Matthew Francis, Manager of Municipal Heritage Services, describes his role this way: “I manage all of the Government of Alberta’s work with municipalities to protect their historic places.” One focus of his job is running the Alberta Main Street Program. The other is leading the Municipal Heritage Partnership Program (MHPP). Both are done with the help of two Municipal Heritage Services Officers.
The Municipal Heritage Partnership Program was established in 2006 to give municipalities across Alberta the training and tools to start up and run their own heritage conservation programs in a way that “represents the best practice of what the Historical Resources Act requires.”
Matthew, who joined the branch the year before, has worked with this program from its start. He explains: “Municipalities in Alberta had been empowered since 1978 to designate their own historic places, but most of them didn’t know about that. Only a handful of communities—Calgary, Edmonton, Banff, Red Deer—had ever designated something at the local level. [The others thought,] ‘This is something we have to go to the Province [to do]’.”
“So the first several years were really about building awareness. I spent almost 100 days on the road in 2006 going all over Alberta—small towns and cities, and everywhere. We were able to tell them, this can be done locally around the council table, and through a bylaw, and we gave them the background on that, and the training, the tools.”
MHPP staff members lead workshops for local government staff, volunteers, and sometimes elected officials as well, to train them in how to protect locally significant historic places by using recognized tools. The main identification tools are surveys: research projects that gather basic historical and architectural information on possible historic resources. Conducting a survey can be a first step toward developing a comprehensive heritage conservation program. MHPP also offers workshops on heritage inventories: projects that helps a community identify places of outstanding local significance and develop a deep understanding of each place that will help the municipality determine how to protect and conserve it.
The Alberta Historical Resources Foundation offers matching grants to municipalities in Alberta that are undertaking surveys or heritage inventories or that are developing heritage management plans. MHPP staff often help municipalities craft viable survey or inventory projects that are likely to be funded by the Foundation. The MHPP also helps to evaluate grant applications, making funding recommendations to the Foundation’s Board of Directors.
Sometimes staff must overcome scepticism or even hostility of those who think heritage conservation is anti-progress. Matthew responds: “A lot of people when they think about their historic buildings, they think about the past, and we’re more concerned about saying, does that place have a future? That’s the conversation that we’re trying to have.”
Ideally, each municipality will first establish what the MHPP calls a Heritage Advisory Board (HAB), although it may have a different name locally. If the local government decides to seriously pursue the conservation of its historic resources, MHPP staff will meet with the board and others to explain that process and make sure they understand the three key aspects of evaluation: eligibility, significance, and integrity. Heritage consultants—historians, planners, or others with a conservation-related background—typically do the survey or inventory work under the direction of the advisory board.
As a central part of this work, the consultant will produce a document called a Statement of Significance for each historic place, which describes why the community values the place and what about it needs protection to preserve its significance. The HAB must be able to assess the quality of each Statement of Significance, making sure that each document accurately describes the significance and integrity of the historic resource(s) discussed. The HAB will make a recommendation on designation to the municipal council.
“Our place is not to intervene in [designation decisions],” Matthew says. “Municipalities in Alberta can designate whatever they want. They’re empowered to do that. It’s the community that has the local knowledge, and that’s what we’re trying to draw out.” But, ideally, the local government will learn how to make good decisions about heritage designation—decisions that are consistent across the community and also consistent with the best practices that are in use throughout Alberta. Municipalities may also establish their own regulations for the protection of their designated historic places.
“I really love working with the Heritage Advisory Boards.” Matthew reflects. “They’re volunteers for the most part, and they’re there for a reason—it’s usually because they have some sort of personal connection to these historic places that are meaningful to them in their community. A really enjoyable part of the work is getting to hear some of those stories.”
Today, MHPP staff members usually work with a municipality by invitation, although sometimes they’ll contact a local government proactively. This may be initiated by inquiries from private citizens concerned about protecting a specific historic place. When that happens, the MHPP staff member will urge them to contact their local government, but then will follow up with government staff to discuss the option of historic resource designation to protect the resource. “And from there we’ll say, ‘Have you thought more comprehensively about taking a look at all your historic places?’”
The annual Municipal Heritage Forum, a project of Municipal Heritage Services, supports these efforts. “Before 2007 people doing heritage conservation locally in different communities had very little connection with each other,” Matthew recalls. The first forum in 2007, called a Summit for Stakeholders, had about 40 participants. “It was basically just bringing the people together and giving them some information,” Matthew says. “But [we saw that] it’s the sharing of information [that’s important]. It’s really great to see the local knowledge increase and for that information to be shared peer-to-peer.” The forum now attracts about 125 attendees each year, and has become an eagerly anticipated event for heritage professionals and advocates across Alberta.
The Municipal Heritage Partnership Program has now worked with more than 100 municipalities, and it continues to help “repeat customers” as well as communities that are new to heritage conservation. The MHPP keeps evolving, along with the communities it serves. “We’ve worked with communities now that have been through the awareness cycle, so they know how to do [heritage designation], and they’re taking a high degree of ownership for this, which is what we always intended,” Matthew explains. The next step, he says, is helping them integrate heritage conservation into other urban planning initiatives—“not [treating it] like an appendage or an afterthought. Two of the flood-impacted communities we work with—High River and Medicine Hat—are working on major initiatives with their downtown planning, and I think they are leading the way on some of this.”
Municipalities have evaluated well over 1,000 historic places across Alberta since the program’s beginnings, “and that’s the number we keep an eye on,” Matthew says. “Not all of those places have been or will be designated or be protected,” he adds, “but at least they’re known. We know about them, and the communities know about them—and that’s really what matters most.”
Written by: Kerri Rubman.