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Urban heritage in tension

Explaining the different tensions that oppose professionals or advocates of cultural heritage to the urban developers or planners
© European University Institute

In this step, we will introduce three kinds of tensions between cultural heritage and urban development.

  • Archaeological research in the urban environment can take place under the pressures of urban developers willing to avoid delays in their projects.

  • Another tension can oppose the advocates of preservation and restoration of existing built heritage and the advocates of urban redevelopment projects.

  • Finally, tourism-oriented urban regeneration strategies can be to the detriment of the preservation of local intangible heritage and vernacular social practices.

  1. Archaeology vs urban development: First, let us take a look at the cultural heritage that is the least visible, the one that is under the ground. The ground is often filled with testimonies of the past. In cities dating back to antiquity, many monuments are still buried in the ground. But beyond monuments, there is an issue of finding traces that may help understand the past: tools, coins, bones that can provide historians with additional materials to better understand periods lacking historical sources. But in urban environments, such archaeological pressure can be under pressure. Urban developers accuse them of causing delays and additional costs to construction projects. Whenever there is not a clear and well-enforced regulation, the power balance is often to the detriment of archaeologists. In the following step, we shall see the tensions that arose between archaeologists and urban planners after the discovery of a Byzantine harbour in Istanbul.

  2. Preserving the historical landscape vs adjusting to urban change: A second tension may arise between heritage professionals and urban planners. Some advocate the preservation of the integrity of the historical urban landscape while others want to guarantee an adaptive city that is able to adjust to urban growth or to populations’ changing needs and practices. Apart from the obvious cases where urban transformation projects plan to demolish sites considered to carry a heritage value, such tensions can emerge in rehabilitation projects, when a building or a neighbourhood is restored. Both private and public owners are constrained by urban planning norms related to buildings’ statuses and locations. Besides, in the environs of a heritage site, any infrastructure projects such as a road or a bridge, as well as new construction projects can be restricted because they are seen as harming the aesthetic and heritage value of the site.

  3. Authenticity vs instrumentalization of heritage: The existence of measures to safeguard built heritage does not necessarily guarantee the preservation of the city’s social character. Heritage policies can therefore generate tensions. The question here is who is heritage for? Some governments instrumentalize heritage to promote their own vision of society and erase dissonant voices. Besides, when heritage policies mainly aim at maximizing tourism, it may lead to a so-called “Disneyfication”, meaning that the urban landscape is transformed into a theme park better-suited for external visitors to the detriment of the local population.

© European University Institute
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Cultural Heritage and the City

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