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Giving new life to industrial heritage

By the 1980s, the use of industrial heritage as tool of urban development spread rapidly. These strategies resulted from the context of the industrial crisis, as well as from the will to promote a more inclusive approach to heritage.

The industrial crisis triggered a deep identity crisis in industrial cities.

The revolution of containers led to the obsolescence of many port facilities in Europe and North America. Coal mining declined as other sources of energy were preferred. Major industrial sectors like steel or textile started to be outsourced to developing countries.

As a consequence, industrial areas saw their factories close, their jobs leave, their populations decrease. Entire regions were affected, such as the so-called rust belt in North America or the Ruhr in Germany. Port cities like Liverpool, Marseille, Genoa, and Bilbao experienced difficult times.

Beyond an economic crisis, these cities underwent an identity crisis. The derelict factories, the former industrial neighbourhoods in decay appeared as deep scars in the landscape.

Therefore, the use of industrial heritage as a resource has been a key strategy:

  • To create a new urban narrative
  • To define new functions for the empty warehouses and the closed factories
  • To create new jobs in the tourism sector and the ‘new economy’, including knowledge-based sectors such as IT, design, or the arts.

Towards a more inclusive approach to heritage

The recognition and promotion of industrial heritage took part of the general movement towards a wider and more inclusive recognition approach, which affected vernacular heritage, rural heritage, as well alternative cultural productions such as graffiti.

Progressively, the historical and the aesthetic values of industrial heritage became recognized:

  • As a testimony of the industrial revolutions which transformed the world from the 19th century
  • As a testimony of successive technical achievements
  • As a testimony of the memory of the working class

Let us give two examples:

  1. In the north of France, a former coal-mining region of over 120,000 ha, known as the “mining basin” succeeded in being inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remains of the coal extractions infrastructures, the mining pits, showcase the effects of this activity on the landscapes and were thus recognized for their universal heritage value. The residential architectural forms of workers estates and mining villages typical of the paternalist system on which this industry was founded was also part of the historical value that was stressed. This inscription went along with numerous initiatives to stimulate the economy, attract tourists and residents: the establishment of heritage trails and construction of the Louvre Lens, a branch of the famous Parisian museum, inaugurated in 2012.

  2. The Italian city of Genoa, as the port of the industrial triangle of northern Italy, dealt with its crisis through an ambitious project of regeneration of the Antique Port, left derelict after the transfer of industrial port activities away from the city centre. Designed by the architect Renzo Piano, this project led to the conversion of industrial buildings, the creation of tourist attractions such as museums, an aquarium, a biosphere, and an iconic panoramic elevator. The area also welcomed new restaurants, a hotel, and a marina.

Both these projects aimed at telling a new story in order to overcome their identity crisis. They also aimed at developing new economic sectors such as entertainment and tourism.

What about your city?

Does the city where you live have an industrial past? Does it promote it as an important component of its heritage?

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This article is from the free online course:

Cultural Heritage and the City

European University Institute (EUI)

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