing to do with tourism.

Cuenca, Spain

7. A historic preservation based international relations component of American policy would be vastly less expensive for taxpayers than buying missiles for foreign armies or building dams of questionable economic utility and negative environmental impact.
8. We have seen in this country some of the downsides of economic growth and prosperity – suburban sprawl, declining city centers, loss of agricultural lands, environmental degradation, loss of affordable housing and others. Encouraging and assisting developing countries to adopt preservation-based strategies could be central in their preempting those problems before they occur.
9. Economic development is never a quick fix; it is always an incremental process. The demonstrable success of Main Street – economic development in the context of historic preservation – has reinforced the understanding and effectiveness of incrementalism. A historic preservation based component of international policy would inherently be an incremental one, thus both providing the time to regain our rightful position in world leadership and to dissuade the idea that there in an instant answer to difficult economic, political, and social problems.

Hanoi, Vietnam

10. As a parallel to incrementalism, a historic preservation based strategy is inherently long-term. Internationally among the strongest criticisms of American policy is that it seems to be exclusively short term. We certainly need to demonstrate more long-term thinking.
Tomorrow – 10 more reasons for historic preservation to be part of US foreign policy