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Historic Cities Already Embody Sustainability Principles

As the international community moves to put sustainability at the core of global development strategies, innovations already in place in our historic districts should also be considered.

The international community is at work articulating a landmark new global development framework that revolves around sustainability, a key element of which are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted last month by the U. N. General Assembly.

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs’ predecessor, the new development framework contains an explicit target on heritage. This component calls for making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by strengthening efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

How the cultural-heritage aspects of the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda — the 20-year strategy that will come out of next year’s Habitat III conference on cities — are implemented will affect the success of the agenda itself as well as the prospects for conserving the globe’s precious heritage resources. Equally important is how we can apply the lessons and principles of traditional settlement to new development.

The links between the conservation of cultural heritage and sustainable development have followed a broad recognition of the importance of urbanization in reducing energy demands while increasing economic opportunities. Now, the task in creating a practical, participatory framework for urban development depends on resolving tensions between the goals of heritage conservation on the one hand and the socio-economic development needs and aspirations of local communities on the other.

The idea of cultural heritage has expanded significantly in recent decades. Originally covering single monuments identified as objects of art, it now includes cultural landscapes, historic cities and regions. Moreover, it extends the concept of heritage beyond that which is “tangible” to the intangible dimensions to embrace the entirety of knowledge derived from the development and experience of human settlement practices — our collective memory.

In order to fully understand the relationship between cultural heritage and sustainable development, the idea of “heritage” must be understood in its broader, modern sense. The physical conservation of selected artefacts alone will not help preserve a community’s cultural heritage, but neither can economic development be removed from the conservation of places.

Beyond conserving the world’s limited authentic traditional cities and towns, the most important application of cultural-heritage principles is the opportunity they afford in new development.

Informing development

Over the past two decades, we have experienced unprecedented and incessant urbanization. Asia alone is expected to add 800 million urban residents in the next 15 years. U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stated that the battle for sustainability will be won or lost in the way we design our cities.

Traditional settlement patterns offer models that should inform redevelopment and new development. Compactness, mixed use, variety of incomes and vibrant public spaces are all elements of historic cities that can guide new development.

Urban development that integrates cultural heritage is more sustainable, diverse and inclusive. Such approaches help to create green economies that enhance sustainability, provide opportunities for employment that assist in poverty alleviation, and have the potential to unite people in participatory processes and to further goals of social cohesion and peace. Heritage serves both economic and central functions, serving as identity, accumulated knowledge and source of pride handed down by previous generations.

The UNESCO Historic Urban Landscape Recommendation (HUL) is a comprehensive approach to urbanization that offers a practical means for communities to both protect and carry forward existing culturally rich places while also guiding the growth in new development. It is a practical set of planning guidelines that integrates cultural heritage with community development, currently being implemented in many places around the world. Its details lay out the rationale for culture and heritage to play a more central role in economic development, poverty reduction and community interaction.

According to these guidelines, the value of cultural heritage for promoting sustainability of cities includes three major components. Cultural heritage functions as a driver for inclusive economic development, as an enabler of social cohesion and equity, and as a means to improve the liveability and sustainability of an urban area. Let’s look at each of these areas in a bit more depth.

First is cultural heritage’s ability to foster inclusive economic development. Historic towns, districts and the historic parts of cities are inherently valuable for their uniqueness, identity and sense of place. These areas tend to commend higher real estate values, and in turn to attract tourism, employment and local investment. Eventually, this can result in further improvement in these urban areas.

Creativity in historic areas has also increasingly become a core part of the culture-led redevelopment of urban areas. Museums, art galleries, theatres and a variety of cultural festivals make for creative cities. Increasingly, cities have revitalized their economies by promoting intangible heritage in order to generate livelihoods.

Finally, there is the opportunity, and potential drawbacks, of tourism. We have more and more evidence to show that sustainable tourism, managed and regulated by local communities, can provide jobs and employment to local communities. Importantly, we have also found that such tourism can impose minimally on local culture.

Shared identity

The second major component is cultural heritage as an enabler of social cohesion, inclusion and equity. Heritage has the power to strengthen communities in which citizens associate the historic environment with a shared identity, attachment to place and everyday life. Importantly, this includes minority, disadvantaged or socially excluded communities.

Traditional settlements, with their lasting cultural identity and socio-economic traditions, raise the awareness and pride of citizens in local history and culture, no matter where they originate or how they may be adapted. The mix of public and private spaces found in traditional settlements engenders social cohesiveness and interaction by providing common spaces in which diverse groups can interact.

By nature, historic cities are often functionally and socially mixed, supporting a wide range of complementary activities and embodying multiple cultural values. Historic cities were vibrant, convivial and inspiring, and many have proved to be supremely adaptable to incremental and harmonious change. And interestingly, people are typically at the heart of the best heritage conservation policies and projects, placing an emphasis on ownership of heritage that can strengthen the social fabric and enhance social well-being.

Historic parks and plazas in historic parts of town are often built around traditional public spaces. Alternately, new public spaces can be created adjacent to historic monuments. Such examples provide important opportunities for continuity of use and significance while supporting new ones. These public spaces also offer something meaningful and attractive that can bring all citizens to get involved in the city’s culture and participate in public activities among diverse members of the community.

Because historic towns, districts and the historic parts of cities help to attract tourism, employment and local investment, these areas also engender curiosity. In so doing, they can build an understanding and acceptance of others’ values, histories and traditions.

Lessons in liveability

Third, cultural heritage and the historic quarters of cities can improve the livability as well as sustainability of urban areas. For instance, the walkability and compactness of urban areas are traditionally enhanced in dense historic cities.

From another angle, the adaptive re-use of existing structures, including buildings, historic urban districts and towns, can be particularly resource efficient. Mixed-use and multi-use structures and spaces are often an integral aspect of historic towns and districts. Further, traditional building technologies and materials may still be available and relevant, and may offer low-energy, regionally appropriate examples of human adaptability.

Likewise, indigenous science and local traditional knowledge and practices for ecosystem management, including those for disaster risk reduction and response, have contributed to environmental sustainability and are important wellsprings of modern resilience. Local and traditional practices of providing basic infrastructural services can be a valuable resource for promoting urban sustainability, including traditional movement and transport routes on land and water.

Occupations related to cultural heritage, cultural practices and creativity can also provide a valuable source of income, dignity and livelihood. Culture-based livelihoods have the potential for small and micro-entrepreneurship that empowers local communities and can contribute substantially to poverty alleviation.

Integrating cultural heritage

Along with using heritage to guide planning and development, other prerequisites are fundamental to the integration of cultural heritage into urbanization.

First, establish a formal legal mechanism for recognizing and documenting individual sites, districts and cities of cultural and historic value. This could be a register of places, official surveys or other documentation. Second, link these designations to programmes and incentives for conservation and redevelopment of all settlements, from the metropolis to village.

A third prerequisite is a regulatory and financial incentive (or disincentive) approach that contains urban sprawl and focuses funding on existing infrastructure and regeneration of existing urban areas, historic districts and neighbourhoods.

As we approach the New Urban Agenda, let’s remember that the lessons of centuries of urban form are every bit as relevant to sustaining places today and tomorrow. Compact and filled with cultural vibrancy, historic cities and towns point to solutions for climate change, decreased income disparity and enhanced creativity. In short, they are the kinds of places where people want to live — let’s plan accordingly. 

This article originally appeared at Citiscope, a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at

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