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“Heritage conservation is a viable strategy for urban regeneration”

Dr Ron van Oers, Vice Director of the World Heritage Institute of Training and Research in the Asia-Pacific region (WHITRAP) talks about urban planning

“Heritage conservation is a viable strategy for urban regeneration”
Dr Ron van Oers, Vice Director of the World Heritage Institute of Training and Research in the Asia-Pacific region (WHITRAP) under the auspices of UNESCO, is coordinating a programme for the application of the Historic Urban Landscape approach in China and the wider Asian region.

He has been trained as an urban planner and got his PhD from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. In 2000 he started working at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris, where he developed and coordinated a variety of programmes.

From 2003 onwards he was responsible for the World Heritage Cities Programme, under which he spearheaded the international efforts to develop new guidelines for urban conservation that were adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference in November 2011 as the Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape. In 2012, he took his new job at WHITRAP in Shanghai.

Following are excerpts of his talk with TNS.

The News on Sunday: In 2012, you published a book “The Historic Urban Landscape — Managing Heritage in an Urban Century” (Wiley-Blackwell, UK). Tell us what is the Historic Urban Landscape?

Dr Ron van Oers: In fact, the book was co-authored with Francesco Bandarin, the former Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris. The Historic Urban Landscape (HUL), codified in the new UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape, is an approach to the management of heritage resources in dynamic, constantly changing cities.

In the approach, the urban area is understood as extending beyond the notion of “historic centre” or “district” to include the broader urban context and topographical setting, as well as social and cultural practices and values, economic processes and the intangible dimensions of heritage.

It is based on the recognition and identification of a layering and interconnection of values, which shapes identity and inspires local communities and should be taken as a point of departure in the overall management and further development of the city.

TNS: Why was the Historic Urban Landscape approach developed?

RvO: In reaction to the threat of demolition for urban renewal and development, historic inner cities have often been preserved in isolation without integrating them into the broader context of their urban surroundings. This has resulted in abandonment by their traditional population and loss of identity, wherein once vibrant areas either suffer urban decay and blight, or are well-preserved but devoid of everyday life and traditional values. The new UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape provides a set of general principles in support of sustainable urban heritage management that integrates environmental, social and cultural concerns into the planning, design and implementation of urban management programmes.

TNS: How is the Historic Urban Landscape approach applied?

RvO: International research and practice in many parts of the world increasingly shows that heritage conservation is a viable strategy for inner city revitalisation and urban regeneration, and that heritage conservation pays. The Historic Urban Landscape approach proposes a simple six-point ‘Action Plan’ that places local culture and heritage, and the values and meaning they carry, at the heart of the decision-making process.

“UNESCO has provided seed money for the process of inventories and community engagement. Cultural and physical mapping is currently undertaken and the traditional trades of Pindi are being documented.”

Briefly stated, the six steps include a thorough inventory of natural, cultural and community assets, of the values these hold and the vulnerability of these assets to socio-economic pressures and climate change. Then this information should be integrated into a City Development Strategy (CDS), with a prioritisation of policies and programmes for conservation and development, and the establishment of alliances between the public, private and civic sectors to align and coordinate programmatic action.

TNS: You are here in Pakistan to develop together with NCA the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) approach for Rawalpindi. What can HUL mean for Rawalpindi?

RvO: Rawalpindi is a city with a dense layering of historic and cultural values, primarily expressed through traditions, customs and community practices in the old neighbourhoods with a diverse physical and social fabric. It is remarkable that despite the lack of any formal, large scale planning over the last decades there is still a vibrant functioning core of the city, which given infrastructure deficiencies, traffic congestion and high population density, is based solely on social-cultural capital.

The extent of Pindi’s cultural-historic significance, however, is still poorly understood, let alone recognised, and cultural mapping exercises and surveys are shedding more light on this aspect of Pindi and will de-stygmatise it as ‘just a garrison town’. Subsequently, interventions can be planned and designed in a more heritage-sensitive manner, so this resource can be safeguarded, while additional programmes can be initiated that focus on the sustainable use of cultural heritage assets, enhancing the development potential and resilience of local communities.

TNS: Could you perhaps be a bit more concrete? What type of actions does it promote?

RvO: Safeguarding the built environment should be supported by by-laws and revised planning and building regulations, providing guidance and advice to planners, home owners and developers on the dos and don’ts in the historic city. Special brochures could be developed on the particular heritage buildings to be found in the city, why they are of significance to the identity and character of the city, and how these buildings could be adapted to enhance their utility and value. Next to recognition and support, however, there is a need to institutionalise the rehabilitation efforts stemming from local initiatives into the planning framework, thereby creating an enabling environment.

Furthermore, strategically located monumental buildings such as havelis could be selected for restoration and provision of community-based facilities and services, such as schools, maternity centres, community halls and the like. Open spaces in and around these buildings could be upgraded through tree-planting exercises organised with and by the local communities. The upgrading of technical infrastructure such as paving, sewerage and electric wiring, undertaken by local government departments, should be organised in tandem with the small-scale neighbourhood interventions.

In this way, a significant improvement in the quality of life of local communities can be achieved without a complete overhaul of the physical fabric of the inner city, and by building on the social capital of these neighbourhoods and thereby strengthening it in the process.

TNS: How do you envision the implementation of HUL in Rawalpindi and who is to be involved?

RvO: HUL, in recognition of the need to build trust and to relegate ownership, is more about setting in motion a PROCESS than implementing a MODEL, aiming for sustainability in the rehabilitation effort. Critical is that the process receives formal backing and support by politicians, government planners, city officials and international agencies, to name the most important. These should recognise and shoulder the often many grass-roots initiatives and activities already going on in the inner city.

Instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, the most relevant and successful activities will be identified based on current community needs and wishes, and to determine how these can be further strengthened and scaled up, based on the capacities of partners and the availability of donor funding.

UNESCO has provided seed money for the process of inventories and community engagement. Cultural and physical mapping is currently undertaken, the traditional trades of Pindi are being documented on video, interviews are conducted, and heritage buildings are being surveyed by staff and (former) students of NCA.

It is imperative, however, that other partners join in sharing responsibilities, insights and initiatives, which will enhance the effectiveness, impact and sustainability of the effort. The key is to match the demand and supply sides within an integrated framework of policy implementation and programmatic action. HUL is providing for such an integrated framework.

TNS: Besides the implementation of mapping exercises, what is further on the agenda?

RvO: We have organised consultation meetings that served to explain the origin and concept of the HUL approach, to discuss the Rawalpindi project strategy in relation to national and international development agendas, and to exchange insights and ideas for concrete initiatives and partnerships for this project. I’m happy to inform you that several partners have come on board, most notably the District Commissioners Office (DCO), with which we have signed a tripartite Agreement on Strategic Cooperation including NCA and WHITRAP-Shanghai.

The results of these meetings are currently being worked out in a detailed project setup, which will be sent to various international donor agencies for endorsement, participation and/or potential funding. Rawalpindi thereby has been included in a select group of Pilot Cities to implement UNESCO’s Historic Urban Landscape approach, which includes Ballarat in Australia, Varanasi and Hyderabad in India (through cooperation with the World Bank), as well as several cities in China including Shanghai and Suzhou.

I am in discussion with the UNESCO Office in Indonesia to include Jakarta as a Pilot City also. UNESCO’s General Conference has requested to be informed about the countries and cities that are working with this new instrument, about the process and the (preliminary) results. This report will be drafted at the end of 2015 for submission to UNESCO in 2016.

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