In spite of the pandemic and dire economic challenges, Providence is experiencing a building boom with construction activity continuing through lockdowns and pauses. Protection of historic buildings exists in this old American city through seven local historic districts containing approximately 2,500 properties — though PPS advocates for far more designation. The city’s historic beauty continues to draw newcomers from bigger and more expensive places who appreciate the quality of life and architecture that Providence has to offer.
Why, then, would a member of the community nominate the city of Providence to the Most Endangered Properties list? In a sentence: we are a riverine city in the Ocean State, and the impacts of climate change will affect Providence’s built and cultural heritage in both incremental and profound ways.
First, we recognize that Providence occupies the land of the Narragansett nation and that humans lived here long before the city was founded by Roger Williams in 1636. Secondly, Providence’s industrial past and prominence are well documented. We continue to live with this legacy (and its resulting environmental contamination) — from the manufacturing buildings of the Jewelry District to the mills of Olneyville. Contemporary Providence is recognized as the Creative Capital of Rhode Island and chockablock full of institutions of higher learning, hospitals, the new Innovation and Design District, and vibrant cultural activity, including countless historic buildings. All of this history and these landmarks are at risk.
Incremental sea level rise threatens our many architectural, archeological, and cultural resources along the Providence River and working waterfront. But we can expect increased and more severe storm activity, too, which have historically devastated Providence’s historic infrastructure. The New England Hurricane (1938) and Hurricane Carol (1954) are within living memory, and marks of their destruction are still visible throughout the built landscape — look for missing church steeples and storm surge high watermark plaques for a start. Today, we experience the incipient symptoms of climate change; among them are disease, disruption to food production, and environmental injustice.
Allens Avenue on the west side of the Providence River below downtown is a poster-child for the detrimental effects of industry and pollution. The riverfront is neither visible, nor accessible to the residents of Lower South Providence. A historical building like the Providence Gas Co. Purifier House (1900; aka Conley’s Wharf) is threatened by obsolescence due to the intense waterfront uses that surround it. And yet, the area around the Providence Terminal is a harbinger of green energy and habitat restoration with wind turbines and the Save the Bay Center, respectively.
In January 2021, the mayor and members of City Council announced a suite of initiatives aimed at addressing the climate crisis and institutionalizing the city’s nationally-recognized Climate Justice Plan, which was released at the end of 2019. These critical actions soon will be heard by the full City Council. It is up to the people of Providence to voice support for such strategies.
“I applaud the Providence Preservation Society and the nominating community member for drawing attention to the climate crisis and its intersection with the preservation of our historic City,” said Mayor Jorge O. Elorza. “The climate crisis is not just an environmental issue. It will impact every facet of our lives and we all must play a role in preventing this human-made crisis.”
PPS advocates that the greenest building is one that is already built. Reduce, reuse, recycle can be applied to buildings as easily as soda cans. Once heritage is lost, though, it is gone forever. With the impacts of climate change, we stand to lose more than just buildings; culture and community are also threatened.
COVID-19 has presented real-time evidence that cumulative efforts worldwide and changes in activity — particularly transportation — have real, positive impacts on our planet. Each one of us must be active participants in solving the climate crisis. We must scrutinize our individual choices, demand more of our elected officials, and commit to changes that will decrease the disastrous effects of climate change.