Practicing heritage justice: Helping your community decide which historic places to protect from the impact of climate change (and which to let go)

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Editor’s note: Our next installment of the “Our Climate Emergency” series highlights David Glassberg’s essay about historical places, climate change, and how to decide whether a site needs to be preserved or not. 

Climate disruption makes it more urgent that public historians engage with their communities to protect places significant to local history and identity from deterioration and oblivion. More wildfires, violent storms, floods, and rising seas threaten to overwhelm historians’ best efforts, leaving their communities no choice in some places but to allow the consequences of generations of greenhouse gas emissions to take their course. Public historians trained to help their communities identify and protect important historical and archaeological sites will also need to help their communities come to grips with losing many of those sites. They will need to practice heritage justice, helping their communities to decide which historic places to protect, and which to let go, in a just and equitable manner.

A white lighthouse rests on a complex platform as it is being relocated.

Relocation of the Highland Lighthouse, Truro, 1996. Photo credit: Cape Cod National Seashore

Concerns about heritage justice arise as the National Park Service and other government agencies develop plans for a changing climate that set priorities for protecting significant natural and cultural resources.  In coastal national parks such as Cape Cod National Seashore, for example, popular tourist attractions such as lighthouses are more likely to be protected than seldom-visited archaeological sites that are primarily of significance to Indigenous people. Concerns about heritage justice also arise in coastal cities such as Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the residents of “Little Liberia,” a historically Black neighborhood, fought to ensure that the city’s Climate Adaptation Plan did not sacrifice their local sites of memory to protect historic districts in primarily white neighborhoods. And heritage justice concerns arise in places such as Alaska and southern Louisiana where Indigenous peoples uprooted by climate change struggle to have their history remembered in their former locales. In the words of Dr. Kristina Peterson of the Lowlander Center, which works with communities in southern Louisiana targeted for relocation, “when all is gone, whose story remains?”

Practicing heritage justice demands that public historians critically interrogate any plan for climate adaptation by asking whose history is being institutionalized, protected, and interpreted as the public one? It requires that historical research investigate local instances of past and ongoing environmental trauma and displacement, as well as identify the individuals and forces responsible for that trauma and displacement. It insists that public historians institute democratic and inclusive procedures for deciding which historic places will be protected from the impact of climate disruption, and which stories about those places will be preserved. And it calls for developing public programs that facilitate the remembrance of diverse cultures, including those no longer physically present as a result of managed relocation, in the places they formerly called home.

Keeping heritage justice considerations in mind, public historians can take three actions to help their communities decide which historic places to protect from the impact of climate change (and which to let go):

  1. Public historians can organize public projects to help diverse groups of local residents identify their “special places” and assess the vulnerability of each to climate disruption—a function of its proximity to harm’s way and its capacity to withstand extreme weather events. These sites of memory constitute what Randolph Hester calls the community’s “subconscious landscapes of the heart.” Some sites will appear on the National Register of Historic Places, but most will not. Employing National Register criteria to prioritize the protection of historic places, given the processes through which places have historically been nominated and included in the Register, perpetuates heritage injustice.

    A group of eight people, including men and women, listen to a standing man, who has on glasses, and is wearing a white shirt, dark trousers, and a dark blue Boston Red Sox jacket. The man holds papers in his left hand. Behind the man is timeline with images and color coded text.

    Massachusetts State Senator Adam Gomez kicking off a community meeting in Springfield’s North End to hear what local residents thought should be included in the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan, April 18, 2017. Behind him is a timeline of significant events in Springfield’s history from an environmental justice perspective. Photo credit: David Glassberg

  2. After identifying their community’s special places, public historians can organize public programs to introduce local residents to different approaches for the protection and interpretation of vulnerable historic structures and landscapes. The NPS Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy lists options ranging from building new protective infrastructure or reinforcing, elevating, or relocating historic buildings, to allowing a historic structure to be lost. This last option, usually the least expensive, comes with the responsibility to document carefully the place to be lost and facilitate its memorialization and interpretation. Through such programs, public historians can help their communities make informed decisions and navigate the conflicts inherent in finding the right approach for a particular historic place.
  3. Understanding the emotional difficulty of letting some places go, public historians can organize community conversations about local history that help local residents anticipate their experiences of change and loss. In fall 2016, under the auspices of Cape Cod National Seashore, I organized a series of community conversations in four towns exploring local history and the changing climate. At each meeting, I showed a mix of contemporary and historical photographs, as well images of projected local sea-level rise from the Climate Central Surging Seas tool, and recorded the conversations that the images prompted about ongoing social, economic, and environmental changes. In spring 2017, under the auspices of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and several community organizations in Springfield, Massachusetts, I prepared a timeline of the city’s environmental history to accompany a series of community meetings organized to develop a local Climate Action and Resilience Plan. Three meetings occurred in majority African American and Latinx neighborhoods, where the conversations about history focused on places that exemplified the community’s decades of struggle against social and economic inequality, poor air quality, and environmental injustice. In spring 2021, UMass Amherst Public History graduate students reimagined the timeline as an interactive map to accompany the Humanities Action Lab’s traveling exhibit, “Climates of Inequality: Stories of Environmental Justice.”

Through projects such as the ones on Cape Cod and in Springfield, public historians can help communities understand their experience of climate disruption in historical context, as well as provide opportunities, in a communal setting, to process their concerns about the future, to grieve the impending loss of the places that matter to them, and to express their desire for refuge and repair. Contemplating the future impact of climate disruption understandably raises fear; public history projects that engage communities in discussions of the relationship of their past to their present and future environment can encourage residents to “work through” those fears and build resilience and capacity for taking collective action.


~David Glassberg is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century.

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