What can citizens do to safeguard cultural heritage?

All around the world, citizen movements have been increasingly rising up against urban transformation projects in order to protect their city’s heritage.

Firstly, some movements mobilize against the demolition of historical buildings. This is the case of civil society organisations such as Casamémoire in Casablanca, Morocco, which has conducted various actions to protect the 20th-century architecture of the city against the threat of urban renewal. Secondly, mobilizations can be directed against the instrumentalization of heritage aimed at increasing touristic attractiveness to the detriment of the local population. In 1998, the Singapore Tourism Board revealed a project for the city’s Chinatown hoping to transform this lively neighbourhood into a theme park: they proposed theme streets and a garden with references to Chinese mythology. But after a strong opposition of citizens to this “Orientalisation” of the local Chinese heritage, they had to review their plan to better address local populations.

The two following case studies from the UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development (which you can consult in the link below this article) show the importance of citizens’ movements in the preservation of cities’ heritage.

The first case is Cairo in Egypt, where the consequences of the destructions that took place during the revolution pushed citizens to organise in order to protect the city’s heritage through several initiatives.

“The revolution of January 2011 resulted in the destruction, degradation and looting of vital components of Cairo’s historic heritage. In response to that state of affairs, which they regarded as attributable to weak institutional governance, civil society movements for the protection and management of cultural heritage have sprung up, relying on social networks. They claim that citizens have the right to play an active part in the protection of their heritage and living environment. The ‘Save Cairo’ initiative, designed to protect the city’s urban heritage, organizes sit-ins in front of buildings threatened with destruction, as well as campaigning publicly. While it has not always been successful in averting destruction, it has drawn attention to the issue of conserving urban heritage. Other kinds of action are being taken on a neighbourhood scale. The Heliopolis heritage initiative is documenting the architectural heritage of the twentieth century through photography competitions, guided tours and campaigns directed at the authorities. The Ana min Al-Zaher (‘I’m from Al Zaher’) initiative prompted the state to renovate and reopen an architectural treasure, the Al Sakakini Palace. The Athar Lina (‘the monument is ours’) initiative in Al-Khalifa Street is advocating for citizen participation in heritage protection, enabling the interests of local residents to be better ad- dressed. Participatory workshops involving both the local residents and the authorities were set up in 2012. The commitment has been followed up with the creation of a school of heritage and a number of restoration activities (medieval domes, twentieth-century buildings, etc.). The defence of the citizens’ interests has since broadened to include the regeneration of public areas and improvement in the management of household waste collection.”

UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development, p.50

The second case study is from the City of George Town, on the Penang Island in Malaysia, where both grassroots mobilizations and civil society initiatives managed to block urban development projects threatening the city’s heritage.

“In 2008, George Town and Melaka were jointly inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for their rich trading heritage. In George Town, the capital and largest city of the state of Penang in Malaysia, the local community plays a significant role in the conservation and protection of cultural heritage and the promotion of urban development. Faced with large-scale development threats that risk impacting the heritage values of the site, the local community has been active in driving several conservation processes forward. In 2007, a large-scale community protest, consisting of numerous demonstrations, campaigns and government lobbying successfully halted the Penang Global City Centre Development (PGCC) project, which aimed to transform 260 acres of green space into tower blocks. Similarly, the establishment of the Penang Heritage Trust has paved the way for other bottom-up conservation processes, including the George Town Transformation Programme established in 2009, which have resulted in cultural mapping, capacity-building, conservation and the development of shared spaces to address the issues of the city’s ageing population, poor public amenities and lack of investment.”

UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development, p.98

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Cultural Heritage and the City

European University Institute (EUI)

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