A recent post on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s blog about “How to Turn Young Adults Into Preservationists” got me to thinking a little bit more about the issue of why preservation and heritage is perceived as the preserve of the grey-haired. I’ve come to the realisation that it’s about more than just being old. In her piece, Emily Koller argues that historic preservation is essentially about identity and “about possessing the emotional capacity to care about a place”, before going on to say that people under 30 – the Millenial Generation – “are not interested in preservation because we are mostly numb to the places in which we live.”
There is a lot of truth to Koller’s statement, and work that the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust* has undertaken would largely bear out the first part of her argument. Looking at a late Victorian church, in a terrible state of dereliction and in the most economically and socially deprived part of Northern Ireland, time after time, local residents repeated the assertion that they wanted to see the building restored and brought back to life because it was a landmark for their area.
Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, despite having been empty for 25 years – and in such a poor state that it was included on the World Monument Fund’s Watch List 2010 – is, for the people of North Belfast, a true ‘iconic’ building. Despite the social ills of the area, despite the bitter sectarian division surrounding the building, and despite the chronic deprivation, indeed, perhaps because of these, the people of North Belfast are clear that preserving Carlisle Memorial Church is of critical importance to them. There is plenty to suggest that people care about a place when it comes to Carlisle Memorial, and North Belfast in general. The problem comes with what to do with the building.
Given the social and economic deprivation around Carlisle Memorial Church, it is clear that the heritage led regeneration of the building will have to deliver firm results for the people around it. It can, and should, be about more than restoring the building. It can, and should, be about more than just North Belfast. It can, and should, be about helping to regenerate communities, not just buildings.
Koller wrote in her piece that historic preservation doesn’t cross people’s minds until we begin to think of settling down. Once we do that, and have bought our white picket fences, then “We care because we have a sense of ownership — and by accident, we’ve become preservationists.” This might be so, and in the pre-credit crunch days of easy access to mortgages it was drummed into my generation that owning a house should be a key life goal.
This is also, I’m afraid, where I take issue with the argument. Saying that we become preservationists by accident simply isn’t good enough. It is an abdication of responsibility by the heritage lobby to wait until people are home owners in the expectation that they will then become accidental preservationists. We don’t turn young adults into preservationists if they accidentally become preservationists when they buy a house. Given that most young people under 30 are not terribly likely to be home owners, this reinforces the notion that heritage led regeneration and historic preservation are only for older generations – something that anyone involved in urban policy, regeneration, heritage or sustainable planning should be very scared of indeed.
The issue is more how do we engage young people with preservation and with heritage led regeneration than how do we turn them into preservationists. A sense of ownership is still crucial, and no young person, whether a young adult in their late 20s, or a teenager just starting out in secondary education, is going to have that sense of ownership unless they are engaged in the decision making process. Engagement and inclusion in the process is what gives ownership, not a mortgage and a BBQ on the deck. And in response to the point that Millenials are a generation with no roots or no sense of place, that may be so. I believe that lots of young adults desperately wish to feel and create a sense of place but, having been excluded from the decision making process, or by being made to wait 10-20 years until they settle down with families, there is little to engender this sense of place in young people, so the grass is always greener somewhere else and many young people move on to bigger, bolder, brighter lights to create their own sense of place.
Part of what needs to happen for young people – adults or teenagers – to become preservationists is for them to be able to see that preservation brings them benefits. Just like a government department, or taxpayers in general, young people are not going to be interested until they can see tangible (and feel intangible) benefits to their stock in life. Too often preservationists and the heritage lobby argue that preservation should happen for preservation sake, but I’m sorry to be the person to say that nothing happens just for the sake of it when money is involved. The arguments exist about heritage and heritage led regeneration offering firm economic and social benefits – job creation, skills development, tourism support, and the most intangible but yet most important of all – securing a “sense of place”.
Take these arguments, put them in the context of delivering something firm for young people, and that will make them preservationists. Maybe not in the purist sense, but what’s more important – preserving a building of architectural and social merit that can deliver real benefits for people, or preserving it simply because of its architectural and social significance? I would argue that real preservation isn’t about the building at all, but what the building means to the people who live next to it and who will one day use it.
I recently stumbled across a project in Norwich, England, called Open. It’s a centre for young people (something much more than a youth centre) with a young persons’ nightclub, a climbing wall, a recording studio, cafe, health studio, a media lab and offering workshops and activities that concentrate on skills development and advice. It started as something much smaller, but grew and grew once the young people involved became involved in the decision making process. Eventually it needed a home, and found the former regional HQ of Barclay’s Bank. It cost £12 million to restore and fit out the Victorian building, a process that involved young people making decisions all along. Now, tell me that the young people of Norwich are not preservationists as a result of this heritage led regeneration scheme.
Back in Belfast, report after report can detail the ills of the north of the city. Among them is a chronic lack of aspiration, fed by severe educational under attainment, long term unemployment and chronic health problems. Proactively engaging with young people to find solutions, possibly based around digital media, the creative industries and the knowledge economy, with an element of skills development, job creation and securing a “sense of place” will be crucial to the success of preserving Carlisle Memorial Church. It is about helping them explore what their local community is about, and in engaging them in making decisions that will give young people a sense of ownership, both of their community, and of their built heritage. It should be crucial to everything that preservationists do to help turn young adults into preservationists.
If the restoration of Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church can deliver practical benefits to the young people of North Belfast – and in the wider city – and if young people have been engaged in the decision making process of restoring the building, this will provide them with a sense of ownership of their built heritage. If this happens, then tell me that the young people of Belfast won’t be preservationists too. And not accidental preservationists either.
*In the interests of full disclosure, I work for the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust and conducted a community consultation on the possibility of restoring Carlisle Memorial Church between March 2008 and March 2009.