Last week I gave a presentation at the “Preservation in the U.S.: 50 Years On” conference at Salve Regina University (Newport, RI). My topic was on how practice in built heritage conservation (historic preservation) should change in the next fifty years. The crux of my presentation was that it needs to be more people-centric; or in another sense, the historic environment should be conserved and managed for the benefit of people using evidence from social science research. Sound familiar? It should, because for nearly fifty years, EDRA has been promoting a vision for built environment design that is inherently people- and ecosystem-centric, using social science evidence to guide practice.
EDRA’s approach, which I believe ought to be fundamental to heritage conservation research and practice as well as the other built environment disciplines, is that problems, not disciplines, should dictate the best tools of inquiry and practice. Traditional built environment disciplines, such as architecture, planning, landscape architecture, interior design, and historic preservation, are useful when learning about the design and conservation of the built environment, but are eventually problematic in that they enforce ontological and epistemological blinders on their adherents. For instance, anthropological, sociological, and psychological approaches are not pervasive in architecture because architecture is not considered to be a social science (among many other reasons). Conversely, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists are not designers. Approaching a research or practice problem from a multidisciplinary perspective simply means bringing disciplines together on a common issue, but each researcher or practitioner still wears his or her disciplinary blinders. A transdisciplinary approach to an issue looks at the space in-between the disciplines. For instance, this space might be between architecture and anthropology, which would enable the architect to use an ethnography in solving a design problem and the anthropologist to create sketches and measured drawings of buildings in solving a cultural problem. This is the world of EDRA: we are the spaces in-between the disciplines. To appropriate a famous phrase, we boldly go where no one has gone before.
This transdisciplinarity is what originally attracted me to EDRA nearly ten years ago. It was the one place where I could describe how I was combining historic preservation with social science approaches and my EDRA friends immediately “got it.” I’ve yet to find a group that so intuitively understands transdisciplinary work where your disciplinary background matters less than the way in which you address a problem. We describe ourselves as academic and practice “misfits,” pursuing research and practice solutions that would be rejected or suppressed in other, more traditional contexts. We have an insatiable interest in the people/place relationship, but what drives us, more than any other factor, is a desire to make sure places benefit people. There is a strong sense of altruism in EDRA—helping your fellow human beings and the planet as whole—that I find immensely appealing.
Along with a transdisciplinary perspective, EDRA’s focus on recognizing and creating environments that are inherently good for people sets it apart from many of the individual built environment disciplines that, while certainly recognizing people’s role in design, planning, and conservation, fail to consistently place the human experience at the fundamental core of research and practice. That’s why some of the most influential designers of environments that are good for people aren’t necessarily as well known as famous architectural designers themselves: in recognizing the many facets of human needs, the designer or conservationist inherently deprecates the ego. Good places are inherently “good” because they benefit many people, not because they win design awards that look good in magazines, brochures, and posters.
Sometimes, however, this human-centered focus on design is unfairly criticized for eviscerating intuition and creativity. As one of my architecture colleagues often quotes, you still need these qualities to make great places for people, even if you are being guided by evidence. In other words, evidence, alone, cannot produce a design any more than evidence can independently decide how to maintain the authenticity of an historic neighborhood. The intuition and creativity of the built environment practitioner will always be needed. All that evidence-based design asks is that the designer or conservationist guide his or her decisions based on knowing more about how people use, value, and behave in places. Creativity and intuition are still very much needed and, as far as I can see, will long remain essential attributes of built environment professionals, regardless of the use of social science evidence.
EDRA’s goal is to promote the idea of using this social science evidence to produce better places for people, not to disempower the built environment professional. In fact, we believe that using evidence-based methods leads to more empowered professionals who see this approach as opening more doors than are closed. But, perhaps more fundamentally, it is difficult to argue against the idea that the environment should be good for people. Does it not, therefore, make sense to understand more about the relationship between people and their various built and natural environments? Good design and conservation ought to rest in the enhanced knowledge of people/place relationships, which is why EDRA is still the leading organization in promulgating evidence-based design for nearly half a century. If you’re already an EDRA member, please consider spreading this message to your colleagues, and if you’re not a member, consider joining us in making the built environment a better place for people.