Streamlining Evaluation of Historic and Cultural Resources by Using Historic Contexts

Focus Area

Historic Preservation/Cultural Resources


Community & Cultural Concerns







Research Idea Scope

Transportation agencies spend substantial funds to identify cultural resources that are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and thus subject to environmental regulations. Despite the fact that the National Register policy calls for the use of historic contexts when determining eligibility of identified resources, recent nationwide survey findings reveal that eligibility decisions are most often determined on a piecemeal basis and without the benefit of comparison with like resources.

In 1999, the TRB-sponsored "National Forum on Assessing Historic Significance for Transportation Programs" identified the lack of historic contexts as the biggest problem in assessing significance. When used, historic contexts have proven to be an effective and efficient tool in streamlining the evaluation process and in facilitating good decision making. They need to be applied more often to resource types commonly encountered in transportation projects- resources that are individually considered time and again such as bridges, rural landscapes, farmsteads, post-World War II subdivisions, standard design houses, lithic scatters, roads, and railroads. Everything has history; a historic context identifies what of that history is significant within the resource type. Their use eliminates inconsistency and confusion over eligibility and expedites the environmental review and scoping processes. It efficiently identifies what is significant and eligible while eliminating consideration of the great number of resources that are not eligible. An historic context also promotes good stewardship of cultural resources by identifying those that are worthy of preservation before they become part of a project.A critical evaluation of the preparation and application of historic contexts will be undertaken. The initial step will be to conduct a nationwide survey of state historic preservation offices (SHPOs) and departments of transportation (DOTs).

The survey data will be synthesized to address the following issues:

  • Assessment/investigation of why historic contexts are not widely used.
  • Analysis/synthesis of the cost benefit of evaluating resources using historic contexts.
  • Identification of methodologies and approaches that have proven to be successful.
  • Development of guidance for the preparation and application of historic contexts. The guidance will emphasize what a historic context must accomplish and how it is completed.
  • Development of a shared national database on historic contexts that can include a shelf list of completed contexts and their location to ensure easy, widespread dissemination of existing and newly generated data.
  • Identification of funding sources and agency/organizations to prepare contexts.
  • Development and implementation of a mechanism to disseminate the findings and recommendations through workshops.

Those participating would be the stakeholders including at a minimum, SHPOs, THPOs, DOTs, NPS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and consultants.

TERI Administrator Note (June 2007): Related Research
NCHRP Report 542, Evaluating Cultural Resource Significance: Implementation Tools (2005)

Abstract: This report presents the findings of a research project to develop information technology (IT) tools that improve and streamline the National Register evaluation of cultural resources. As part of the project, The researchers developed a searchable database of historic contexts [the Historic Property Screening Tool (HPST)], a searchable database of historic contexts for the management and use of historic contexts and cultural resource inventory information. This tool also records National Register eligibility decisions for future use. The HPST guides the user through the decision-making process that is typically used when applying National Register criteria.

Suggested By

Transportation Research Board 2002 Environmental Research Needs Conference Notes

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