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How the Past Informs the Present and the Future

Interview with Trevor Johnson

Senior Resilience Planner, Arcadis

How did you become interested in historic preservation and resilience planning?

I was born and raised in Pennsylvania. I grew up in quite a rural area that was undergoing a pretty significant process of suburbanization. Seeing forests and farmland converted into very large subdivisions with large homes definitely informed my ethos about environmental protection, smart land use planning and the preservation of community character. I didn't really know what Historic Preservation was at that point, but I wanted to find something that was at the intersection of the environment, history, and the human experience. I went to Bard College, where my studies focused on historical archaeology. I looked at the material culture of communities and societies over the past 500 years in the United States where we have written records. Often there are communities and segments of our history that have not really been written down, such as the African American experience. I ended up attending UMass Boston to get a Master's degree in Historical Archaeology. I was interested in the study of African American history through the lens of archaeology and I got to work on a site in Hyde Park, New York, which was home to a community of free and enslaved Africans and African Americans from the late 18th century through the 19th century. Our project looked at a community of free African Americans called Guinea Town in Hyde Park that existed from the late 18th through the mid 19th century.

I got a summer internship with National Trust for Historic Preservation, which then became a longer fellowship and then ultimately a full time position. One of the things I'm most proud of was the work that I was doing with a colleague of mine named Brent Leggs, looking at historic places in the northeast that were associated with African American History and developing a program of funding and capacity building to help, not just with physical strategy to preserve the structures, landmarks and landscapes, but also the organizations that operate and maintain those places – some of which had very limited budgets at that time, and likely still do. We had conferences, workshops and grant funding. As far as I could tell, it was one of the first initiatives focused on that subject in the preservation movement at that time.

I eventually realized that I didn't want to go into academia. I was much more interested in how the past could inform the present and the future, and I wanted to pursue a career that allowed me to have an immediate impact and work with people on something a little more advocacy focused. Often times by the time something becomes a preservation issue, a lot of decisions have already been made. To take a simplistic example of a building or a landmark that's being threatened with demolition, a lot of times it's larger either economic shifts, or policy or regulatory changes that have happened that led to that demolition. There a much bigger process that unfolds over many years that informs what happens to the built environment. Those larger questions which is what led me to urban planning. I went back to graduate school and got a Master's in Urban Planning from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. I started to form an interest in resilience planning, primarily because while I was at the GSD, Hurricane Sandy struck New York, and to a limited extent Boston. At that time there was this recognition during and after Hurricane Sandy that designers planners and policy folks have a very significant role to play in shaping resilience strategies for communities, big and small. It was definitely a wake up call for the planning and design fields as well that more attention needs to be paid to how we design and plan communities in light of increasing risk from climate change. I did an internship with New York City Department of City Planning, where I later worked, leveraging my background in historic preservation and looking at flood risks to historic buildings throughout the floodplain.

Hurricane Sandy was a big wake up call for communities. How do you encourage communities to take action more immediately, instead of waiting until after a disaster to build a plan?

It's a good question. Hurricane Sandy was a big wake up call for many communities and municipalities, especially in the northeast where there hadn't been a significant storm event in recent memory. Even places like Boston that were not significantly impacted by Hurricane Sandy still had a wake up call. The city of Boston since 2012, and particularly since 2015, has been among the leaders in the country in terms of climate resilience and coastal resilience planning and adaptation. The other challenge is the lack of funding. New York City has done a tremendous amount of work, but they were the recipient of a lot of federal disaster aid after Hurricane Sandy, which has enabled them to do a lot of planning, design and construction work to reduce risks so that Sandy doesn't happen again.

Many communities don't have the resources to do that level of investment prior to a disaster and that's a major challenge about how the United States approached risk management and risk mitigation. It's been this recovery-focused approach, when what we really need to do is shift into a pre-disaster mitigation, and a resilience and adaptation policy framework that allows for investment upfront. This would mitigate the potential losses that we can predict using analysis and modeling. A lot of the planning work that Arcadis has been hired to do recently has been focused on just that. We're working with Lisa and her team in Nantucket. Nantucket is no stranger to the ocean. They've been dealing with pretty significant storm events, erosion and flooding for as long as people can remember, and they've adapted to live with water.

The challenge with climate change is that the risk is increasing, and it's increasing in a way that people I don't think fully appreciate. We are very much not prepared for it, and so a place like Nantucket is taking this opportunity to plan for that, to try to understand what the future looks like, and to outline what the steps need to be taken to adapt to that future, and then begin making those investments as best they can.

In your experience, when a city like New York gets funding for resilience planning, does that money get doled out pretty equally among communities?

If you're asking about the equity issue, it’s a big concern. Communities that are wealthier are better able to equip themselves because they may have a stronger tax base, and they may have greater capacity to access federal and state and local funds. There's an inherent inequity in how communities are able to prepare themselves. In terms of grants and federal allocations, there's any number of ways in which there could be inequities that occur and how the health resilience funding is allocated. In Massachusetts and recent federal grant programs, there is a new emphasis on making sure that there's an equity lens to ensure that communities need it most are able to access resources. There's another lens on the inequities about which communities are vulnerable, and it's related to who can adapt and why. There are communities that simply live in very vulnerable places because they've been forced there by structural economic and racial injustices, and environmental injustices. And now they live in areas that are subject to much more risk than their wealthier neighbors. Undoing the injustices of the past is something that, as we're developing resilience plans, we’re trying to do. We're trying to heal those wounds to some extent.

There's yet another wrinkle to all of this, which is this conversation about climate gentrification, where a community, for example, has a wonderful strategy that's been developed and implemented to address flood risk in a community. Now that community becomes very desirable to live in, the prices of real estate go up and the people who live there are potentially displaced. It's very complicated, and you can't disconnect coastal resilience planning from other significant variables in a community, whether those are environmental justice concerns or general land use planning, housing, food security, access to health care. All of these things are related, and we try to think about a community's resilience as an essential part of people's well being. That's what the higher-level mission and projects we're working on are about.

Final thoughts…

This world of climate resilience is new, and so is talking about the intersection of climate resilience and historic preservation. Only in the past few years has the preservation community really started to grapple with the existential threat and trade offs between climate change and historic preservation, and what it means to adapt from a preservation perspective. Being in this space is a constant learning process. You always have to be on the lookout for resources and mentors. Join a professional community, be a contributing member of an academic community. The more we collaborate and work together, the better our solutions will end up being.


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