Junhi HAN, Chief, Culture Sector, UNESCO

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were conceived at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (Rio de Janeiro). The objective was to formulate a set of universal goals that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world. In this article Junhi HAN, Chief, Culture Sector, UNESCO New Delhi highlights how the Sustainable Development Agenda of the UN embraced cultural heritage and acknowledged their role in its process, placing, “Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage” as action plan number 4 in order to achieve the SDG 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Indeed, “The Future We Want”, the Outcome Document of the above-mentioned UN Conference mentioned specifically the importance of safeguarding cultural heritage by stipulating, “We recognize that many people, especially the poor, depend directly on ecosystems for their livelihoods, their economic, social and physical well-being, and their cultural heritage”. It further stipulates “the need for conservation, as appropriate, of the natural and cultural heritage of human settlements, the revitalization of historic districts and the rehabilitation of city centres.”

This is the culmination of the debate over the several decades on the importance of culture in particular cultural heritage in relation to its role and potential to contribute to Sustainable Development, which was intensified since the 1990s on all levels of international stakeholders, in particular UNESCO.

Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi

Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi

Urban Heritage Conservation versus Urban Development

Urban Heritage, including its tangible and intangible elements, is a key social, cultural and economic asset for cities. It constitutes a complex and dynamic layering of heritage meaning and values, created, interpreted by successive generations in the past.

In adopting the Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations Member States committed to ‘make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’(SDG11). One of the concrete actions to achieve Goal 11 is to safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage and this includes naturally historic towns, embedded of their intangible and tangible heritage, which are assets of every historic town bridging local communities into economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. The loss of cultural heritage, created and preserved by cities’ dwellers over the centuries can therefore undermine the community’s potential to share the benefits of development among its members.

Also Read: Heritage Concerns & Cultural Ethos of a City

UNESCO 2011 Recommendation on Historic Urban Landscape (hereafter HUL) stipulates clearly that “present and future challenges for urban development require the definition and implementation of a new generation of urban policies that can provide mechanisms for balancing conservation and sustainability in the short and long terms” by integrating urban heritage conservation into general policy planning and practices and those related to the broader urban context. In addition, the HUL Recommendation highlights the need for a special emphasis to be placed on the harmonious integration of contemporary interventions into the historic urban fabric.

To this end, It is essential for cities to engage, with every relevant stakeholder including local communities, in the debate about their urban heritage to identify its multiple layers of values as well as the threats to its preservation and strengthen the value of its contributions to the sustainable development.

Government Nizamia General Hospital

Government Nizamia General Hospital, Hyderabad, Telangana

The HUL Recommendation suggests a few examples of tools that can be developed as part of the process for the HUL recommendation, as follows:

(a) Civic engagement tools
It is recommended to involve citizens, community and neighbourhood groups, political leaders municipalities, institutional partners, non-governmental organisations, all the aspects of civil society and empower them to identify key values in their urban areas, and to envision the future of their cities that reflect their diversity, and agree upon actions towards development while conserving their heritage.

(b) Knowledge and planning tools
These tools have the aim to protect the integrity and authenticity of the attributes of urban heritage. They are meant to be tools for monitoring and management of change to improve the quality of life and of urban space. Concrete examples of these tools include documentation of built and living heritage along with urban viewscape and mapping for building urban morphology. This will also allow having urban characteristics facilitating a better understanding of their cities for all stakeholders.

(c) Regulatory systems
Legislative measures and regulatory systems are fundamental to managing the required changes in urban heritage. These regulations should be seen as facilitators to conserve and manage tangible and intangible attributes of the urban heritage, including their social, environmental and cultural values. These tools can include zoning regulation, multipurpose overlay districts, for the economy, heritage, legislation specifically addressing urban heritage stewardship and urban viewscape control to quote only a few.

(d) Financial tools
Financial support is required to upgrade infrastructure, provide services, renew public spaces, to improve cities infrastructure. Overall it is essential to feed the economic engine of urban vitality. Private-Public Partnership (PPP) targeted for Urban Heritage, and Lease of heritage monuments to private industries, such as heritage hotels can consider one of these tools, to quote only a few. The HUL makes a special mention about “micro-credit and other flexible financings” to support local enterprise, as well as a variety of models of partnerships, which are also central to making the historic urban landscape approach financially sustainable.

Unlocking Indian historic cities potential

India is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of built heritage, and a great number of historic centres still remain preserved. In this context, one of the most viable urban strategies and valid conservation policies that can balance in harmony urban heritage conservation with development would be to promote the adaptive rehabilitation of heritage monuments for contemporary uses. The assets of this approach are to allow the historic buildings and urban heritage to retain the social and cultural memory of cities through sound adaptive reuse of its material urban heritage. The currently prevailing trend: monument-based, and government-financed approach that restricts the use of protected properties and relies on public funds is not viable at the long term level in dealing with the vast urban heritage of most communities and of sustaining conservation efforts.

To this end, the regulations affecting the use of historic buildings and built heritage must progress from preventing changes to its attributes and uses towards promoting a sensible adaptive rehabilitation of the urban heritage to meet contemporary requirements. Private owners of monuments and buildings should be provided with some incentives such as tax-reduction when they undertake either conservation/ restoration or re-adaptive use of their historic houses/ buildings, which has been already in practice in many European countries.

The re-adaptive use of historic monuments also greatly contributes to environmental issues. Currently, the construction industry is one of the most polluting industries in the World and the construction of new buildings and infrastructure development are today the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Indeed, embodied energy of conventional construction materials such as cement, or energy required throughout a building cycle to extract, process, transport, assemble, maintain, repair, demolish and dispose of a building – makes the construction sector the most energy-intensive of the global economy. It represents over 35 per cent of global energy consumption and accounts for 40 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Most countries still use massively concrete because it is the cheapest material in construction, but concrete makes the planet sick.

Also Read: Heritage-led Urban Revitalisation in India: An Integrated Approach

So conserving historic buildings and using them by maximizing their re-adaptive use is not only important because it is part of our history and feed us with cultural identity but also the first ecological choice for sustainable development and for the future of cities.

Sunder Nursery, Delhi

Sunder Nursery, Delhi

Indian cities face unprecedented urbanization and will have to absorb 416 million more inhabitants into urban areas by 2050. This may result in rapid and uncontrolled infrastructure development, which often takes place at the expense of natural ecosystems and citizens’ wellbeing.

In addition, India is the 6th most vulnerable country to climate changes in the world as per the risk index of COP 23. Core areas of historic cities of India are also often concentrated of poverty. 21 Indian major cities are going to run out of ground water soon if not already run out. Bangalore and Chennai have already lost around 80 per cent of their water bodies over the last 40 years. Currently most of European cities biggest concerns is how to make their cities greener and more resilient.

Isn’t it high time that Indian cities should brainstorm collectively on an environment-friendly urban development strategy by taking their precious and unique urban heritage into the centre of their urban policy?.

India is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of built heritage, offering a great opportunity for its historic cities to unlock potential of their urban heritage for sustainable development. Indian historic towns will certainly benefit hugely by putting urban heritage in its proper place as a development asset; time for urban heritage to become a fully-integrated component of the sustainable development of cities.


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