Skip main navigation

Heritage and Urban Change: Cities Recognising Former Infrastructures

In this article, we look at how cities recognise former infrastructures as part of their heritage.

Heritage and urban change

As a city evolves, some of its infrastructures and buildings may lose their initial functions, be conserved and become part of its cultural heritage: Various examples can be found, such as the former Orsay train station in Paris turned into a museum, the former antique port in Genoa turned into a cultural and entertainment area, or the old the police stations in Hong Kong and Singapore turned into cultural centres and testifying the colonial past of these cities.

In this step, we will take a look at train stations and ports to understand how the evolutions of socio-technic systems such as mobility or logistics are inscribed in the urban fabric.

As the way people move within and outside of cities have evolved, the place of train stations changed, impacting the urban landscape as a whole. In the 19th century, with the rise of railway networks, numerous train stations were built in cities. Some of them were monumental buildings like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai built in 1887 for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria or the Milano Centrale train station which was built in 1931 and was the object of a 100-million-euro restoration project in 2006. When they were established, train stations constituted new urban centralities, triggering the emergence of diverse economic and social activities. Sometimes, new neighbourhoods were planned around them. But in the second half of the 20th century, with the rise of automobile transportation, numerous train stations became obsolete. Some were “heritagized”. This week you will encounter this concept of “heritagization”, which refers to the social construction of heritage, the process that leads people to consider something as heritage.

The Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Station built in 1898, and was once one of the main train stations in the United States. But after World War II, passenger traffic as well as freight activities declined and the railway company operating the station went bankrupt. In 1974, the station was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and two years later, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation reorganised the building to adapt it to new uses such as a hotel. Nearly two decades later, in 1994, a private company acquired the property and turned it into a mixed-use complex comprising a luxury restaurant, the Grand Course, along with office space, retail shops, and bars.

Now let us look at port cities. As Brian Hoyle has argued, the technological evolution of ports led to their disconnection with the city. He identifies six stages in the relationship between cities and ports. Ancient and medieval ports, through the 19th century, he argues, constitute the stage of the primitive port/city in which port and city are closely associated, from both a spatial and functional point of view. A second stage emerges between the 19th century and early 20th century in which the growth in industry and trade pushes ports outside the city’s confines. Third, in the mid-20th century, with the rise of industrial activities like oil refining and the introduction of containers, the port starts being separated from the city. Fourth, from the 1960s to the 1980s, new martime technology causes the establishment of separate port industrial development areas. It is a stage of “retreat from the waterfront”. But by the 1970s to the 1990s, a stage of redevelopment of the waterfront is identified, with a process of urban renewal within the original port areas. Thus, from the 1980s onwards, a new stage or reconnection between the port and the city has emerged, with redevelopment projects enhancing the importance of port and city integration.

This transformation in the organic relationship between the port and the city has strongly affected popular urban neighbourhood where the workers employed in port activities once lived. Many waterfront redevelopment projects have enhanced the industrial heritage of old port areas. The City of Hamburg is an eloquent example of such a strategy. As this case study from the UNESCO report underlines, not only did the city manage to enhance the waterfront as a cultural heritage, they also sought to tackle social issues such as the risk of eviction of local populations.

“Hamburg, a city of 1.8 million people, is one of Europe’s largest port cities whose distinct urban landscape is shaped by its trading past. Hamburg’s first UNESCO World Heritage property, Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2015, is emblematic of this history. Speicherstadt represents the largest collection of historic port warehouses in the world, while the Kontorhaus district, which dates back to the 1920s, was the first dedicated office district on the European continent. While this rich heritage represents a major draw for tourists – positively contributing to Hamburg’s economy – homelessness and gentrification represent pressing challenges. In response, the city of Hamburg has launched several major initiatives, including Hafen City Hamburg, one of the largest urban regeneration projects in Europe in terms of land mass, covering 2.2 sq. km of the city’s old port. The project aims to recover the port warehouses, restore the historic district and reinforce Hamburg’s identity as a maritime city.”

UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development, p. 60

Having former ports and industrial areas recognised as places of heritage value has been a tortuous process. Indeed such areas were rather seen as problematic or difficult because of poverty, abandonment, crime, and poor services. Their inclusion in heritage catalogues and heritage programmes is still a contested issue in many cities.

© European University Institute
This article is from the free online

Cultural Heritage and the City

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now