Preservation Meets Sustainability in Old Havana

Posted on: February 17th, 2010 by Guest Writer 3 Comments

Written by Kevin Daniels

Traveling with a group of professionals to Cuba is a very educational experience, but when that group is made up of both preservation and sustainability professionals it leads to a different conversation. This week I am traveling with such a group sponsored by International Sustainable Solutions and Global Exchange on a research-based journey to Havana. In the group are professionals from all over the country with different perspectives on what we are seeing.

While the two professions have a common bond and a lot of similar goals, some touchy points rise to the surface almost immediately in any discussion. For example, how can a project be sustainable when it champions replacing wood windows that with minimal repairs can last 100 years with “new” vinyl replacement windows that can’t actually be repaired and will find their way into the trash dump within 13 years on average? All to save a minimal amount of energy consumption? Or how does the sustainability professional actually believe they can build their way out of the carbon challenge we face? Isn’t this goal set a little low? Or why do preservationists focus on saving a few notable buildings and not see the incredible environmental challenge we are facing and move towards finding a solution with the sustainable crowd? And why are preservationists willing to sacrifice what the community may want or need to save an old building? Not questions with easy answers.

The resulting answers from the group were actually surprising with the sustainability professionals recognizing that their focus needs to evolve from building the newest and greenest buildings to focusing on re-using and improving the current built environment. But as one architect noted, that isn’t nearly as fun as creating something new from scratch. And the preservationists realize that the preservation message from the 70s about saving important places needs to be expanded to truly resonate with the sustainability crowd, and avoid being irrelevant in these discussions. With the fact that over the next twenty years we will only add about 10% in total to the current built environment, the best way to promote sustainability is through preservation (broad definition), not new buildings. And not just for specific museum quality properties, but actually being flexible and smart enough to allow creative adaptive re-uses over large swaths of the current built environment.

One discussion point that seemed to resonate with the group is that for the same amount of funding for new construction versus rehabilitation, one job is produced in new construction to 9 jobs in rehabilitation. If we really want to put people back to work to strengthen our economy and save the world, let’s focus our investments where they create the most jobs and do that locally.

Now for an example of that thinking. Today we spent time with Isabel Candelero, the director of Master Planning for Old Havana. Ignoring all political aspects of being in Cuba, there were a number of lessons we learned from her. Cuba is a country that was pretty much frozen in time in the late 1950s with the fall of Batista. So from a research perspective the country has dealt with many issues that no other developed country has. For example, right after the fall of the Soviet Union their economy collapsed with no one in the world willing to assist because of political issues.

In 1993 Isabel’s office surveyed Old Havana and found that 93% of all buildings were dilapidated and in serious decay. Yet with no funding source available, how could they possible address the pressing needs? Now more than 17 years later, 36% of the buildings have been restored or repaired. Their solution was unique, but might have application in our sustainability quest -- they created an entity that would operate all of the properties in Old Havana and all proceeds would be funneled back into the neighborhood. Their basic plan is that 45% of all revenue goes back to renovate or restore the current built environment, 35% goes towards meeting the social needs of the neighborhood, with the balance going to fund historic renovation projects in other parts of the city. Given the limited funding available, the program has been an unqualified success which isn’t to say everything is great. They have a collapse or partial collapse of a building every three days. Yes -- every three days on average.

Another important aspect of the plan is that the 35% that goes into providing schools, aged living, and social facilities remains in the neighborhood (funding for health care, police, etc… is funded by the central government). People live, work & play in their neighborhoods and this reinvestment has allowed that to happen.

So what are my takeaways? By keeping dollars at home and creating jobs for the neighborhood, Old Havana is dealing with the decay and benefitting on a number of levels. It makes no sense to me to create any entity to take over large swaths of private property as government is inherently less efficient that private business, but the concept of keeping dollars local seems to be a smart approach to use as a pillar in any master planning.

For both the sustainable and preservation goals we all share, we need to be creative in applying our solutions and make sure we balance the needs of the whole neighborhood rather than any specific part. And we preservationists need to look at broader solutions and approaches, rather than focus on individual properties. The question is how?

More tomorrow.

Kevin Daniels is a preservationist and developer in Seattle, Washington. He currently serves on the National Trust’s Board of Trustees as vice chair of the Preservation Committee.

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3 Responses

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