Urban Planning in Cities with Heritage

How Urban Conservation Can Preserve the Heritage of a City

Many cities around the world are easily and immediately identifiable based upon their iconic landmarks. Paris, for example, is instantly recognizable when one sees the Eiffel Tower. New York City is epitomized through the Statue of Liberty. The Sydney Opera House is an iconic tourist attraction in Sydney, Australia. Athens, Greece is famous for the Acropolis. These landmarks are not only aesthetically pleasing, they are also culturally significant and have become a part of each city’s identity, history and heritage.

Today’s urban planners must keep the historical significance of such landmarks and cities in mind when planning the future of such metropolitan areas. Through the threat of gentrification, landmarks are in danger of being altered, damaged or destroyed. Gentrification is a controversial process in which a poor urban area is changed, or modernized, improving housing and attracting new businesses. The negative effects of gentrification can be devastating to urban areas, however. Current, poorer inhabitants of a city, as well as culturally significant landmarks, can be displaced or erased. Citizens are concerned about the deletion of the unique look and feel of their city, feeling that their habitable spaces, culture, and way of life are being replaced and obliterated by current, modern city designs.

It is the responsibility of urban planners and urban conservation experts to preserve the landmarks and heritage of a city that gives it its unique identity–aesthetically, culturally and historically. Those who intend to work in the urban planning field must keep urban conservation and heritage preservation in mind when planning cities and communities of all sizes.

In this article, we will discuss the social and ecological aspect of urban design that is urban conservation, and how it must be utilized to preserve the heritage and tradition of a city. Professions within the urban planning discipline have a social obligation to help preserve the legacy of a city and keep its heritage first and foremost in mind throughout the planning process.

What is Urban Conservation?

When we think of conservation in terms of planning, many people focus on planning and climate change or environmental concerns. There are other facets of conservation when it comes to planning, however. Urban conservation aims to conserve parts of a city’s built environment that are of historical, cultural or architectural significance. This includes structures such as buildings, localities, landscapes, and others. It is not the intention of urban conservation to preserve these buildings and structures forever, without change. There are few buildings in the world that must be wholly retained in their original form in order to preserve their significance. Most buildings can be adapted and retained to allow continued economic occupation. This could involve changing the form of their original use, or coming up with a new use for these buildings, while still retaining their heritage.

When planning urban conservation, certain criteria is used to determine what urban features and/or buildings within a given area are worthy of conservation. Some of these include:

  • Architectural or historical merit
  • Style
  • Social significance
  • Association with important people or groups
  • Function
  • Geographical significance
  • Uniqueness of character
  • Originality
  • Street character

Why is urban conservation important to a community? Communities can save both money and energy by opting to reuse older buildings in lieu of constructing new ones. It has been estimated that urban conservation can save up to 50 percent on the cost of building a new structure. In addition, restoration of older buildings to reuse is usually more labor-intensive than materials-intensive, providing more jobs and using fewer resources, thus stimulating an area’s economy.

Urban conservation can also revive depressed commercial areas of cities, encouraging an influx of higher income residents and new businesses, and improving the social and economic well-being of the area. More people are prone to visit areas that have been gentrified in this fashion, increasing tourism dollars to the area. It is also important, however, that urban planners preserve the areas in which less affluent people can afford to live. Too often, urban conservation and gentrification eliminates low-cost housing in an area, driving the less affluent out.

The social benefits of urban conservation are many. Keeping things from the past helps an area to retain its identity–the essence of what makes it unique. Urban conservation preserves important aesthetic factors of an area’s heritage, which could attract more people to move into that area. It gives people a social and physical record of how the area has developed into its present form.

Spatial Planning

Spatial planning involves shaping the development of an area’s space by coordinating the spatial impacts of policies and decisions, taking into consideration the social, economic and environmental effects of development. Spatial planners and GIS planners are responsible for  planning the future of land use and space while still preserving the cultural heritage of a city. They work to identify critical spatial development issues and define clear, desired functional outcomes across various areas. Visualization is important in spatial planning, as spatial and GIS planners must be able to visualize spatial goals and how key areas will change.

Take Europe, as an example. The European Union has a high level of urbanization, but only about a third of the population lives within major cities. Spatial settlement patterns throughout the European Union are typically characterized by rural areas that are densely populated. This has created a complex network of cities of small, medium and large size, making spatial development more of a challenge for planners.

Some cities within Europe, even some that cross borders, have cooperated to pool resources, developing complementary functions or sharing services and facilities. This can be beneficial to an entire region around the cities, as it improves the range of services offered within that region, increasing its economic competitiveness. Sparsely populated areas of Europe are often located great distances from other more populated areas. These areas have been linked so that they can access medium-sized cities through high-speed trains.

Urban sprawl in Europe is a particularly challenging problem for spatial planners. Unplanned growth in certain areas has led to increased levels of the use of private transportation, increasing energy consumption, making infrastructure more expensive, and negatively affecting the environment. When planned, however, sprawl can be contained in a more efficient manner. Simply look to the compact city approach of the Netherlands, land recycling in the United Kingdom and Germany, and target group approaches across Europe to satisfy housing demands of specific social groups as examples of successful containment of urban sprawl.

Spatial planners must identify needs for the creation of public policy, regulations and standards of good practices related to the development of planning documentation in regards to protecting cultural heritage. In Poland, for example, spatial planners have created rules of preservation for historical monuments and heritage sites. Preserving Poland’s national heritage has been permanently connected to spatial planning in Poland through legislation. The following issues related to the protection of cultural heritage and monuments within a local plan of spatial management have been identified in the formation of the plan:

  • Historical (including archaeology, history, monuments)
  • Geographical, geological, soil, climate, landscape, etc.
  • Demographic and economic-social
  • Recreation of the area’s citizens, including public green spaces and historical areas
  • Transportation

Poland must obey international documents that protect culture and the national heritage, particularly those of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Council of Europe. If Poland is taken as an example, it seems that spatial planning can best preserve cultural and historical heritage when public policy has been put into place to help spatial planners to do so.

The process of spatial planning involves recognizing critical spatial development trends, demands and needs of an area, and the social, environmental and economic impacts of development. Spatial planners must analyze all options through visualizing various strategic approaches. They must be able to generate alternatives through evaluating the sustainability and environmental needs of an area.

Spatial planners must continuously review and adjust plans as they go along. Debate on alternative development models with other city leaders and planners is vital to the collaborative process of mutual learning and information sharing. Final plans will be determined by examination of their coherence and soundness.

What is Architectural Conservation?

UNESCO has classified cultural heritage into two categories – tangible and intangible. Tangible heritage is further subcategorized into immovable and movable heritage. The built environment, including historical buildings, monuments, and archaeological sites, is also known as architectural heritage and is included in immovable heritage.

Architectural conservation is the process through which the design, historical, and material integrity of any built structure is prolonged through carefully planned strategic interventions. Architectural conservators work to protect architecture, the built heritage, from uncontrolled environmental conditions, as well as from changes that may arise from urban planning. They retain the authentic, built form of old buildings through restoration.

Architectural conservators must possess great knowledge of the architectural and construction history of a built structure. They will apply scientific methodologies to the study, analysis, conservation and restoration practices in historical buildings.

Value assessment is a large part in the process of architectural conservation. Architectural conservators must prioritize the values of a building or structure to understand and convey its message. If the object or place is deemed to be valuable, it is worthy of being conserved.

One of the main issues in architectural conservation is authenticity. This refers to emphasizing the originality, fidelity, and sincerity to the origin of historic structures. Authenticity is largely subjective, relying on experts’ perceptions. A ranking system, the authenticity rating model, has been developed to more effectively rank the authenticity within architectural conservation, called the authenticity rating model. The authenticity components that were identified to be ranked include:

  • Form and design
  • Materials and substance
  • Use and function
  • Traditions and techniques
  • Location and setting

Even if they are not working strictly in architectural conservation, all architects should keep principles of architectural conservation in mind when planning  a city in order to maintain its heritage, aesthetics, culture, and feel.

Sustainability Planning

It is possible to balance sustainable development with urban conservation. Sustainable development describes development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It encompasses environmental, economic, cultural and social concerns. Often, however, culture is overlooked when environmental sustainability planners are trying to create more sustainable cities. Sustainable planning can complement urban conservation, however.

The historic port city of Bordeaux, a World Heritage Site, for example, has more protected buildings than any other city in France. While its historic monuments, safeguarded sector, and historic urban landscape are all protected under UNESCO, it is still a sustainable, living city. Over the past two decades, Bordeaux has undergone an intense urban transformation process that has preserved its heritage while emphasizing sustainability planning. In particular, its transportation system as well as its spatial and cultural reconnection of the urban system with the Garonna River were able to help it to meet its metropolitan challenges.

Conservation tools that cover the urban area of Bordeaux include:

  • Historic monuments, buildings that are protected due to public interest in their preservation for architectural, historical or artistic reasons. There are currently 58 historic monuments classified in Bordeaux and 289 listed.
  • Historic monuments buffer zone, a 500-meter protected radius from a historic monument
  • Safeguarded sector, a 150-hectare conservation area of the historic center, created in 1967
  • Ville de Pierre, a specific historic urban landscape conservation tool located within Bordeaux’s Local Urban Regulation Plan, analyzing more than 40,000 lots and public spaces and defining conservation actions that are to be implemented within that area

Along with sustainability planning in Bordeaux, planners are fighting against “museification,” the goal being to create a historic living city, not a museum to historical heritage. Through the creation of urban policies focused on sustainable planning and urban heritage protection, Bordeaux has been able to evolve and develop itself sustainably over time, staying in accordance with its heritage. Its urban policies focus on both sustainable planning and urban heritage protection, and shows planners what can be done in a sustainable, responsible manner while still preserving a city’s cultural and historical heritage.

Community Planning

Community planners have learned that only through working with the various people and cultures of their community can they truly understand how to fully preserve the community’s  heritage. There are certain steps that community planners must take when working to do so:

  • Define the community and the neighborhood. Communities involve shared interests, values and beliefs among people living within the same geographic area. Neighborhoods often include historical and commonly owned assets within the community.
  • Communities must understand gentrification. The negative connotations of gentrification (i.e., displacing poorer people) are often seen more often than the positive. Getting community members involved in the planning process can ensure that gentrification has positive effects as well, and can help them to protect their shared cultural assets.
  • Community planning. This is done through problem-oriented planning and asset-based community development.
    • Problem-oriented planning defines the problem, the goals and objectives; analyzes and evaluates the problem; implements action plans; and measures results.
    • Asset-based community development uses strengths already existing in communities, such as the skills of its citizens, dedication of citizens’ associations, and resources of formal institutions working in the community.
  • Community asset mapping. This involves taking an inventory of citizens’ and organizations’ assets. By working with the assets that are already present in the community, the focus shifts to agenda-building and problem-solving, stressing local investment, creativity and control throughout the process.

Once community planners have determined how to preserve a community’s heritage through these steps, they must put public policy into place in order to effectively do so.

City Planners

City planners within a metropolitan area must work tirelessly with the other planners listed above in order to make continuous efforts in building their city around buildings and cultures that need to be preserved. It is only through thoughtful planning and community involvement that planners can effectively preserve a city’s heritage while still making that city work well for present and future generations of citizens. Various types of plans and documents are used in these endeavors, and include (but are not limited to):

  • Comprehensive Plan. This is the most fundamental plan for a city, providing background information and establishing a basis for planning and zoning decisions as well as for capital investment. It provides the general direction for the city’s future development and growth.
  • Historical Preservation Plan. These plans can be developed along with Comprehensive Plans or independent of them. They emphasize history, historic character and heritage as the building blocks for revitalization, growth, job creation and tourism within the city. This type of plan will help to connect a community to its historic resources and development, making recommendations for the implementation of actions, strategies and tools to preserve the history of the city.
  • Historic Resources Survey. This is a planning tool that planners use to help cities identify historic properties and place them within a historic context (either local, state or national). It is part of the assessment process to determine which properties should be protected, and how to incorporate protection goals into community planning efforts.
  • Downtown Revitalization Strategies/Plans. These types of plans examine all aspects of a city’s commercial district and uses the planning process to engage diverse segments of the city’s population in its revitalization. They may address challenges related to physical conditions and aesthetics of a city area, and try to reestablish the downtown area as a tourist, shopping, dining and entertainment destination, strengthening existing businesses and encouraging new businesses.
  • Cultural Plans. Cultural plans recognize that a city’s cultural sector can stimulate job creation, tourism and growth within the city. It places value on the creative economy of the city, building upon the city’s heritage, buildings, visual and performing arts, media, arts education, crafts, graphic arts, digital games and media, film, and more. They are usually seen within larger cities.