FALL 2011
Balancing Continuity and Change
A Discussion about Urban Heritage Conservation

Watch a pubic discussion by this same panel presented at the Getty Center

GÁBOR DEMSZKY was elected five times as lord mayor of Budapest (1990–2010). During his tenure, he worked to integrate built heritage conservation into the management of one of Europe's largest cities, which was in the midst of significant political change.

PAUL KNOX is a university distinguished professor and a senior fellow for international advancement at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University School of Public and International Affairs. He is a coauthor of Small Town Sustainability: Economic, Social, and Environmental Innovation.

ELIZABETH VINES is a conservation architect and an adjunct professor at the Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific at Deakin University in Melbourne. She is the author of Streetwise Asia: A Practical Guide for the Conservation and Revitalisation of Heritage Cities and Towns in Asia.

They spoke with SUSAN MACDONALD, head of GCI Field Projects, and with JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.

SUSAN MACDONALD: Let's start with the question of the role of heritage conservation in twenty-first-century cities, in the context of managing urban growth and change. Is it important? And if so, why?

PAUL KNOX: It's going to be important, because of cultural shifts that are spreading across the world, because of the increased pace of life, and because of the disembedding of social interactions through social networks. People are going to want to hold on to real places and identities—and heritage is part of that. Heritage is also going to be increasingly caught up in this so-called experience economy. Increasingly, heritage will be a component of that, as the private sector seeks to exploit the attractions of heritage. The audience for heritage is going to broaden.

ELIZABETH VINES: It's interesting that in the developed Western world, as we've become more prosperous, we've become more depressed. I think the incidence of depression is related both to a feeling of not being able to make a meaningful contribution and to alienation from where we live. People want to hang onto a sense of place, and they're losing that. They're losing their stories and their connection to place. You see this in China. A huge issue that China is hiding from the rest of the world is how unhappy people are when traditional urban landscapes are swept aside and people are housed in high-rise towers. A sense of place is about handing on to the next generation your story, the one that you've inherited. It's about belonging. We have many social problems that are a result of not having a sense of community.

JEFFREY LEVIN: Gábor, you were the mayor of a large historic city during a time of tremendous political transformation. During that period, how concerned were you about the city's built heritage?

GÁBOR DEMSZKY: In 1990 there was a peaceful Velvet Revolution. Before that, our heritage was neglected. This was true not only for Budapest but for all the cities in the Soviet bloc. Budapest and the other East European cities suffered from the same challenges—lack of infrastructure and the need to build a twenty-first-century city with costly projects that you have to negotiate with the World Bank and the European Investment Bank. As mayor, that was my main obligation. It was my smaller obligation to do something with the city's history—but I loved it.

LEVIN: What were the major obstacles you faced in conserving the heritage of Budapest?

DEMSZKY: The main problem was decentralization. Budapest is divided into twenty-three districts that are totally autonomous from the city and have their own budgets and mayors. At the very beginning, between 1990 and 1994, I fought against this decentralization. For me, it was unbelievable that Budapest was not one city but practically twenty-three cities with which I had to work. After 1994 I accepted the fact that the districts were independent and could do what they wanted. I tried to find partners—enlightened district mayors—with whom I could work, and I did so for the next sixteen years. The different city districts had differing approaches. There were several districts that cooperated with the city, and we achieved a lot. Others totally neglected their historic buildings, and we couldn't do any work with them.

LEVIN: What was your process?

DEMSZKY: From the very beginning we worked to protect our historic buildings. We created models on how to do this, which we taught to other cities. But you have to accept one principle—you have to provide money for buildings that are privately owned, because otherwise they won't be renewed. When the Soviet bloc collapsed, we had housing in the city that was not in good shape, so we had to do something quickly. In 1993 we established a fund that the new owners, the ex-tenants of these buildings, could apply to for restoration. With this fund, we enabled the reconstruction of two thousand of these mostly privately owned buildings. The point here is that we gave private individuals taxpayer money.

VINES: In Australia, we support owners of both commercial and residential heritage buildings with some incentives—although these are generally very limited. One thing we've found useful in Broken Hill, where I work, is to measure the multiplier effect that incentive money generates. For example, one dollar put in by the state agency is matched by one dollar from the local agency, which is then matched dollar for dollar by the owner. The owner, having gotten that seed money, says, "Well, I might as well get a bit of money from the bank." In the end, we were able to say that one dollar from the state agency generated fourteen dollars in the local economy. We have to do better at playing the economists' game of measuring numerically what we're achieving. We use this fuzzy language about the community having a sense of pride, but decision makers want to hear about the economic benefits.

DEMSZKY: Our model is absolutely similar to yours. The applicant has to apply for the money, documenting what he wants to do and who will manage costs. A city committee decides about providing funding. That's one part. Another funding part comes from the local district. A third part generally is a bank or the building's owners. Usually there are a number of owners, and they put together the rest of the money or get a favorable loan. These buildings are old and reconstruction is expensive, but hundreds of privately owned buildings have been restored that way. The problem is that while individual buildings are renewed, the ones next to them might be falling apart. On Main Street, one of the most elegant areas in Hungary, they did it differently. Here the community collectively created a good master restoration plan together with the city. I like this form of action much better. When the district organizes the renewal of their part of the city, it looks better and it provides a higher quality of life.

MACDONALD: Do you find that incremental renewal can work? Does the idea of conserving one building as a catalyst for broader action work?

DEMSZKY: It depends on whether the owners are smart enough to take part in a long process like that, and whether they have money to start with.

KNOX: Surely renewal depends on the nature of the district and the buildings that are in it. Government seed money or not, it's often your pioneer gentrifiers that spot the opportunities for acquiring authenticity through sweat equity—which raises the property values. The negative side of that is the displacement of the population that can no longer afford to live there. Gentrification is often seen as positive by city governments in terms of public policy, which in many cities is geared toward identifying districts and providing incentives, in order to elevate the tax base and to bring people back. But there are others who see that as a bad thing because of the displacement of low-income families.

People are going to want to hold on to real places and identities—and heritage is part of that.

DEMSZKY: Can I tell you something about the political consequences that gentrification can cause? One of the best district mayors in Budapest—the ninth district mayor—created a fantastic program. He renewed the district and gentrification resulted, which meant he lost the population with whom he was working for twenty years. After twenty years, he lost the election, because the new rich who moved in were conservative, and they did not appreciate his talent and efforts.

KNOX: Gentrification is difficult, but it's not totally intractable. If you haven’t got a fragmented political map, policies can be put in place to mitigate the effects.

VINES: You need to accept that incremental change is where you start. As your first model, take a building for which people think the only course is demolition, and show what’s possible.

MACDONALD: Is that what you did in Broken Hill, a relatively small town with a fairly compact community? In this sized city, you could have small victories that gradually influenced people. But how effective is that model in the bigger cities of Southeast Asia, where you're working?

VINES: A recommendation of one of my monitoring missions to Malacca in Malaysia was to choose a typical modest shophouse as a model conservation project. The fact that this recommendation appeared in a UNESCO report gave it credibility, and the locals were able to get funding from the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation. Within twelve months, conservation was completed, and the project modeled the use of traditional materials. It's fabulous if you can get the money to do whole city blocks, but that's so rare. Generally, it's the modest model project used as an example to educate and inspire the community.

KNOX: Do you see more interest in modest structures, as opposed to the gems?

VINES: The gems tend to look after themselves because they're so well recognized. It's the little modest shophouses that are at risk. On their own, they're nothing special, but put it in the context of a townscape—they are. They're a collective cultural landscape. Gábor, I heard you say that you wish that public housing in Budapest had not been so quickly sold to poor people, because they can't invest in and maintain their property. You wished housing had been kept in state ownership. One of the problems with urban heritage conservation is gentrification, and people who always lived in an area can no longer afford to stay. What you've described is a situation where the original residents are still there, which surely is a good thing?

DEMSZKY: The percentage ratio we reached—10 percent of the apartments district-owned and 90 percent of them privately owned—is wrong. It doesn't make possible any kind of social housing policy, because you've lost the most important instrument. The other effect is that the apartment houses owned by low-income people are extremely old and falling apart. The owners don't have the money to fix them. The only way to fix them is to sell them, but these families never do that. So what we face is a bad ratio of public/private ownership in the city. The historical pendulum swinging from state property to total privatization is wrong. The optimal percentage in Budapest would be something like 50/50 or 60/40.

MACDONALD: So the issue wasn't necessarily the move to some form of privatization. It just happened too quickly and was too extensive?

DEMSZKY: Very quickly—and the reason was political. Political parties wanted to get support from citizens, and they practically sold all at 10 percent of the real price of the apartments. The result is awful. We do not have apartments in the process of rehabilitation, because poor pensioners live in these extremely expensive apartments and houses.

MACDONALD: Liz, have you seen cities in Asia that are confronting similar issues?

VINES: The old quarter in Hanoi is an example of a living, vibrant city, which has a protected zone. It hasn't been super-gentrified. Penang is under tremendous threat and is trying to avert the displacement of traditional families and traditional uses—which is not just because of gentrification but because many traditional trades are, in fact, being displaced in our modern world.

MACDONALD: Are there ways that heritage conservation can be a catalyst for economic development in the city, or is it too reliant on government subsidies to achieve that economic role?

KNOX: It depends on the context. One successful example is South Beach, part of Miami Beach. This art deco district had fallen into disrepair and was drug and crime ridden until Barbara Capitman and Leonard Horowitz campaigned for its heritage listing. I think Horowitz decided it would be a great idea if they used pastel colors instead of the traditional white stucco exteriors. The combination of heritage listing and revivication through color transformed the area without significant government intervention. South Beach went from an urban problem area to an exclusive area and international destination district—all based on the economic value provided by heritage conservation. Having said that, there're not many South Beach type of environments, where you've got a nice sandy beach and a climate that attracts investment. However, it can work in other ways too. A lot of people now value industrial heritage in Europe, and so you can get property regeneration around that. Examples are Castleton and Ancoats in Manchester. The question is the degree to which it can work.

VINES: Precinct designation and protection is an important role for government—then followed by incentives. There was this huge shift in Australia in the early 1980s, when you had governments—and generally they were left-wing governments—that in their early days of power said, "We will designate these heritage areas, we will provide certainty, and we will lower the development potential." In addition, there were new planning policies about public transport and the need for transport nodes around stations, where more intense development is allowed. I'm very thankful these planning decisions were made.

KNOX: There's a breaking point somewhere on the spectrum of city size. Smaller towns haven't got competing jurisdictions, so they can address these issues in a holistic way. You can have continuity with diversity much more easily than you can in a complex medium- or large-sized city. In those contexts, the district designation is key, because it gives the private sector stability in terms of the parameters for development, which hopefully work in terms of heritage conservation. Investors know that their investment will take place in a broadly stable setting and that there's not going to be something to come along and undermine the value of their investment. But that is a difficult sell to voters and politicians, whose values put freedom of action and the primacy of the individual and property over those broader issues. While it might be in their best interest in many circumstances, they don’t support it.

MACDONALD: Gábor, were the incentives provided by your city government seen to be economically successful?

Because of the combination of private and public efforts, we successfully renewed parts of the city.

DEMSZKY: It was a relatively cheap program because it was only a little part of our city budget. But it functioned extremely well, providing part of the reconstruction costs. The other parts were paid, as I said, by the local district and individual owners with favorable bank loans. And while it was a relatively small amount of money, there was a lot of effort on the part of my office to make it successful. Because of the combination of private and public efforts, we successfully renewed parts of the city. However, even if we demonstrated—say, in the ninth and the thirteenth districts—that reconstruction was going well, it didn't necessarily happen in other districts. They had other mayors and other political parties and had their own methods that they thought were better. This work is very difficult. You have to negotiate with the ex-tenants—the new owners—and you have to negotiate with the city and with the banks. It can be very complicated.

MACDONALD: What are the factors for being able to successfully maintain, rejuvenate, and interpret the heritage of cities or towns?

VINES: Process is key. You have to spend time understanding a place—its stories and its history. What did these streets look like? What is it that we want to keep? And there's engagement with the community, too. You develop your policies; you enact new planning instruments and then implement them. A problem can be that newly elected politicians want to make their mark in order to get reelected. It's important that municipal management keeps policies consistent and states, "No, we don't need this building pulled down for the new shopping center this developer wants. It goes against a process and policies that we've all agreed upon."

KNOX: Within that process, you've got to have key actors who are able to work together and who see the mutuality of their individual roles. When you get that mutuality of perspective and interest and when, as individuals, they enjoy one another's company and they feel part of an enterprise, you get success.

MACDONALD: What is the most important level of government and what is its responsibility? In the twenty-first-century world, where the rights of private citizens and privatization are increasingly important, what role should government play?

VINES: Government plays a very important role. For example, the Heritage Branch in New South Wales in Australia is a leader in providing support for a whole range of players in this field, from local government to practitioners. They have, for instance, regular e-news for heritage practitioners in the state, where people can ask technical and historical questions of each other. Unfortunately, because of the global financial crisis, we're now in a financially starved economic climate in which many agencies have contracted. Still, it's incredibly important that federal, state, and local agencies don't lose their sense of responsibility for their role in appropriate heritage management.

KNOX: It's multidimensional. The implementation level has to be the local government. But in this neoliberal environment, in which governments at every scale are being hollowed out and personnel numbers are diminished, the national and supranational government level is important in enabling cities and towns to do their work. But they can only set the framework. It's local government that's key.

LEVIN: Gábor, how important were the upper levels of government for you? Did they play any role in dealing with heritage issues in Budapest?

DEMSZKY: Politically, we were alone. The state was too far away, didn't care, and didn't understand local urban issues. So we developed our own strategy. This was acceptable because it gave us much more freedom. The problem for us was always whether we could get cooperation from the twenty-three local districts.

VINES: In Asia, in most cases, there is no level of government that has interest in or effective control of local historic town preservation. That's why there's this clamor for World Heritage recognition, because it gives these towns some protection. The question is often asked of me, "How do we get some financial assistance, because in our town that would make a huge difference." Asia now is positioned like the West was about thirty years ago—grappling with how to define heritage areas, what heritage places should be retained, and what incentives would assist with this retention. But Asia also has a massive population explosion that creates enormous pressure for clearing urban areas.

MACDONALD: If you make the assumption that the majority of what happens in urban areas is principally through local governance, how important is political will to the outcomes for success?

KNOX: In a small town where they don't have the staff, political leadership is crucial. It requires the vision, energy, and charisma of a mayoral figure. In larger cities, it can come from different quarters. Two examples historically that stand out were not people interested in historic conservation. Far from it. Baron Haussmann in Paris, basically a public employee, and Robert Moses in New York really changed their cities. They were political figures in some ways, but they weren't elected political figures. Perhaps less celebrated or less notorious are electoral representatives who can drive change. But the democratic process is so delicate. The more successful you are, the more vulnerable you are, whereas people like Moses had a strong grip on the whole apparatus of bureaucracy, not always in completely transparent or honest ways. It's vision and leadership—aligned to the energy that the individual can put behind these ideas—that drives change.

You have to spend time understanding a place—its stories and its history.

VINES: In Broken Hill, it's been the committed long-term staff who have had the partnership with state government. It's not been the local elected people, who've actually been a problem. In fact, they were sacked, and we had two years with no mayor or council. We did a lot during that period. But in the Asian context, you don't have mayors with vision, and you don't have any rules. The deals are all done. You're a mayor because you do deals, and you make money out of those. Hence the clamor for the international recognition to help support what you know in your heart is important. A lot of different cities in Asia felt completely alone in their struggle, and a lot of them became World Heritage listed through facilitation provided by the international community, which recognized the significance of these places. Often these communities are quite downtrodden, with a framework of being told what to do by centralist governments. So there's a huge role for international opinion.

LEVIN: Who drove the process in Budapest, Gábor—you as the mayor, or the professional planning staff? Or was it a team?

DEMSZKY: We created a special division, which worked only on this. The best city planners were working for us. This was like an enlightened kingdom, which included highly educated professionals and also bankers and financial advisers. I had a very strong and well-paid professional team. That was important.

VINES: It's important to find good technical staff in local authorities with heritage expertise. This is difficult! Architects can make more money designing new high-rise developments. In the World Heritage office in Penang, the position of conservation architect was not filled for two years because the salary was not attractive enough.

MACDONALD: Some politicians didn't want anybody to give them advice. They just want public servants to do what they're told. "Say yes to that developer. Jobs depend on it." As pressure from the development dollar increases, it puts professionals in a difficult position, constantly having to defend planning policies.

KNOX: The question of continuity implies some kind of future-oriented professional environment. The 2008 global financial crisis has shaken our societal faith in the future. There's more focus on the present and more pressure to respond to the immediate demands of developers and the voters, rather than taking a long-term view. A lot of us are interested in that long view, but we're not structurally or institutionally set up for that.

MACDONALD: What about the sustainability agenda? Isn't that having some influence on the long-term view?

KNOX: It's not insignificant, but it's a long way from being dominant. There's a lot of popular support for—and money to be made in—sustainability and in green design. But I still see it as a fraction of the picture.

MACDONALD: One thing that typically happens to cities recognized for their heritage values is tourism. Development that comes from tourism can destroy the very values of the place that made it important. How can we balance the need for urban conservation and retain these heritage values in the face of pressures for tourism?

VINES: Fundamentally, it gets down to whether a planning authority can control land use. What is it going to take to maintain this city as a living city as opposed to a tourist city? One model—which is something that we in Australia, and you in the United States, shy away from—is basically telling private owners what they can and can't do with their property. That's what people in Penang are grappling with. What Penang is doing is looking at land uses—such as the loss of traditional residences as people from the outside come in and buy these places as second homes. It gets down to land use, which is difficult to control.

KNOX: Everywhere you see resistance, not only to taxation but to any kind of control over anything, let alone for something as seemingly arcane as heritage conservation. If you put that against the growing appetite for a sense of place and identity—as I noted at the start—it's going to fall to the private sector to exploit that appetite. And then you can run into all kinds of mutations, with heritage merging into movements like New Urbanism, with entirely ersatz environments of one kind or another. Unless people are educated through popular media or formal education, it's hard for them to understand what they're experiencing.

VINES: Places with patina, which are authentic, are considered by some as not good enough. There is pressure to scrub them up because that's what visitors expect! You need interpretation of a site—that what the visitor is seeing is a real place, not a fake place. Would people be as interested in seeing the pyramids if they were exact reproductions? No, of course not. There wouldn't be this majesty and mystique in seeing fakery. But unfortunately, what you have today is a commodification of the tourism experience.

KNOX: In this country, we talk about Disneyfication as a generic application of those principles. You have that kind of a development in Las Vegas, with "Paris" and "Venice" and "New York" all within a couple of blocks of one another. What people have come to expect is an experience that's comfortable, policed, and predictable. Part of that predictability is in the opportunity to consume.

VINES: Fakery isn't just in tourist sites. It's also in managing our urban environments. Some people think that when you build a new building in a historic district, you should make it look like the historic building next door. Often developers come to you with a reproduction building, and they're completely bewildered when you say, "That's not what we want" or "Take off this ornamentation and detail." Otherwise, you're deceiving people with regard to what's old and what's new. Also, you're not giving credibility to contemporary architects, some of whom know how to competently insert a new building because they understand the context. Of course, many don't! And hence, we need guidelines.

KNOX: It's tricky because it's often a question of degree. In Europe, what many value as heritage is actually nineteenth-century fakery and re-creation. Even in places like Prague, a huge amount has been re-created and is taken at face value as good stuff because it's not outrageous. Where do we draw the line between what's ersatz and what we accept as more or less okay? Where's our threshold? At what point do we get indignant about the quality?

VINES: That's why we have these charters that we've labored over, such as the Venice Charter, the Burra Charter, and the China Principles. These documents are there to help us with these debates, and they have language that helps describe what it is that we're trying to do.

MACDONALD: Ideas about this are shifting. With the advent of mass tourism, and with visitors having unpleasant experiences, a more discerning market is emerging of people who want an authentic experience. But for those in mass tourism, there's a perception that it has to be clean and it has to look new. So part of this is educating tourism providers to educate their public about what constitutes a more authentic experience. If you bring in mass tourism—and cities want it because they see the money that comes from it—there's pressure to provide certain services. We need to balance those short-term interests with the long-term resource, which has to be preserved, or in twenty years' time it won't be there, and then you won't be bringing people there. That's one of the tensions that we're confronting.