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Climate Change, Heritage, and the “Future(s) of the Past”

February 28, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on Climate Change, Heritage, and the “Future(s) of the Past”

Climate change poses a whole host of problems for all of us (whether we acknowledge them or not), but some of those problems have not gotten as much attention as others.  In “The Art of Losing,” a blog hosted by the University of Minnesota Press, author Caitlin DeSilvey writes about the recent National Park Service policy document concerning heritage resources that are at risk from a changing climate.  In the United States, the administrative structure around historic preservation is oriented around a conception that wants to “stop time,” to preserve the significant fabric of historic structures as they were in the significant part of the past.  In some cases, “restoration” is called for, but for the most part programs such as the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Landmarks Program, indeed even many individual units of the National Park System, make an implicit promise that the visitor will see the past landscape or building “as it was” during the historically significant time.

In this conception of time, the effort is always uppermost to preserve, to stop time somehow, to slow down or interrupt the processes of decay and loss.  So the new Park Service Climate Change Strategy breaks new ground with its acceptance that a changing climate will necessarily result in the loss of historically significant places.  In the face of inevitable loss, what are the appropriate ways to recognize the importance of what was in this place?  Perhaps a more difficult, yet more important, question is how to talk about the multilayered systems that are changing a place that is loved and that has wide significance.  When rising seas bring the Tidal Pool up to the base of the Jefferson Memorial, how will we have to change our thinking about the passage of time and the impermanence of landscape?

A community visioning project in Boston “Boston Coastline: Future Past” offers one approach.  As illustrated on a web site and video, participants walked the streets of the city, more or less tracing the future shoreline, given some climate change projects.  Maybe it’s not surprising that the future shoreline closely approximates the shoreline of the area when Europeans landed in the 17th century.  What does surprise many people is how much of the present city, including some of the region’s most famous areas, is built on created land, fill that has been scooped up and solidified, and on which buildings, streets, and parks have now been placed.

Neither the National Park Service nor the Boston walkers directly engage the ways in which water shapes our sense of where we are, our sense of what physical components of our best-known spots make it distinctly “here.”  We have a lot to learn about our “water past” in order to understand better our potential “water futures” and how our most desired future might be achieved.

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