Sunday, September 02, 2007

In Canada, the value of "heritage" in "historic" properties

While visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia, recently, I was struck by the plaque (right) attached to an 1828 building--and the message about valuing "heritage" behind it. It's occupied, quite appropriately, by the Nova Scotia Association of Architects, as a photo below shows.

The building, as the plaque indicates, is a "Registered Heritage Property." According to the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism, Culture & Heritage:
The Heritage Property Act was passed in 1980, and amended in 1990. The purpose of this Act is to identify and protect built heritage--buildings, structures, districts--of historic, architectural and cultural value, and to encourage the continued use of this resource.

The term "heritage" is also used on a national scale; indeed, Canada has a Department of Canadian Heritage. According to the department's web site:
Canadian Heritage is responsible for national policies and programs that promote Canadian content, foster cultural participation, active citizenship and participation in Canada's civic life, and strengthen connections among Canadians.

And UNESCO, of course, has a World Heritage List.

The resonance of "heritage"

The word heritage, which includes among its definitions "inheritance," has a particular and enduring resonance. In other words, a heritage property should be valuable to all of us today, rather than set aside under the more common designation of "historic," which might be valued only by those who place a special value on the past.

History vs. costliness

Thus some in New York and elsewhere have resisted "historic" designations for buildings and neighborhoods, fearing that such a regulation would be costly to builders and/or deter the production of more affordable housing. And obviously it's legitimate to assess costs and benefits.

But see for example the testimony arguing that the cost of retaining a historic building in the Domino sugar refinery in Williamsburg adds to the cost of the New Domino plan. (There's pretty much consensus about that building; the dispute now is about adding buildings.)

Forest City Enterprises has a track record of converting old industrial buildings like the Ward Bakery, now slated for demolition in the Atlantic Yards plan, into housing. Forest City's Ron Ratner said in 2002, "As a developer, I am sometimes asked if we would ever be willing to sacrifice profitability to achieve excellence in historic preservation. My answer is that's a false choice. Using technical and financial creativity, and working in public-private partnerships, we can have it all, including economic return."

Not so much in the Brooklyn project, where retention of buildings would interfere with the overall project design, including sustainable elements. According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the partial mitigation for the loss of the bakery and another building would include “archival documentation of the buildings and additional measures that would document the history of the buildings.”

That's definitely history more than heritage, though it remains debatable whether a designation of "heritage" would have changed the cost-benefit equation.

Mixed nomenclature

Canada does seem to use the terms "heritage" and "historic" interchangeably. For example, Parks Canada states:
The Historic Places Initiative is a collaboration involving all levels of government - local, provincial, territorial and federal. Together, we have created the tools to enable Canadians to learn about, value, enjoy and conserve our country's historic places.

While there is The Canadian Register of Historic Places, there's also The Commercial Heritage Properties Incentive Fund. The initiative aims "to build Canada's culture of heritage conservation," warning of "a dramatic deterioration of Canada’s built heritage over the past 30 years."

Canada has a more collectivist ethos, as expressed in initiatives like national health insurance. The flip side, critics might say, is that the United States has more entrepreneurial energy and social mobility. (Well, social mobility seems to be lagging, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)

In other words, here in the U.S. "heritage" might not always be as important. The National Trust for Historic Preservation emphasizes the other "h" word. Then again, some jurisdictions do use the word; for example, there's a (state of) Washington Heritage Register. And the United States was the prime architect of the World Heritage concept and the first country to ratify the World Heritage Convention, in 1973.

So maybe there's room for both.

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