Praxis Dialogues: Preservation and the public good

On February 28, PennPraxis and PlanPhilly will host another Praxis Dialogues, the third in a series of public conversations about the notion of “the public good” in design practice. This round we’re talking about public good in historic preservation and each week we’ll share commentaries from our panelists. First up is PennPraxis’ Executive Director Randy Mason considering why we bother to preserve.

Historic preservation is, and has long been, part of civic life of Philadelphia. But on what basis? Habit and inheritance? Good taste and propriety? Collective responsibility and quality urbanism? Tourism and government regulation? Historic preservation is an established public priority but what does it mean to choose to preserve? What is the public good in it?

Modern societies are wired to reflect on the past. It matters that we can sense the passage of time in buildings, landscapes, and histories. Our sense of public space, shared experience and collective purpose depend on it.  

The chronic concern about how and how much to remember the past is baked into the life of cities. William Penn anticipated it in his 1684 Prayer for Philadelphia: “O that thou mayest be kept from the evil that would overwhelm thee, that… thou mayest be preserved to the end.”

Change is essential for a healthy city’s growth and progress; preservation tempers this by deliberately managing change. Landmark designations and national parks are inscribed in law to force a balance between remembering and replacement. As public laws, these and other preservation tools represent the pride, usefulness, and responsibility society assigns to historic places.

Even in the most settled times, the status of historic preservation as a public good is unsettled and contentious. Decisions about what to preserve, and how, are fraught and political. In an increasingly tumultuous political moment, we are moved to ask basic questions about the role of historic preservation in the city, and in society as a whole.  

The larger purposes and prompts behind historic preservation – why we preserve, by whom and for whom, and what justifies these choices– go deeper than issues about the Historical Commission or the controversy over a particular building.  Stewardship of built heritage is a basic urban function, a social need, and conceptually and legally a public good.  Preservation is also something practiced by just about every person, family and neighborhood without calling it “preservation” – we protect things valuable to us, whether that value is memorial, aesthetic, or financial.  

Yet in its role of serving the public as a whole, historic preservation goes beyond the individual.  It is a part of our laws, reinforced by collective memory, and touted as a marketing slogan by entrepreneurs. We all own it. We all share some responsibility in caring for it. Yet the “public” status of preservation raises more questions than it answers.  

At least three different notions of public good apply to preservation:

  • The economic concept of public good as something demanded by society but not provided by the market, and thus provided by the government or philanthropy.  

  • The sense of cultural public good—the right to pass things down through the generations and reinterpret that heritage as a part of freedom of expression and association.

  • The moral and political definition of public good as the right and responsibility of a society to act on behalf of the greater good – in this case: access to heritage, culture, and (ultimately) freedom.

The question about historic preservation is therefore not whether it contributes to a city’s public good, only a matter of how and where a city will exercise the right and responsibility to preserve. The shared meaning and cultural value we moderns derive from the past – this is the core public good in historic preservation.

In the public good that is historic preservation, something more specific and tangible than the “character” of the city is at stake – and something grander and more creative than listing an historic district or the “proper” restoration of a building. To get to the bottom of these varied notions of the responsibility or right to pursue historic preservation, a conversation about the public good is warranted.

Our third installment of Praxis Dialogues, on February 28, is a discussion about the public good of historic preservation in Philadelphia, seen from multiple perspectives.  It is not trying to stay above the fray of current conflicts surrounding preservation – nor are we debating the rights and wrongs of specific preservation controversies. Rather, we are probing deeper issues.  We want to ask the skeptical question of “Why do we bother to preserve?” and hone our sense of why preservation matters to Philadelphia and Philadelphians.  

Praxis Dialogues: Preservation and the Public Good will be held at the Philadelphia History Museum on February 28 at 6:30pm. Register here

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