Cuba Offers Lessons on Community, Preservation

Posted on: February 22nd, 2010 by Guest Writer 3 Comments

Written by Kevin Daniels

Day two of our trip to Cuba started with a discussion on health care practices with two high level medical officials with one making the following statement- “We are poor people that die like rich people”. Certainly provocative but what did he mean? More on that later.

During the day we focused on the social side of life in Havana. You may wonder what that has to do with preservation or sustainability (as did I initially) but I learned an important lesson. As we met with our lecturers and toured a number of neighborhoods, the constant thread throughout the day was how important the social context is for any decision in Cuba. This is a country that focuses its very limited resources on health care and education with surprisingly good results, despite their poverty. But how does that fact relate to preservation?

In our country when we support an issue we tend to build silos around our issue so as to defend our turf rather than being more expansive in our view. As an example, after many years of quantifiable success, and in a year when the national budget is at its highest level ever, funding for two important preservation programs were cut. So why did the administration cut out $60 million of funding for projects that have a clear record of creating jobs and economic development out of a budget of over a trillion (with a T) dollars? Obviously the preservation community has failed in articulating its message with regard to these programs as our message wasn’t heard by an administration who everyone thought would help restore program cuts from the last decade. So why did this happen?

I would put forward an argument that the preservation community has been unsuccessful in articulating a clear and relevant message in today’s world because of the silos we have built. We are no longer in the world of the 1970s when the movement took off, and we need to broaden and sharpen our message. So how do we do that? Might be that a possible answer lies in how Cuba deals with similar issues.

In Cuba everything revolves around the community. In preservation we talk about “Place Matters” but tend to focus on local battles around a specific building. In Cuba everything revolves around the two basic goals noted above, but with the understanding that to accomplish these goals you need to have a strong community. And a big part of any community is the built environment. So even when the built environment is in rapid decline (as it is in Cuba), it remains the center of people’s lives. Therefore, if heath and education are the primary goals to achieve, then you need to factor in the built environment to achieve those goals.

The lesson said in another way -- preservation needs to go beyond the public’s image that our goals are to save important buildings, and to convince the public that our goal is to protect and preserve “place.” Economic development is successful when people flock to a “place.” And in most cases “place” centers around the built environment which isn’t limited to a few historic buildings that need to be preserved. To be relevant with today’s public preservation needs to reach out and remind the public that one of the items they hold most dear is “place.” It’s where they live, work and play. It’s not only about the old train station or a historic building on Main Street. Place is everywhere. And while it should not be preservationists’ goal to preserve everything ever built, preservation stands for the concept that most of the places we all hold most dear are actually worth the efforts to save them. Only then will the public understand what is at stake and want to participate in our efforts.

The sustainability movement has been successful because they were able to convince the public of the challenges related to global climate change, and that each and every person can contribute towards the solution. But the easiest way to contribute to that solution is to understand, respect and protect those places that make the community the “place” you want to live in. The sustainability movement is actually doomed to failure if they don’t focus on place or community.

With Cuba’s focus on neighborhoods it is easier for their public to grasp the importance of their communities and how the built environment is critical to maintaining them. Americans tend to move around more and it’s said that 70% of Americans can’t name their neighbors who live next door. But even if that fact is true, they still chose the place they live in for a reason. While our approach has to be different than what Cuba has done since our issues are completely different, we can learn from their experience that community or “place” plays one of the most important parts in preservation.

So if the preservation movement is to grow we need to remember that “Place Matters” and clearly explain to the public what that means to them.

What the doctor was referring to with his quote is the fact that even though Cuba is a poor and undeveloped nation, its life expectancy and quality of life (based on health measures) exceeds almost all developed countries. The average age of death for women is over 80 and for men exceeds 76 in a system where they have little funding for health care or social needs. Yet they die of fewer diseases than Americans do, and they live longer than Americans who have focused the most resources of any country on health care. Hence the statement that “they die like rich people” (Americans).

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

  1. Barbara Sidway

    February 22, 2010

    Wonderfully insightful observations, Kevin. Will look forward to future posts.

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