FALL 2011
Sustainable Preservation of the Urban Heritage
Lessons from Latin America
By Eduardo Rojas
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Many cities in Latin America have a rich heritage of buildings and public spaces and a distinct urban structure of streets and land uses laid out at their foundation by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores in the late sixteenth century. In these cities, pre-Columbian monuments and structures are interspersed with government buildings, churches, convents, hospitals, military installations, and defensive walls built during the colonial period. Private houses, some dating to the seventeenth century, surround the monumental structures. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this colonial heritage was enhanced with public buildings, houses, and various types of industrial buildings, which are increasingly valued by communities.

UNESCO's World Heritage List (WHL) includes several historic centers of Latin American cities, and many others are protected by national or local legislation. This article makes reference to two of these historic centers—Quito in Ecuador, the first heritage area to be listed on the WHL in 1978, because of its outstanding array of public spaces and buildings of artistic and historic value, and Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, listed in 1987, because of the city's unique blend of European, African, and Amerindian cultures in the architecture of its buildings and public spaces.

Notwithstanding their values, over the years most historic centers in Latin America have deteriorated, losing a significant part of their material heritage. Changes in individual preferences and in the requirements of modern economic activities led to the abandonment of historic centers by the wealthier residents and by the most dynamic activities. The centers were taken over by low-income households and by informal activities that use their structures beyond their carrying capacity. The result is that historic centers of most cities, including Quito and Salvador de Bahia, have suffered deterioration and loss of their heritage assets over the last seventy years.


After years of neglect, the second half of the twentieth century witnessed growing interest among parts of the Latin American society in the preservation of the urban heritage, mostly motivated by the loss of historic and artistically significant buildings to deterioration and the ravages of real estate development. In response, governments initially enacted preservation ordinances aimed at preventing the demolition or defacement of valuable buildings. However, most governments invested little in their preservation, leaving this task to the owners. Due to the lack of market demand for preserved buildings—and without government support—most owners did not continue to invest in their properties, contributing to their deterioration and loss. The poor results of this preservation strategy prompted governments to take a more proactive stand by investing public funds in the preservation of emblematic buildings, public and private.

Today some Latin American governments shoulder the entire cost of such efforts, driven by their desire to protect the sociocultural values of the urban heritage of their cities, with a particular focus on the historic, artistic, and educational aspects. A notable example of this approach is the preservation program for the historic center of Salvador de Bahia. In this case, the government of the State of Bahia, through its Cultural Institute (ICB), invested US$46 million over fifteen years to rehabilitate thirty-five blocks of the historic center, containing about six hundred properties. The ICB developed the projects and financed and implemented the rehabilitation works in private properties and public spaces. The rehabilitated buildings were returned to the owners with the obligation to repay part of the costs, either in cash or by authorizing the ICB to rent out part of the properties for a given period. The results demonstrate the strengths and shortcomings of this approach. The physical deterioration affecting most buildings in the historic center was reverted; however, this approach did not allow involvement of the private sector or the municipal government in the design or financing of the program. Thus the ICB had responsibility for maintaining all public spaces and patrolling the area during the execution period and beyond.

Moreover, the rehabilitated buildings are devoted mostly to tourism and recreation activities, to the detriment of housing, economic services, and other uses that would diversify both the demand for property in the historic center and the mix of inhabitants and users. Most original residents displaced by preservation activities have not been able to return because of the increase in rent prices.

The amount invested per year varies, depending on the capacity of the ICB to secure government financing. To this day, its sustainability relies on the amounts allocated in the state government's budget. This type of implementation scheme, overly centralized in nature, results in an unstable and unsustainable preservation process that leaves little opportunity for private investors, property owners, and the local community to contribute based on their interests and capabilities.

The Municipality of Quito has followed a more sustainable path to preserve its historic center by promoting private-sector investment attracted by the economic use value of the heritage. In 1994 the municipality set up the Quito Historic Center Corporation (QHCC), with all the capacities of a real estate developer and, additionally, capable of executing public works under contract from the municipality. During its first years of operation, the QHCC invested in a variety of preservation efforts, including improvements to public facilities, such as infrastructure and public spaces, increased access to the historic center, and the construction of new cultural facilities in emblematic buildings (e.g., a city museum in an old hospital and a public library in an old university building). In addition, the QHCC partnered with landowners and private investors to develop pioneering projects, such as the construction of new shopping areas for high- and middle-income customers; the rehabilitation of office space for private business and public institutions; the opening of boutique hotels, restaurants, art galleries, and craft shops to attract tourists and citizens; the renovation of theaters and cultural facilities; and the building of affordable housing to retain part of the local population and attract new residents.

Taking advantage of opportunities demonstrated by such projects, private investors also initiated projects of their own. However, the sustainability of these efforts remains to be seen. Changes in the structure of the QHCC led to a virtual halt of investments in 2009, while rising costs of properties are discouraging investors.


The two cases presented here offer valuable lessons for the design and implementation of sustainable preservation programs. One lesson is the need to put all values embedded in urban heritage into play, as they are the drivers that mobilize a diverse set of stakeholders. Sociocultural values—historic, artistic, educational—mobilize the cultural elite, philanthropists, and community leaders, while the economic values (mostly direct use) attract consumers and real estate investors. The wider the variety of values put into play, the more sustainable the preservation process will be, as it draws the support, financing, and skills of diverse and capable stakeholders.

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The case of the historic center of Quito shows that in order to be sustainable, urban heritage preservation must be part of a larger rehabilitation process that not only tackles historic preservation of urban heritage sites and buildings but also addresses the greater issue of turning areas that contain the heritage into fully functional and developed portions of the city. As with other types of urban rehabilitation, the execution of an effective conservation strategy requires the efficient cooperation of all interested actors, both public and private—a condition that poses institutional and financial challenges. To harmonize the variety of interests, governments must enter into complex relationships with a variety of social actors. Different forms of partnership are needed in urban heritage preservation to ensure that the costs, benefits, and risks are effectively allocated among different stakeholders, based on who is best suited to take them or who has the greatest interest in maximizing their use or in the potential returns that may accrue.

Given the need for all stakeholders to cooperate—and given the fact that they are not likely to do so spontaneously—the launching of a sustainable urban heritage conservation process that is consistent with a community's objectives and involves all the stakeholders requires government intervention. Local governments, in addition to being responsible for the infrastructures and public spaces of heritage areas, are the only actors capable of solving the coordination problem confronted by the private actors operating in deteriorated urban heritage areas—the issue that prevents the process from taking off through pure market forces. Furthermore, municipalities are increasingly required by communities to take responsibility for preserving the public-good component of urban heritage, mostly its sociocultural values: the existence of buildings and public spaces of aesthetic, spiritual, social, historic, and symbolic value to be enjoyed by future generations.

Moreover, local government is the only actor capable of mitigating the biases of private philanthropy, whose interests may not coincide with those of local communities, and of ensuring that all interventions are executed in a coordinated way, implemented in the correct sequence (the rehabilitation of infrastructure and public spaces must precede the rehabilitation of private buildings) and with significant scale (the rehabilitation of a single building or street block usually does not affect the cycle of deterioration of the rest of the neighborhood). Private actors working individually are not capable of achieving these conditions.

Finally, as shown by the case of Salvador de Bahia, although the involvement of the government is indispensable for launching, designing, financing, and sustaining an efficient preservation process in urban heritage areas, overinvolvement may crowd out and discourage the participation of other actors, ultimately affecting the sustainability of the process.

Eduardo Rojas is a private consultant in urban development, specializing in urban heritage preservation. He is a former principal urban development specialist of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington DC.