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Preserving the historic centre of Naples

Nick Dines draws on his research on the City of Naples and explains how its historic centre escaped demolition
My interest in cultural heritage and in particular tangible built heritage is very much connected with my research on the transformation of Naples and in particular its historic centre. And there are a number of important starting points to underline. First of all, Naples has one of the largest historic centres in Europe. For a long time it was one of the largest cities in Europe alongside Paris in the 16th and 17th century. So today it has the legacy of this huge urban area.
However, after unification, as a city, it was very much marginalised from the attempt to build a national urban culture, which was very much centred on the legacy of the medieval and Renaissance cities of Tuscany and other parts of central and northern Italy. Another important point to underline is that until 25 years ago, there were still proposals to knock down most historic centre of Naples. And in fact, the idea of Naples as a heritage site, the historic centre as a heritage site, it’s relatively late compared to places, the more famous places, such as Florence, Venice, and Rome, and so forth.
And a very important point to underline also is that unlike many historic city centres in Europe, Naples still has a very large low income residential population, which obviously makes the whole issue of it being constructed a heritage site quite particular and quite interesting also in terms of thinking about the consequences of heritage. So as I said, up until the 1980s, there were still a lot of plans to actually knock down a lot of the popular neighbourhoods. What happens? Why is it that in the 1990s we have a consensus, at a political and a public level, of actually protecting this historic centre?
What happens is that in the early 1990s, there’s a shift on a number of levels, at a political, economic, and cultural level with regard to the running of the city. At an economic level, the old idea of a productivist city based on heavy industry that was supported by the state comes to an end, also symbolically with the closure of the major steel works outside the city centre. And there’s a new rhetoric about cities needing to invest in their own assets.
And in Italian cases– and this was something that was taking place across Europe at the time– in the Italian case it was very much on historic, cultural heritage that could be harnessed as an economic asset for attracting tourism to the city. At a political level, many of these crackpot ideas of demolishing the city centre, which seem quite strange today, came to a sudden end, largely because they were supported by a political class that was wiped out, at least in the short term, as a result of anti-corruption scandals, the Tangentopoli process at the beginning of the 1990s. And what you also had was for the first time ever a new administrative electoral reform leading to the direct election of mayors.
So for the first time, mayors were accountable to local citizens. And so they were often working on issues, such as civic pride, on ideas about citizenship. And this very much connected with the idea of regenerating the historic centre, not just as an economic strategy, but also for creating a space that was really rehabilitating the cultural effective ties between the population and the city. And so very much from the 1990s onwards, heritage and historic centre become key aspects in a journey regeneration strategy for the city.

Nick Dines shows that until the 1980s, the historic centre of Naples was under threat of demolition. A shift takes places in the 1990’s, when cultural heritage starts being viewed as an asset.

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Cultural Heritage and the City

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