Intro: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast. The show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join NCPTT’s Debbie Smith as she speaks with Robert Melnick, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon and author of “Climate Change and Landscape Preservation: A Twenty-first-century Conundrum,” which appeared in a 2010 volume of the APT Bulletin. Today they will discuss topics addressed in the article.
Smith: Welcome to the podcast, Robert. Could you begin by telling us how you would define a cultural landscape?
Melnick: Sure Debbie. It’s great to be here.
I think the first thing to think about is that you’ve got to think about not just cultural landscapes, but historically significant cultural landscapes. If you think about many old buildings that are not truly historically significant is the same issue with cultural landscapes. So for me, a cultural landscape is really, any landscape that’s been modified by people. That doesn’t mean that it’s a significant cultural landscape. And that’s really where, I think some of the confusion comes in, and where it is important to differentiate between just a “landscape,” a “cultural landscape” and a “significant cultural landscape.” That’s why we go through the national register process, documents like Bulletin 30 for the National Register. So that we are sure that we are really looking at what’s important about that landscape, not just that it exists. From a geographer’s point of view, you might say that every landscape is a cultural landscape.
Smith: That’s a very good distinction. That really helps in understanding, especially for someone who maybe isn’t familiar with what a cultural landscape is. And how would you describe the difference between preserving a cultural landscape, and how is that different than an historic building?
Melnick: Well, I think all resources are dynamic, and buildings are clearing dynamic. But landscapes are dynamic at a rate and at a pace that is dramatically different than buildings. You can actually, in your lifetime under normal conditions, you can see that landscape change. Whereas for an historic building if it is well taken care of, you really can’t.
The other differentiation is that a landscape, by definition, will change. An important issue here is that you in fact want a landscape to change. And that goes very much against, what I like to call, very traditional, and now rather old-fashioned, preservation dogma, which basically describes a goal of preservation as arresting all change. So for a landscape, you want it to change. You just want to manage that change and have it change within certain boundaries and within certain limits.
Smith: And so, in terms of climate change on cultural landscapes, what do you see as some of the potential impacts?
Melnick: Well I think there are many, many impacts that we are already seeing and certainly that I think unless some major changes happen in our global systems they will happen more. So just here are a couple of them. One is rising sea levels, which will undoubtedly effect coastline landscapes. Another is the change in rainfall, whether more or less, that will affect plant communities. Another is the change in temperature that can also affect plant communities. So just things like that, that you would associate with change to the natural systems that we’re understanding, are being impacted by climate change. The same kind of changes will take place for cultural landscapes.
Smith: How might this affect the zones that plants grow in today?
Melnick: Well, I think it’s already affecting them. Certainly here in the west coast we are finding that certain grape varieties are growing further to the north than they were 50 years ago, and they are not able to grow as far south as they were. So, very slowly, very, very incrementally those plant zones are moving.
Now the other piece of this, which I have to mention here, is that even though it’s a global problem, we do understand that climate change affects different landscapes in different ways. So it’s a global problem that impacts landscapes at a very local level. So you may in fact have some values here in Oregon, some landscapes, which are minimally or perhaps not at all effected by climate change. Maybe perhaps eventually they will be many, many years from now, whereas other landscapes are being affected right now by that. So even though we think of it as a global problem, it impacts landscapes at a very local level.
Smith: Well, could you give us an example of perhaps a recognized cultural landscape or a landscape feature that could potentially be impacted by climate change?
Melnick: Well sure. Just take the Kentucky bluegrass for example, which is a great example. That landscape, really over centuries, has thrived in a climate and an environment that is slowly changing over time. So it’s very possible, and again I don’t know this yet but I can envision it, it’s very possible that that ecological system will change so much that the basic quality of it, which is the blue grass and all the associated ecological components of that, will no longer thrive in that larger climate. And therefore it will have an impact not only on the turf itself and literally the bluegrass itself, but you’ll have an impact on walls, on stone walls, on wooden fences, it will have an impact on the architecture that’s there over time.
Another example I could give you is Hanalei Valley on the north shore in Hawaii, which is a very prime taro growing area. And although Hawaii, we believe, is being less effected by climate change than other areas. Eventually, unless major changes happen, it will be. And then the kind of wet-land environment that taro thrives in, may in fact start to dry up. Or it may in fact get wetter. Climate change isn’t always climate warming. Sometimes it can be increased precipitation or it can be decreased precipitation.
Smith: What do you see is some possible actions in response to these potential impacts.
Melnick: Well, I think the first thing we have to do is support a broader, global understanding that climate change is really happening. And as you know, there are a lot of people out there who say, “No, it’s not happening.” I am not a scientist, as you know, but I believe that in fact a climate change is happening. Many scientists believe it too. So the first thing to do is to increase the level of education.
The second thing to do is to increase attention to that on the part of governments nationally to try and turn the course on those actions that are increasing climate change. So those are kind of global, and they apply to both natural and cultural systems. In terms of cultural landscapes, I think in our lifetime we are going to have to think about redefining what we mean by character-defining features. We may have to say, you know that feature that was character defining, really no longer exists and therefore we have to think about it differently. We may also have to think about what we mean by appropriate treatment. So now if an alleé of oak trees dies on a very significant landscape, the preferred treatment is to replace the oak trees, but if the oak trees are dying because the climate has changed so much that they can no longer thrive, it’s sort of silly to replant the same oak trees. So you may have to think about what we mean by “character defining.” Is it the larger characteristic of the landscape or is it the actual physical feature.
And finally, for a third example, I think that we may have to practice what I’ve been calling landscape triage. We may in fact have to say, if it comes to this, that there are certain landscapes we really cannot save because it is beyond our ability, but we want to record them, we want to make sure we know what they are and we want to keep good records of them so we understand their importance in the culture history of our country and of the world.
Smith: Thanks Robert for talking with me today.
Melnick: Thank you very much Debbie. It’s been my pleasure.
Outro: That was Debbie Smith interviewing Robert Melnick. If you would like to learn more about this podcast, visit our podcast shownotes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.