By Lori Anglin
What is it about historic centers and towns that attracts us? What qualities do they have that make us want to walk along their streets and linger in their squares?
Historic centers present the past—possessing buildings, monuments, lanes, and parks that resonate with memory and tradition. The scale of their elements is inviting, and walking through them, one can discover history in the smallest of details. They give us a vision of another time.
But unlike museums—where the past is displayed but not touched—historic districts are places where life continues to be lived, where cultural heritage is not protected behind glass cases or barriers, where it is, instead, a part of a populated community making its living and generating sounds, scents, and scenes. Historic centers display the tempo of life in the community—and epitomize the expression that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
"The past as embodied in the architectural heritage provides the sort of environment indispensable for a balanced and complete life," reads the European Charter of the Architectural Heritage, drafted over 20 years ago. It is "a capital of irreplaceable spiritual, cultural, social, and economic value."
A historic center may be a part of a city—for example, the core of Siena, Italy, or the heart of old Quito, Ecuador. Or it may embody a settlement in its entirety, such as Baktapur, Nepal, or Banani, Mali. What typically sets a historic district or town apart from other settlements are qualities associated with architectural age, rarity, character, and authenticity. The social value of these places exists in the diversity of daily life and the traditions of its people. A community inherits its heritage, and it stands to reason that the community is its most appropriate guardian. Local landmarks are cultural and emotional reference points for a community, which may be small or large, man-made or naturally occurring. These are landmarks because they are held in people's memories as important. For pride to exist in historic districts, an emotional attachment on the part of the community is needed. When this exists, there is an interest to maintain and conserve historic districts.
The global trend of redevelopment to increase density, modernize accommodations, and capitalize on investment return has contributed to an unprecedented loss of historic fabric in past decades. In times of fierce competition and intensive production, the conservation of historic centers may be perceived as a privilege, but it is part of a collective obligation to understand and preserve history, tradition, and cultural diversity in urban centers.
A Living Place
To conserve a historic community poses challenges unequaled in cultural heritage conservation. The challenges go beyond the need to conserve buildings and objects. Conservation of historic centers and districts is about seeking ways to ensure that the full range of qualities that give a place its particular character—its history, buildings, open spaces, traditions, culture, and social life—are kept alive for the inhabitants of those communities and for future generations. Conservation is as much about people as it is about bricks and mortar.
When historic centers as we know them today were created, lifestyles and habits were vastly different. The ways that people work, shop, travel, and play have changed. The population of urban centers may also have changed in size and makeup. In the 20th century, the number of people living in cities has grown tenfold to almost 2.5 billion, an increase that has been accompanied by the introduction of modern transportation and services such as electricity and plumbing. Cities today must accommodate an increasing numbers of cars, a higher density of buildings, and ever more services. In the case of historic districts, such changes inevitably result in a change in character, the demolition of historic buildings, and the compromise of open spaces.
The lure of wealth from industrialization and trade has frequently been a precipitating factor in changes to historic cities, especially in developing countries. In many places, the stampede toward development has trampled traditional architecture and ways of life. When change comes too quickly and without planning, there is economic and social dislocation, as well as the destruction of buildings that have been places of family and community for centuries.
One cannot "stop time" in urban places. A historic center is an inseparable part of its surroundings, new and old. In balancing the present with the past, the active partnership of the community in the planning for development and change is essential, if a center is to maintain its unique character while retaining or renewing its vitality. Historic preservationists and urban and social planners have a history of encouraging participatory processes.
Just as each place is unique, there is no single prescription for conservation in historic centers or districts. The means of safeguarding these places depend upon politics, resources, economics, community interest, laws, and administrations. What works in one region may be inappropriate or impractical in another.
What is universally important is the need to preserve the everyday culture, as well as the precious physical fabric. Urban conservation implies cultural conservation, which means that the characteristics of the existing population and its cultures are also valued and preserved.
A People Process
Urban conservation starts with the recognition that a district has both physical and social qualities worth safeguarding. In some places, respect for cultural heritage is centuries old. In other regions, the cultural value placed on historic districts may be far surpassed by emphasis on the more basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and education.
Just as memory is needed in order for one to learn from mistakes, understanding the past of a historic center helps inform consideration of future actions. How things have changed, why a district looks the way it does, and who and what have influenced its development are basic questions that need to be answered.
Historic centers were developed by people to serve the needs of people, and they have been used, enjoyed, and sometimes destroyed by people. If the familiar and traditional qualities of historic centers are to survive, the involvement of people who have vested interests—residents and workers, property and business owners, community leaders and politicians—is critically important. The community is the ultimate guardian of a historic place. Urban conservation programs cannot succeed without community support.
In recent years the Getty Conservation Institute has collaborated with the municipalities in urban conservation projects in Quito, Ecuador, and Ouro Preto, Brazil. Early in these projects, public surveys were conducted asking a series of questions: Why are you here? Are there qualities that are important to you about this area? What changes would you like to see 20 years from now? Answers to such questions and meetings to discuss these issues help to define a historic center's importance or significance and to plan for its future. "To preserve effectively," wrote Kevin Lynch in What Time Is This Place?, "we must know for what the past is being retained and for whom."
Safeguarding historic centers is most effective when there is a partnership among the community, the local government, and the business sector. This partnership needs to be nurtured with programs for the building of awareness of the value of conservation activity, including its economic, social, and cultural benefits. But when we think about those who control the future of historic centers—property owners, political leaders, bankers, real estate brokers, and taxpayers—the issue is most commonly one of economic, not cultural, values. Can urban conservation programs strengthen economic development and stimulate new investment? Certainly. There are numerous examples of this around the world. In almost all instances, the process is gradual, collaborative, and visionary.
At a preservation forum in 1988, Arthur Frommer, author of a series of travel guides, addressed the relationship between historic preservation and tourism: "Among cities with no particular recreational appeal, those that have substantially preserved their past continue to enjoy tourism. Those that haven't receive no tourism at all. It is as simple as that."
Tourism, among the world's largest industries, is often viewed as a panacea for urban ills. Surveys of tourists consistently reveal that people like visiting historic districts and cultural sites—and are doing so in unprecedented numbers. The need to anticipate the impact of these numbers and to plan for visitors is central to the health and viability of tourism in historic centers.
At the same time, businesses engaged in tourism activities should financially support conservation efforts. The tourism industry profits from the attractions that a historic district or town provides. It stands to reason that it should thus be a donor to conservation and a preserver of the traditions that it benefits from.
There can be tremendous and sustained local benefits if tourism opportunities are well conceived and managed. But, as with the use of any resource, there is a fine line between capitalization and exploitation. Historic communities can be destroyed by tourism. Deluged by pedestrians and buses, historic centers often experience excessive, trivialized commerce and gradual redevelopment—to the point that the district loses its historical authenticity. In the worst cases, the loss of integrity leaves the visitor with only a contrived experience of what "used to be." Experience shows that when this transformation happens, a gradual loss of residents results.
There is an inherent danger in focusing on one industry. The key to vitality in urban areas is found in the diversity of use. As Jane Jacobs wrote in her classic work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, "The ubiquitous principle is the need of cities for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially."
Development of historic centers and districts cannot be stopped—nor should it be, particularly when it serves to improve the physical and social environment of a city's inhabitants. In the context of historic centers, conservation should not seek to halt change but, rather, to manage it, to shape development so that the culture and character of a city are retained. To manage change, a comprehensive plan is needed, one that includes the ideas and concerns of diverse interest groups in a community. When people collaborate to define the qualities they value in their community and then plan for the conservation of those values, the process of urban conservation is under way.
Lori Anglin is a senior program coordinator with the GCI's Training Program.