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Survey Forth! Innovative Survey Methodologies
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Survey Forth!
Innovative Survey Methodologies

Places change: sometimes suddenly, often gradually. The role of preservation advocates and planners is to help plan for and manage that change, creating healthy, dynamic places while preserving and adapting important heritage.

Historic resource surveys play a fundamental role in this process. On a basic level, they provide information about the local history and landscape that allows planners, preservationists, and community members to identify potential historic resources. With a strong, proactive framework for preserving the built environment— and data to support it—resources can be considered in large- and small-scale discussions around neighborhood plans, new developments, and demolitions.

In recent years, technology has greatly expanded our ability to record data about the built environment, as well as to analyze and share the information we collect. However, these tools alone do not solve the challenges of scale, time, effectiveness, and funding. As yet, there is no standard model for integrating survey data with planning efforts. Furthermore, few cities and preservation organizations have the ability to pay for surveys that document every building over 50 years old.

Several innovative survey approaches have been developed that leverage technology to pragmatically address these challenges. They collect information using participatory online platforms and high-resolution online maps, in addition to fieldwork. These technologies allow survey work to quickly cover large areas at lower costs by providing a means for the broader public to participate in survey work and viewing entire blocks in birds-eye view. One approach redefines the survey unit as a multi-parcel unit, scaling up data collection at a lower cost. Each survey methodology facilitates information-sharing between agencies by linking survey results in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) databases to planning and other systems. [End Page 34]

For instance, the Austin Historical Survey Wiki, developed by the University of Texas at Austin, brings preservation into the crowdsourcing age. The publicly accessible online database allows anyone to register as a user and enter information about any property in the city. After preservation professionals vet the information entered into the wiki for accuracy, Austin's historic preservation office reviews it and enters it into the city's official inventory.

In Philadelphia, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to assess large swaths of Philadelphia in a very short time to inform a comprehensive planning effort and rezoning across the city. They devised character studies: coarse-grain, very low-cost surveys that use digital aerial photographs and historic maps to identify groupings of properties constructed at a similar time with similar forms. Windshield surveys for integrity can be targeted at particular property ages or types based on GIS analysis. The process ultimately produces maps of historic character areas and GIS files for planners' use.

To learn more about the latest in survey techniques and approaches, plan to attend "Survey Slam" at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis. [End Page 35]

Cara Bertron

Cara Bertron works at the intersection of preservation and planning as director of the Rightsizing Cities Initiative at PlaceEconomics and as Real Estate Lab coordinator at the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority. She previously developed and managed the Character Study Project in Philadelphia.