Saturday, March 23, 2013

Twelve step program: Increasing public awareness of historic preservation in your community

Increasing public awareness of historic preservation in the community requires a dynamic approach and multi-pronged initiative to be successful.  This article looks at several ideas that can be used by historical commissions, advocacy groups and municipalities to build value in their historic building stock and raise awareness of historic structures in the community.  Some of the recommended actions are relatively involved, such as the creation of an annual Olde Towne Festival, and require others from the community in the planning, coordination and execution of the plan.  Others, such as the creation of social media and websites, are low-hanging fruit: ready, accessible, inexpensive—often free—methods to reach a wide audience quickly and easily. To increase public awareness of the historic resources that contribute directly to the heritage of their built environment, the people must develop a connection with place.  The following ideas can be implemented by motivated individuals who are dedicated to promoting the goals and objectives of increased public awareness of historic preservation, largely without great expense or effort:    

(1)  Use of social media and the internet to promote historic preservation   The municipality’s website is the first free opportunity to promote historic preservation and the organization.  Additional links to social media and other historic preservation-related web pages should be here.  Having a presence on the internet is critical to the successful promotion of and long-term participation in  historic preservation in the community.  Facebook, Twitter, Google+, WordPress, and YouTube can be used to easily and effectively increase public awareness of historic preservation and make the organization an accessible member of the community.  WordPress offers a way to create an inexpensive (or even free) website.  The new web page should also contain an active blog with frequent entries and updates; this reinforces the sense of “presence” in the community. This is the primary way to attract younger participants.

(2)  Develop a strong relationship with the media  Invite members of the mainstream media to events and meetings, issue press releases, and provide photos for print media/web use.   When an event or important meeting is planned, promote it through local television news stations and newspapers and invite them to attend.  If a public access channel exists it could be used to televise meetings.  Some committees and commissions have created YouTube channels to document and provide access to their meetings. The media should be encouraged to “donate” space in their print publications for op-ed articles about the importance of preservation in the community and regular columns about local or regional history and the goings-on of historic preservation in the community.

(3)  Develop a Historic Preservation Plan  The Plan serves as a ten (10) year action plan for historic preservation in the municipality and is designed to serve as the historic preservation component of a comprehensive master plan.  In Massachusetts, Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds can be used for a historic preservation survey. The historical commission thereafter develops a request for consultant services to develop a preservation plan, to include consideration of historic landscapes. Consultants collect and assess the inventory of information on historic resources, as well as local government’s historic preservation tools (development rules and regulations).  The consultants present the commission with a summary of their findings and preliminary recommendations regarding the historic inventory.  Next, the public participation phase solicits community input concerning local historic preservation efforts and preservation priorities.  Public comment is sought in three ways: surveys, interviews and public forums.  Based on the results of the public participation phase, the commission works with the consultants to refine a draft Preservation Plan which is then presented to several boards and committees for comment.  Finally, after any necessary edits and revisions, the Historic Preservation Plan is completed and approved.

(4)  Create public education programs  These can include all manner of events and the production of materials for attendees.  . Guest speakers from the private sector are available to speak on a variety of topics related historic preservation and public history.  These programs could be conducted in the historic structures, themselves, so that attendees develop a connection to the buildings and an appreciation for them.  Speakers do no not have to focus on esoteric topics alone.  They can increase awareness and encourage materials conservation:  “Saving and restoring the windows on your old house,” or, “How to improve the energy efficiency of your home,” or, “Tricks for the repair and restoration of your old house.”  In addition to advertising through the media and internet, physically post advertisements for the events at Lowe’s, Home Depot and other home centers to attract local home owners and DIY’ers.  Creating partnerships with such commercial entities may also produce sponsorship in the form of materials and funding for these and other events.

(5)  Present awards to community members for preservation efforts  Publicly recognize homeowners that restore vintage structures or a local citizen or elected official who advocates for historic preservation in the community. No static number each year, just an annual recognition of those who make the effort.   It’s about instilling pride in place; buildings are the tangible objects that represent that place.  Use it as an opportunity to identify other historic preservation-minded members of the community and encourage them to get involved.

(6)  Sponsor and stage public events   Create an annual event that brings the entire community together for a weekend celebration.  Take advantage of parks and open spaces next to historic buildings and stage a portion inside.  Perhaps an annual pumpkin festival with dunking booth or a travelling carnival with bake sale inside the building.  All of these events would have an information booth with print media items.  A more ambitious endeavor would be to create an annual Olde Towne Festival in the Fall with a series of events all at the different historic properties:  an amusement park rides at the old school house and bake/craft sale inside; an involved haunted house created in art classes and staffed by school kids at the old village hall; and, a book sale and police-sponsored kid ID program at the library.  ‘Olde Towne' days starts with a parade at the elementary school and ends at the park next to one of the historic buildings.  The select board and other dignitaries form at the review stand (on the front porch of yet another historic building, perhaps the town hall) as various local sports teams and civic organizations march by—and don’t forget the fire engines. During the festival, coordinate and offer a tour of old homes with proud members of the public and offer informative tours of the historic buildings that speak to the history and architecture of the structures.  Through these experiences and association people will realize an intrinsic value in the structures as they become a part of the memories that they form.

(7)  Partner with the school district   Create low cost field trips to these buildings for the town’s school children that will enable them to develop an early appreciation for their community’s history as represented by the structures that define its built heritage.

(8)  Create local historic districts The Massachusetts Historical Commission provides a guidebook on how the municipality can pass a by-law or ordinance consistent with MGL 40C to create local historic districts.  In Massachusetts they don’t allow an individual building to be landmarked—they allow the town to create districts with only one building in them.  The organization should advocate for the creation of local historic districts that include the applicable buildings owned by the municipality.  There will be no public outcry from citizens who think they’ll be told what color to paint their houses.  The creation of the local historic districts should be covered by the media to demonstrate how protecting historic structures can be harmless and pain-free.  Local districts can be expanded to include additional buildings when others want to be a part of it. Churches are generally enthusiastic because their members have strong memories and pride in place—they like the idea of the building being there forever.

(9)  Hire a public relations consultant or seek donated services of same    Increasing public awareness for historic preservation is not a full time job.  However, a public relations consultant could be a cost effective way to plan strategies for promoting historic preservation as time and budget allow.  The members of the community who will execute this plan to increase public awareness of historic preservation are all volunteers.  Retaining the services of a PR consultant, from time to time, is an effective way to turn ideas into action as budgets allow.

(10)  Partner with State and Local Organizations   Form a bond with historic preservation resources such as colleges and universities as well as the state historic preservation office by sponsoring guest lectures and local and regional tours and encouraging participation by residents in the many free historic preservation-related offerings available from these organizations.  Sponsoring can be as simple as organizing, advertising (i.e., on the website and printed flyers) and providing space for the presentations.

(11)  Contact and pool resources with other similar organizations    Learn what others are doing to promote historic preservation. See what commonalities are shared. Promotion of historic preservation could be jointly produced to take advantage of regional talents and make limited resources go further.  Go regional.

(12)  Consider establishing a historic signage program    This is a simple way to promote historic preservation, demonstrate pride of place and educate the community about its heritage. Start with municipal properties. Establish appropriate criteria to encourage private participation.

Increasing public awareness of historic preservation in the community requires a dynamic approach and multi-pronged initiative to be successful.  The ideas in this article can be implemented without great expense or effort by a dedicated team.  Historical commissions, advocacy groups and municipalities can build value in their historic building stock and raise awareness of historic structures in the community.  Increased public awareness of the historic resources that contribute directly to the heritage of the built environment can be had if people develop a connection with place. It’s about instilling pride in place; buildings are the tangible objects that represent that place. 

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