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Drawing the line in saving elements of our past.

Most of my life has been spent observing, evaluating and striving to protect natural ecosystems. However, I also have a profound interest in historic architecture, historic urban districts and other artifacts. I must state that after agricultural development, I view vast industrial complexes and the resource extraction that fed them as the major despoilers of nature. I have little sentiment for preserving the memories of large polluting industries. I do realize the importance to society of many of the achievements made by industry and acknowledge the worthiness of conserving the memory of the places where these contributions were made. Also, I realize that some individuals may have spent their entire working lives in these places and that in spite of the negative associations with "work", and the ofttimes grimy and uncomfortable working conditions, these people may have a sentimental attachment to such places and want them saved. There is quite a difference in the effort required to protect a grimy industrial site such as a shipyard or slaughter house as opposed to protecting a grist mill or blacksmith shop which have been romanticized in paintings or literature.

As far as priorities in society are concerned, when it comes down to the crunch, I feel that there is a greater need to protect biotic or natural systems above cultural or man-made structures. It is essential that we safeguard natural systems primarily for their life sustaining function and, to a lesser extent, for their emotional value. To do this effectively, we must recognize the interrelationships between species and habitats and strive to maintain integrity.

It is mainly for emotional and, to a somewhat lesser extent, financial reasons, that we have preserved cultural elements of our past. No one would deny that emotional reasons are not important but emotion based decisions are the most difficult to make. Because of this, I feel that protection of our cultural heritage is a more difficult task than protecting our natural heritage. I think of Kenneth Clark's opening chapter in his book "Civilization" entitled "The Skin of our Teeth" and how fortunate we are that some of our cultural past has survived. I thank the circumstances or individuals that were catalytic in preserving what little remains of our cultural past; but so much of what remains seems so isolated from its historic functioning milieu. We need to consider diversity and integrity in our structured or cultural environment.

Obviously there are important built environments just as there are important natural environments. The majority of what has been protected reflects on what has been pleasant in society. Culturally we have protected fantastic architecture and places where momentous events occurred or famous people lived. Biotically we have protected the grandeur of nature, the initial interest being directed towards safeguarding spectacular habitats and the more bizarre, large, colourful or cuddly-cute species. Preservation of inhospitable, relatively remote, non-diverse, obscure or otherwise unglamorous habitats or species often has not been given priority. To illustrate, it seems that every grist mill on the continent has been protected in some fashion but fewer, saw, stone-crushing or powder mills remain. You can eat bread and pastries which is pleasant, but the same cannot be said for stone, and gun powder smacks of the negative association with war. A parallel in natural areas protection would be the difference between striving to save an old growth tropical rainforest as opposed to an alkaline desert flat.

Where do we draw the line when it comes to saving elements of our past? As long as population expands, it will be impossible to retain all of our heritage systems. Many are so fragmented and so altered compositionally that even with state-of-the-art restoration techniques, the cost to restore them may not be justifiable. Practically, I believe that any structure that has survived the vagaries of history, is sound and possesses some architectural character should be saved, instead of replaced with something new. Whether we maintain the historic function of an individual building or its surrounding structures is another matter. If worthy abandoned structures can be readapted for other uses, i.e. office, industrial or housing; all the better for helping to alleviate the outward expansion of cities into the countryside, at the expense of our natural systems.

How we protect natural systems is also important. The strategies outlined by Jeff Stinson (this volume) parallel those for natural areas protection. There are degrees to which our natural systems have been protected. We have created dioramas to commemorate obliterated systems. We have saved isolated specimens, fragmented island ecosystems and too few, larger, relatively pristine systems. We have even tried to recreate natural systems. It is obviously impossible to have saved all examples of industry since primitive man chipped away at some stones in a clearing and discovered the use of tools. Preservation of selected elements has been our strategy. The ideal would be to save an entire industrial complex -- rather than selected portions of it -- maintaining the working function. It is obvious that we appreciate and learn better from situations where a building is protected in a functioning form in its original surroundings rather than through a photo or plaque or as an isolated shell. The same can be said for natural systems. Interconnectedness, diversity, integrity and function are essential if we are to fully appreciate and benefit from heritage systems. Clearly, there is value in protecting artifacts deemed important as benchmarks in human development in a variety of ways. Some ways are more effective than others.
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Author:L.E. Lamb
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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