How to Turn Young Adults Into Preservationists

Posted on: July 1st, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 4 Comments

The kids are all right … but they’re not becoming preservationists.

Wayne Donaldson, the new chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and current California State Historic Preservation Officer, was kind enough to spend some time on the phone with me after his appointment in May to discuss one of his stated goals – attracting young people to preservation.

My ears perked up, so to speak, on reading this in his announcement since one of the Modernism and Recent Past program’s areas of emphasis is also to engage this group. The Trust’s membership remains largely comprised of those over age 40 and the M + RP initiative aims to reach those under.

As the owner of a rare 1960s Futuro home, Donaldson is a friend of our program. So I wanted to know his thoughts on how M + RP resources are particularly suited to appeal to a new generation of preservationists, and what specific messages and practices we should rethink to attract the younger set.

Donaldson said the connection between modern and recent past buildings and young people dawned on him during the National Register nomination process in 2005 for two Eichler neighborhoods – Green Gables and Greenmeadow in Palo Alto. Constructed in the early 1950s, they were the first of the now well-known California mid-century homes to be listed as historic districts on the National Register.

The residents who came to speak at public meetings were in their 30s, and they were passionate about owning a piece of designed architecture. They were in these homes in part because the properties were affordable to young buyers at the time, and in part -- as Donaldson believes -- it’s a return to an identity.

Kids born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up in a “shopping mall culture” where places are indistinguishable and quality architecture for the everyday does not exist. In contrast, Donaldson describes M + RP resources as design – not a style, not a movement – and we, the hip younger set, can get into design.

So how to make the connection between historic preservation and the shopping mall generations? I admit it’s difficult to distract us from our iPhones and coffee. Historic preservation at its core is about possessing the emotional capacity to care about a place. Young people, as a whole, are not interested in preservation because we are mostly numb to the places in which we live. We move all the time, we do all our business online, and we depend on networks that stretch far beyond our immediate neighborhoods. Historic preservation won’t cross most of our minds until we think about “settling down.”

And when we do that, a ranch home in the Midwest (I can see my friends cringing now) may be all we can afford to buy. If we’re lucky, a helpful real estate agent might point out that this neighborhood is one of the state’s best examples of mid-century modernism and that we shouldn’t rip out the pink tile.

Before long, we’re casing flea markets for the right furniture and going to neighborhood association meetings. Now WE are now those people Donaldson noticed at the public hearings. We care because we have a sense of ownership -- and by accident, we’ve become preservationists. Who knows, we may even rally to save that old stadium and the city hall nobody seems to like either.

As Donaldson points out, modern and recent past architecture is the last era of good design to which we can attach emotion and form an identity around. It remains representative of an American lifestyle before everything looked the same.

Many of these buildings are also the backdrop for our childhoods – schools, banks, libraries, even the visitor center in the summer vacation photos at Yosemite. We already have memories of these; therefore we should care. And once we care, we’ll preserve.

Emily Koller is a Community and Regional Planning and Historic Preservation graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. She is interning as the M + RP’s summer program assistant in the Western Office.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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4 Responses

  1. Donna Reiner

    July 1, 2010

    One of the things that I believe is also important is to share your hopes, dreams, and love of history to those younger than you. I belong to that over 40+ group. So I believe that it is my purpose to show things to my grandchildren. We don’t just talk about architecture, we look at it. Then we discuss what we see. It’s a game in some respects. I start off with the subtle things like columns…working from the traditional styles to seeing what is being done in more contemporary times.

    Yes, you will remember the trips to places, but it is also important for adults to express why they like buildings to their children/grandchildren.

    And as I once told my students in a college music appreciation class, you don’t have to like everything. Sometimes it will be a color, a line, the type of material. But try to articulate why you like something and why not. That opens up a world of opportunities for some interesting dialogue.

  2. Patrick Kennedy

    July 1, 2010

    “Young people, as a whole, are not interested in preservation because we are mostly numb to the places in which we live.”

    I find this, and in many ways the entire article, to be overly cynical and frankly incorrect. Millennials (for the sake of argument those aged 30 and under) are the ones searching for meaning, revitalizing historic cores and pioneering old urban neighborhoods, seeking interesting things, places, others, and sociability. It is the urban generation rising and if the purpose of this article is to find donations you’re also barking up the wrong tree. It’s the baby boomers that have money and no sense of preservation.

  3. Alison King

    July 3, 2010

    The real wake up call for me was when I attended a historic preservation information session about a midcentury modern neighborhood about 7 years ago in the City of Scottsdale, Arizona. It was held in the mid-morning of a weekday, and due to my college teaching schedule I was able to make it. But just about everyone else in my 25-35-year-old demographic was not able to attend. I left thinking… that was great! But how can we do this for everyone, especially people like me?

    Around that time ModernPhoenix.net was born. And since then I’ve devoted my editorial voice toward gaining participation of the Gen X-ers, and even Gen Y/Millennials. Jim McPherson of The Arizona Preservation Foundation and I spoke to a room full of preservationists, all of them 45+, six years ago about new technologies and how to reach new audiences via the web. That was kindergarten compared to now. A few years later and I was back again to give the same talk, only this time armed with Facebook ,Twitter, and a whole other arsenal of tools like mapping and tagging. I was reluctant to join Facebook, but since I did, I have a more than 3X chance of somebody responding ther ethan if I posted the same message on my own website.

    You need to go where your audience is, and for now, this is social media. Its viral, its free, and for the most part its opt-in. One by one my Gen Y students are coming back to me saying how much they appreciate the groundwork that has been laid. And frankly, when I’m gone, they are going to be the ones to carry it on.

    Additionally, I work the face-to-face angle with my Gen Y students — even though architecture is not in my official curriculum I reference it often through photography or field trips. If you’re not in daily exposure to young people call up your local school district and ask when’s the next career day or civics day. Ask for 15 minutes on the floor of your local student council. Do something. Anything.

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    July 8, 2010

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