Reduce, Reuse, Rehab: Exploring Cultural and Economic Sustainability through Heritage Tourism

The preservation of textile mill buildings and their surrounding landscapes helps maintain the culture of Lowell, Massachusetts, for generations to come.

The preservation of textile mill buildings and their surrounding landscapes helps maintain the culture of Lowell, Massachusetts, for generations to come.

In the broadest sense, sustainability means meeting present needs while not hindering future generations from meeting theirs. While the concept of environmental sustainability is generally well-understood, sustainability on the whole necessitates a multi-faceted understanding including social, cultural, and economic elements. In Reduce, Reuse, Rehab, we often explore how historic preservation is environmentally sustainable, but it is important to discuss how preservation fulfills the concept of sustainability on the whole, including those social, cultural, and economic elements.

In investigating heritage tourism, we can see how preservation of existing resources provides the present generation opportunities to meet their cultural and economic needs while maintaining them for future use. While heritage tourism is not the only method by which preservation’s sustainable benefits can be examined, it does illustrate the benefits most clearly.

Heritage tourists comprise a large portion of the traveling American public and provide a more significant economic impact than other travelers. According to Travel Industry Association of America and Smithsonian Magazine, The Historic/Cultural Traveler, 2003 Edition, heritage tourists account for 81 percent of U.S. adults who took a trip of 50 miles or more away from home in 2002. In addition, travel to a historic or cultural site in the U.S. increased 13 percent between 1996 and 2002.

Prominent researchers like David Listokin of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers and Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics also suggest that in comparison to other travelers, heritage tourists spend more, use local lodging, and stay in one area for a longer period of time.

Heritage tourism promotes the preservation of existing resources for use by travelers. But how does preservation provide opportunities for cultural and economic sustainability?

Lowell, Massachusetts, preserves neighborhoods and transportation routes.

Lowell, Massachusetts, preserves neighborhoods and transportation routes.

A location cannot attract heritage tourists without preserving its existing resources. In order for a place to be a culturally and economically successful heritage tourism destination, it must offer a unique resource, whether it is historical, architectural, or natural. By preserving existing resources, the location maintains elements of its culture, and creates an opportunity for stable economic growth – both of which can be enjoyed by future generations.

The preservation of a building or landscape is culturally sustainable because it is also the preservation of social and cultural history. Think of Lowell, Massachusetts, or Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Visitors to Lowell or Gettysburg do not travel just to see textile mill buildings or Little Round Top’s craggy field. They travel to Lowell to discover more about the lives and work of millworkers – where they lived, what their days were like, what they wore, and what they ate. They come to Gettysburg to learn about battlefield strategy, soldier rations, and the effects of the fighting on the local people. Without the textile mill buildings or the craggy field, however, these stories could not be told so vividly because Lowell and Gettysburg would not have the tangible and unique resources – and people would not have a specific location to visit.

In addition to the famous and unique buildings and sites, heritage tourism encourages the preservation of neighborhoods, public spaces, transportation routes, and natural topography. The preservation of these resources maintains a community’s culture in that its spaces and their relation to one another illustrate its past and connect it to the present. In Lowell and Gettysburg, large sections of the towns have been preserved and rehabilitated in order to keep the more famous sites in their original context, with new businesses housed in historic buildings in order appeal to the influx of people – and their pocketbooks.

Though heritage tourism promotes the preservation of buildings and sites, the rehabilitation of these contributing resources does not require the city or town to be frozen in time. In fact, heritage tourism encourages stable local business and economic growth, provided that it does not irreparably damage the existing resources which make the location unique.

Heritage Tourists gather on Little Round Top in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Heritage Tourists gather on Little Round Top in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Heritage tourism is economically sustainable for several reasons. First, travelers come and will continue to come to the specific location because of its unique resources, provided that the community preserves them. Second, historic and cultural resources draw people to large cities and small towns, ensuring that various communities gain from the industry. Third, heritage tourism creates the need for various types of skilled and unskilled, stable jobs, including artists, craftspeople, historians, museum staff, planners, preservationists, conservationists, restaurant owners, retail shop owners, marketing specialists, B&B proprietors, musicians, security officials, and construction workers – all of whom spend at least part of their salaries in their city or town. Finally, heritage tourism supports local business, as the tourist dollars do directly into locally-owned businesses that often sell locally-made wares.

Along with their cultural and economic sustainability potential, some historic sites are being recognized for their environmentally sustainable efforts. Owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the site of President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., features the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center, a LEED Gold-Certified Italianate building originally constructed in 1905. The rehabilitation/preservation of Trinity Church in Boston has been noted for its environmentally sustainable design work by Goody Clancy.

Heritage tourism demonstrates just one way the preservation of our existing resources can be culturally and economically sustainable – in addition to its oft-discussed environmentally sustainable potential. To understand sustainability on the whole, these social and economic aspects cannot be ignored or separated from the environmental one. Investigating the ways in which preservation meets all of these sustainable principles allows for a more nuanced discussion of its importance to people, to places, and to the planet.

For more information:

American Planning Association Policy Guide on Planning for Sustainability

Cultural Heritage Tourism

Environmental Protection Agency and Sustainability

Forestry Commission of Great Britain discusses the social, economic, and environmental components of sustainability

The U.S. Department of Commerce and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. A Position Paper on Cultural and Heritage Tourism in the United States.2005.

For more on the work of David Listokin:

Analyzing the Economic Impacts of Historic Preservation

Partners in Prosperity: the Economic Benefits of Historic Preservation in New Jersey (1998)

Gabarine, Rachelle, “A New Report Tells Just How Preservation Pays,” The New York Times. Sunday, August 3, 1997.

For more on the work of Donovan D. Rypkema:

Heritage Conservation and the Local Economy.” Global Urban Development Magazine. August 2008: Vol. 4, Issue 1.
Sustainability, Smart Growth and Historic Preservation,given at the Historic Districts Council Annual Conference in New York City, March 10, 2007. 
“The Economics of Historic Preservation: A Community Leader’s Guide.” Washington, D.C.: The National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1994.