The R’s of conservation

$29 million restoration of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre by the Trust in 1987-89 (Photo: George Pelekis)

"“It is . . . no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.”"

John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849


Beth Hanna

Buildings and architecture, Community, Tools for conservation

Published Date:10 May 2007

Photo: $29 million restoration of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre by the Trust in 1987-89 (Photo: George Pelekis)

An earlier generation spoke of the three R’s as “Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.” They were the fundamentals of education in the 19th century and considered the key to a better life.

In 1984, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy introduced its 3R Regulations and soon blue boxes began to appear in Ontario’s households and workplaces. Today, the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” is common language and recycling has become second nature for a new generation.

Like the blue box philosophy, we need a conservation mindset that is second nature if we are to be successful in conserving the built, cultural and natural heritage resources in our communities. A conservation-focused approach to community planning invests in the long-term needs of a place and its residents, keeping in mind that it must have value – not just today but also to future generations. This awareness of future needs is connected to the values held by the community and is a celebration of the community’s unique sense of place. Those values must be embedded in local policies, official plans and master plans. That sense of responsibility and connectedness leads to effective stewardship.

We must add more R’s to the three we know so well to help create that conservation mindset.

Research and Record.
To protect the built and natural resources in our communities, we must first understand them. Comprehensive inventories are essential for effective municipal planning. These include inventories of heritage buildings and structures, natural heritage areas and landmarks, and archaeology master plans. Similarly, we need to record the stories of our communities, understand the cultural history, and commemorate the people, places and events that have brought us to where we are today.

For built heritage – Retain, Rehabilitate, Reuse and Restrain.
Restraint is the art of containing and harnessing our creativity, redirecting it to conserve the value of an existing creative expression. Instead of demolishing existing buildings for new structures, we need to focus our attention on adapting them for reuse. The province has recently provided new legislative tools to support conservation approaches: the Ontario Heritage Act, the Planning Act and the Provincial Policy Statement. But although legislation provides important powers, successful conservation occurs through individual and community support.

As individuals, we can understand and celebrate the special resources in our communities. You don’t have to be a specialist to appreciate the buildings and structures around you. Take a close look at the industrial buildings, places of worship, theatres, town halls, post offices, train stations, historic houses and museums that you enjoy in your community. How were they built? When and by whom? What materials were used and for what purposes? Do they express simplicity of form, spirituality, joy or audacity? How do they connect to other structures in the landscape? Do they add depth and meaning to your community? If they matter to you, then you have a responsibility to ensure that they are planned for and protected.

For natural heritage – Reclaim, Restore, Reforest and – for those few areas not yet touched – “Really, just leave it alone.”
We cannot continue to treat these precious resources as disposable. Recent discussions about global warming have heightened awareness of the direct connection between environmental protection and our health. Not only are land, wildlife habitat, air and water threatened and rapidly disappearing resources, they are necessary for our well-being. Our planning at every level must reflect the vital roles and functions of natural spaces, parks and protected areas in a sustainable approach to development, in order to sustain life itself.

There is no question that government has a critical responsibility in conserving natural and cultural resources, in providing legislation and regulations and in educating the public. We also, as individuals, have our own stewardship responsibility. It begins by looking closely at the environment around us, being “future-thinking” in our decision-making and intentional in our actions. Some First Nations peoples express a responsibility to future generations in this regard, governing their actions by considering the impact upon the seventh generation to come. We could learn a great deal from that approach.

So, let’s add some new R’s to our vocabulary to promote a conservation mindset. Research, Record, Retain, Rehabilitate, Reuse, Reclaim, Restore, Reforest, that we exercise Restraint and “Really, just leave it alone.” One final R – Respect. Respect for those who have gone before us and for the generations yet to come.

The Clarke Property

Photo: The Clarke Property

Unveiling of a plaque in 2003 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto

Photo: Unveiling of a plaque in 2003 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto