FALL 2011
The Conservation of Historic Cities and Urban Settlements Initiative
By Francoise Desçamps

During the last century, unprecedented development of the urban environment has strongly influenced urban transformation. Rapid urban expansion, densification (or, conversely, decline and abandonment), inappropriate modern interventions, gentrification, and changes in uses are occurring worldwide, directly affecting the preservation of historic urban environments. In response, the Getty Conservation Institute established its to enhance practices in the conservation and management of historic urban environments by identifying and addressing needs through a targeted program of research and dissemination, training, and education, as well as model field projects.


view of downtown Los Angeles

Informed by its past work in this area, including a collaborative project in the 1990s with the Municipality of Quito, which sought to build a model for conservation of privately owned properties, the initiative began by addressing the need for and the development of comprehensive surveys and data systems to identify and manage historic resources. The initiative commenced with the , a collaborative undertaking between the City of Los Angeles and the GCI; the document that resulted from this project provides a comprehensive approach to undertaking a large-scale, citywide historic resources survey.1 A second project in this area, in partnership with the World Monuments Fund, is the Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities, which provides a web-based open source geodatabase system for managing archaeological sites. This system is being expanded to include the full range of heritage resources typically managed by government authorities and addresses the need for accessible, comprehensive information on the heritage resources in a country or city—the first step in the conservation process.2


Between 2004 and 2009, the GCI contributed to the design and development of the scientific programs of the biannual world congresses of the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC). These congresses brought together local government representatives, practitioners, and decision makers involved in the conservation and management of historic cities to engage with renowned specialists on topics related to the conservation of historic urban environments.3 They also provided an opportunity to identify concerns and needs and to hear the day-to-day experiences of local decision makers.

In order to enhance the knowledge and skills of local governments, the GCI also initiated and delivered a mayors' workshop at these congresses. In November 2011, at the Eleventh OWHC World Congress in Sintra, Portugal, the GCI, in partnership with the UNESCO World Heritage Center, will deliver a revised version of the mayors' workshop, one appropriate for any city or region. The workshop will introduce elected decision makers to their roles and responsibilities in managing a World Heritage city and will cover concepts and principles driving the decision process for interventions in and around a historic urban area. It considers the revolving cycle of understanding, retaining, and promoting the significance of the place and strongly emphasizes the shared responsibility of decision makers, residents, and users.

The GCI is also contributing to the OWHC initiative led by the City of Lyon to compile case studies showcasing how different World Heritage cities have conserved, rehabilitated, and developed their historic resources in ways that recognize and retain their significance. The publication will illustrate critical issues and demonstrate approaches to the management of urban development and cultural heritage preservation.

The GCI is also collaborating with the Heritage of Malaysia Trust and ThinkCity (a division of Malaysia's Ministry of Finance) to deliver an urban conservation workshop in the World Heritage city of Penang in May 2012. This workshop will bring together twenty-five Malaysian urban planners to provide them with tools and methodologies to address the challenges of conserving historic resources in Malaysia's historic cities.


Groundwork for the next phase of the GCI work began with research on current practices, including a survey of practitioners, and a review of case studies and reports related to urban conservation. This work was followed by a 2009 experts meeting to identify key challenges in improving practice in conserving historic urban environments, as well as to examine the role of heritage professionals in that effort. Professionals from various disciplines shared their knowledge of urban heritage conservation worldwide. The meeting report outlined the group's consensus on the most important needs and delineated potential actions.4 The group identified the following areas of action: enhancement of the skills of local government; better integration of urban planning and conservation; additional planning tools that include conservation needs and improve decision making; pilot projects that embed economic development; successful models of tourism management; and good examples of engagement of inhabitants, users, and visitors. A 2009 meeting of ICOMOS International, the World Heritage Center, OWHC, and the GCI discussed the various ways these organizations could work together to address these issues.


Following this meeting, the GCI initiated several activities, including a compilation of bibliographic references, a literature review on public-private partnerships for urban conservation, and a project for the conservation of an urban settlement in Morocco.

Designed to serve as a practical reference for heritage professionals and government officials involved in the conservation of historic cities, the bibliography addresses principles of urban heritage conservation, as well as such current issues as climate change, economics of urban conservation, new buildings in historic contexts, participation of inhabitants, regeneration of the historic urban environment, and tourism.

While local government has increasing responsibility for urban heritage, it often lacks resources—a situation that creates a greater need for community commitment and private-sector engagement. Public-private partnerships (PPP)—agreements between public and private sectors— have been successfully employed in urban planning to develop infrastructure, including water, transportation, roads, railways, and new housing. The conservation field has yet to explore the full potential of this tool. To advance this area, the GCI has undertaken a literature review that gathers information on ways PPPs have been used to deliver conservation outcomes and attempts to identify criteria for their application to conserving cultural heritage.5

In mid-2011, the GCI began assisting local authorities in addressing the challenges involved in conserving the historic settlement of Taourirt, Ouarzazate, in Morocco. The project's aim is to develop a model for the integrated conservation and rehabilitation of a traditional urban settlement embedded in the modern city. The site includes the Kasbah, an impressive ensemble of buildings and an outstanding example of the regional architecture, as well as a ksar, a traditional Berber village. Taourirt's representative nature and strategic location make it an ideal site to promote conservation of traditional urban settlements in the region and to demonstrate how it can be maintained as a living place while being successfully integrated in a modern city.

While the conservation of historic cities in the context of urban planning is an issue that has been explored for over half a century, such conservation efforts have yet to be well integrated into urban planning. At the same time, the complexity of this particular field is increasing. Nevertheless, success in the preservation of historic cities will depend upon a holistic approach to the urban environment that integrates efforts to sustain heritage significance with the various measures that serve to make cities engaging, enriching, and livable.

Francoise Desçamps is a senior project specialist with GCI Field Projects.

1. Kathryn Welch Howe, preparer, The Los Angeles Historic Resource Survey Report: A Framework for a Citywide Historic Resource Survey (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2008).
2. MEGA-Jordan has been developed to inventory and manage archaeological sites in Jordan. The GCI is currently working to expand its capacity to include the other heritage types typically protected by government heritage authorities, including buildings, structures, conservation areas, landscapes, and other features.
3. Françoise Descamps, ed., Proceedings, 10th World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities, Quito, 8–11 September 2009 (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2010); Juan Manuel Martinez, Françoise Descamps, and Kathleen Louw, eds., Proceedings, 9th World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities, Kazan, 19–23 June 2007 (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2008).
4. Getty Conservation Institute, Historic Urban Environment Conservation Challenges and Priorities for Action. Experts Meeting, March 12–14, 2009.
5. "The Role of Public Private Partnerships in Conserving Heritage Buildings, Sites, and Historic Urban Areas: A Literature Review" will be available on the GCI website in early 2012.