Ethics, Equity, and Planning

Posted on March 16, 2021

historic preservation and equity

This post was shared anonymously by an ELGL member.

I am honored and proud to serve my community. It is a beautiful town, rich in natural and historic beauty. We value our history and have strong historic district guidelines in place to preserve the historic fabric of our community. Our historic district guidelines, like in most communities, are consistent with the Secretary of the Interior guidelines for historic preservation. This is a mark of pride, and it has reaped the benefits promised by historic preservation advocates. Property values are up. It is a community where people want to live. And we have a great community spirit. Some days I feel like I am in a Hallmark movie. 

Like many of you, over the past year, I have been on a journey… a spiritual, religious, and very personal journey to reconcile myself and my life in the realization of the context of a society that values “white” culture more than that of “others.” I have been reading, praying, watching documentaries and movies, and, of course, attending webinars where our professional and personal responsibility to stand for racial justice has been reinforced. Not to sound cliché, but I am changed… or at least changing. I cannot unsee what I have seen on this journey or unlearn the lessons of the journey.

Of course, life would be easier if I rested comfortably in my white privilege as a non-racist, “neutral” bystander. But like you, the many events of the last year, and the learning that has come with it, have called me to become an anti-racist, perhaps even an ally one day. I can’t go back. Everything I do, I now see through these new lenses. It is as if I have been visually impaired all these years, and now that I can see, the world is different to me. 

It is against these two backdrops that I find my new moral conundrum. A little more about my idyllic town…. We’re pretty white. It hasn’t always been a white town. As a matter of fact, we used to have a thriving African American community. But then we became a destination, a desirable place to live, and gentrification happened.

A few of the multi-generation African American families remain, but the neighborhood that used to be the heart of our African American community is now filled with large, expensive second homes, a mere stone’s throw from our beautiful historic district.

Recently, our historic preservation board denied placement of a structure reminiscent of our African American history because it did not comply with the guidelines. It didn’t fit into the surroundings. As I sat and watched the board deliberate, I became sad, angry, and frustrated. This seems to be what is going on all around me. This is what I have been learning on my journey. It is white people who decide which history is worth preserving. It is white history that we have valued in our historic preservation efforts.

I reflect on my career and the historic architecture that has been deemed worthy of preservation. It is not the shacks or the servants’ quarters where we relegated our people of color. It is the mansions, the Italianate and Georgian architecture designed by and for our white communities. I get it…. We do not preserve the shacks of our impoverished white ancestors either, but once we designate districts based on standards meant to preserve the history of the majority and require that anything constructed, placed or renovated in these districts to be compatible with the built environment represented by these standards, we stand to lose a piece of our other history. 

I am not sure my community, including my elected officials, are ready to hear this truth. I am not sure that historic preservation planners are ready to hear this truth. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable to hear this truth. One colleague recently commented to me that we are so worried about preserving historic buildings and districts, but in doing this we stand to lose our history. 

I am struggling personally and professionally with how to introduce this dialogue in a community that isn’t ready to hear it. Many months ago, I recall a webinar where somebody pondered… “my community is not diverse…. How can I further racial justice in my community?” That resonated with me, and the response was that these issues are equally important in homogeneous communities.

Each day, I realize more and more why this is the case. Much of the dialogue around racial justice has focused on policing, but as a planner, I realize daily how much of our inequity is intertwined in the past practices of planning and how important the planning profession is in charting a new course. Unfortunately, or fortunately, this means initiating discussions that people aren’t quite ready for. It takes tact and courage, and if it suits your beliefs, prayer. 

In addition to initiating the discussions in our communities, we as planners and municipal professionals need to begin the dialogue on the many legacies of our professions that the created and exacerbated inequities.

In historic preservation, planners need to raise the issue of how our standards for preservation are subject to implicit bias, and how we can learn to preserve historic architecture without displacing or erasing the history of our non-white communities.

By definition, systemic racism is built into all aspects of our society. Whether it is housing, zoning, historic preservation, infrastructure investment, code enforcement, or access to jobs and services, we need to view the world through these new lenses. We will continue to find that ideals and policies we considered to be race neutral and fair have favored the majority. 

I wish I could say I have the answers, but I am still early on my journey. I have so much more to learn, and honestly, I am a little frightened. What if this takes me off my charted path? What if speaking truth to power costs me my job or opportunities for career advancement?

These are the realities of life. In so many ethics sessions, we have been faced with the ethics scenarios that can cost you your job… but of course you aren’t going to violate the law for the creepy elected official in the text book scenarios being discussed.

Real life is more nuanced… you work for good people who don’t realize that centuries of racism are embedded into the foundation of a practice, law, or beloved tradition. Like the old you, they are non-racist, neutral bystanders. Do you rock the boat, or do you grin and bear it? These are the ethical scenarios of our present and our future. 

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