Building a Bigger Tent
By Stephanie K. Meeks | From Preservation | March/April 2011
We've been talking a lot at the National Trust lately about inspiring more people to save historic places. And we've set ourselves an ambitious goal: putting preservation on a par with conservation when it comes to the number of adult Americans who express concern. Having spent most of my adult life in the conservation and preservation movements, I know that both are supported by thoughtful people who are inclined to think twice before throwing away an essential part of our heritage, be it natural or cultural. My predecessor, Dick Moe, had a wonderful way of expressing this value. He used to say that when you strip away all the rhetoric, preservation is simply having the good sense to hold on to things that link us to the past in a meaningful way and still have plenty of good use left in them.
His idea resonated with many in the conservation community, and I believe almost everyone shares a commitment to prudent stewardship on some level. It's at the heart of the current movement toward sustainability. Our challenge today is to help people make the connection between that growing movement and preservation.
Several years ago, the Brookings Institution released a report projecting that by 2030, we will have demolished and replaced one-third of the existing building stock in the United States. That's a little more than 80 billion square feet of space. New construction, no matter how green, consumes energy, creates greenhouse gases, and generates landfill waste. Moreover, building a new, energy-efficient home entails an often-overlooked environmental cost: the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere during construction. According to a study by the Empty Homes Agency called "New Tricks with Old Bricks," offsetting that carbon emission can take as long as 50 years.
As a nation, we have embraced the recycling of newspapers and water bottles, but not the reuse of buildings and communities. That's a serious missed opportunity, given that well over 40 percent of carbon emissions come from the operation and construction of buildings—much more than is produced through transportation.
The National Trust has been working for several years to get this message out. Our Preservation Green Lab works at the state and local levels to promote green building policies and tools. Projects such as a sustainable farming operation at Woodlawn Plantation and a green restoration effort at Denver's Emerson School demonstrate that historic sites can be models of energy efficiency and innovation.
Across the United States, creative preservationists are finding new ways to make common cause with their friends in the conservation community. It is a natural partnership, one built on a shared sense of the truth in something my mentor, the late Nature Conservancy President John Sawhill, once observed: "In the end, our society will be defined not by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy."
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