The world’s landmarks—our portals into the past—are in danger. Natural disasters, pollution, vandalism, and onslaughts of tourists all contribute to the decline of historic sites. Of all the challenges they face, however, the gradual decline into disrepair—and, with that, simply being forgotten—is perhaps the most pressing.
“Often the greatest risk is that we take for granted that historic sites will always be with us. Deferred maintenance can be the greatest challenge to overcome,” says Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president and COO of the World Monuments Fund advocacy group. “Water damage often has the largest impact, which could be avoided if maintenance was undertaken sooner.”
The private not-for-profit last month published its annual list of the planet’s 25 most at-risk structures, which includes sites around the world, from the Old City of Ta’izz in Yemen to the Buffalo Central Terminal in upstate New York. Each year the list varies greatly, but the goal remains the same: to preserve these sites by encouraging private and public investment.
Awareness encouraged by the World Monuments Fund list has resulted in some success stories. Money is important to the process, but the local concern and commitment for the sites is the real prize when considering their chance at rehabilitation, Ackerman says, citing the restoration of a Japanese private prayer hall, Sanro-Den, as one victory.
Shake-Up for Small-Town America
In early November, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a new tax reform proposal that cuts funding for the Historic Tax Credit program, which encourages the redevelopment of historic and abandoned buildings by providing a 20 percent tax credit to transform these spaces into modern spaces while maintaining their original character and cultural significance. Preservationists worry that revoking the program would discourage developers from rehabilitating historic buildings and landmarks, which would then likely be destroyed in time.
The program has been used to renovate more than 42,000 structures across the United States since its inception in 1981. Some of the buildings that got a second life, thanks in part to the program, are the Apollo Theater in New York, the Wrigley Building in Chicago, the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, and the Old Post Office in the District of Columbia.
Historic England’s Approach
England has hundreds of historic landmarks from centuries past, but English Heritage, the underfunded U.K. government entity charged with managing these sites, needed a modern solution for a fighting chance at saving any of them. In 2015, the organization split into two parts: a government body, Historic England, and an independent charity that retained the English Heritage name and gained the freedom to interact directly with the public—and, more importantly, to solicit donations from it.
“With English Heritage’s new freedom as a charity, independent of government, our ability to engage with millions of people is now greatly strengthened,” a representative tells AFAR.
English Heritage looks after more than 400 places throughout England, ranging from prehistoric sites to Cold War bunkers.
“As an independent charity, the support of the public is vitally important,” the representative says. “Every penny we earn—from the cost of entry to a cup of tea —goes back into caring for the properties.” The group sells an annual membership with free admission to all sites, and it also rents vacation homes at 19 of its locations. And just this month it launched a crowd-funding campaign in an effort to pay for the basic maintenance required to ensure a landmark’s survival.
But the WMF’s annual list, Historic England’s efforts, and other programs intended to bring awareness to these landmarks’ status and rejuvenate them can sometimes bring unintended consequences. For example, many such restored sites are highlighted by UNESCO, whose worldwide program draws praise as well as criticism for attracting too many tourists to the very places it sets out to protect.
Italian writer on urban development Marco d’Eramo has called this phenomenon “UNESCOcide,” bemoaning that a city bestowed with the designation of a heritage site often “dies out, becoming the stuff of taxidermy.”
How Can We Help?
Monetary donations are only one way to contribute. Appreciation and consciousness go a long way in supporting conservation efforts and minimizing our unintended influence on their longevity.
“Travelers should think about being gentle on the Earth when they visit sites,” says Ackerman. “Even the simplest good behavior goes a long way to improving the lives of the sites.” As elementary as it sounds, littering remains a serious problem at many historic sites, so simply being aware of what you bring and leave behind can make a difference.
Another initiative any traveler can take on is to seek out sites off the beaten path. Many regions have heritage agencies or nonprofits eager to share their preservation work and opportunities to visit little-known sites.
“Be a trailblazer and chart new territory,” proposes Ackerman. “Cusco in Peru is very heavily visited, but just south of Cusco are a dozen equally spectacular baroque churches in small Andean towns that are far less known.”
Thankfully, sophisticated travelers today are becoming more aware of their impact on the places they visit and, whether for the sake of their Instagram following or for more moralistic reasons, are visiting towns and sites that are not yet overrun with visitors.
“Above all, the most important thing in their longevity is that they are valued,” sums up the representative from English Heritage.
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