We are talking about the preservation of historic buildings, homes and the pieces of them that make them historic. Is this topic that distant from KIB’s work in environmental promotion and education? I would say they are not disconnected, but moreover a closer, meaningful partnership should be made between them. A partnership between environmentalism and preservation that is quite distant at this point in the nation.
As our friends in our sister field of historic preservation leave Indianapolis after attending the National Trust Conference last week, we who advocate for trees, recycling, composting and pocket park creation should think about their efforts. After all, what is a historic wood window but a piece of wood from a tree that was part of a primary growth forest that grew in the 1800s/early 1900s. We don’t have many of those around any longer due to farming, city expansions and development. Primary growth wood is stronger and will last longer than new wood, so when you throw out that window, you not only lose the character that the window provides to the home or building, but also the intrinsic quality of that wood that can never be replaced. Like a slate roof, a wood window is representative of a craft that rarely exists any longer. Its symbolic of a culture that invested and valued reuse, longevity and the idea that fixing is better and more affordable than replacing. Somewhere along the way, our society shifted to the concept of take and toss, and new is better.
The demolition of historic buildings and homes, and even removing elements of these buildings requires energy that is simply invested into throwing away and not toward improving. Even though on the surface building new may seem more sustainable, what is often overlooked is the fact that the historic fabric of a building cannot be replaced. The material comes from material that can no longer be harvested (like that primary growth wood) or cannot be secured due to cost (building with marble or granite is much more expensive than synthetic stucco and vinyl). Further, it takes energy to demolish, remove, throw in a landfill, compact in the landfill the pieces of historic structures, and even more energy to secure and deliver new materials, then build them for a new structure. This is energy that must be created in power plants, fuel and resourcing. Yet, when you adaptively reuse and rehabilitate a historic structure, materials can be reused and repaired, and less energy is needed to dispose. Therefore, this keeps more material out of the landfill and less energy required to create.
KIB works to create Place through transforming vacant lots into pocket parks and gathering spaces.We add to the overall character of neighborhoods by planting trees along streets. We build community and garner nearly 30,000 volunteers a year to work with us to achieve these goals. Then how different is any of this to ensuring that the historic structures surrounding that pocket park remain intact, or recognize that the homes that line a street behind those trees are part of that place’s identity, and that by building community involvement, we see more people building a higher quality of life by taking care of their homes and workplaces.
Likewise, it is our job to help preservationists understand that picking up litter is not just a daily routine, but part of an idea that supports Jane Jacobs’ philosophies of preservation. Is it truly that far of a jump to say that our work engaging neighbors in placemaking is too far from engaging local preservationists to save a building? I submit that they are one in the same and more should be done to build that connection.
Let us introduce each other, preservationist meet environmentalist.