Between preservation and development: the problems of contemporary urban heritage



​​The globalization of the notion of urban heritage

The conflict between the preservation of urban heritage and the accelerating urban development is a global challenge with a great number of regional varieties. It has been present in Europe for centuries, where the long history of heritage/monument protection confronted not only the effects of modernization and urbanization, but also those of devastating wars. It is very much in the centre of interest in the Americas in the last decades, where re-urbanizing tendencies, which can be summarized as “return to the center” resulted in the urban rehabilitation of several cities and towns. In Asia, where the significance of the built heritage is different to that of in Europe and where the acceleration and the volume of the urban growth is unprecedented, this conflict seemed to be of minor importance until the last few years. Nowadays, however, Asian urban heritage gains ground. Through the globalization of urban heritage, this originally European concept gets more and more distanced from its sources and its related notions such as renovation, reconstruction and monument protection are revised.

The dilemma of contemporary urban heritage

The difficulties of conceptualization of current urban heritage stem from the fact that contemporary heritage integrates the previous regimes of cultural heritage. In consequence, it is bequeathed with a series of inconsistencies, which are conceptually contradictory, but coexist in current practices. Though these contradictions are interrelated and complex, three of them can be identified to give a first draft for a conceptualization of contemporary urban heritage:

Current urban heritage is presented as a unity of cultural and natural heritage. These categories were distinct in the first cultural heritage and officially united in the second one by the establishment of the World Heritage convention and list. The built and the natural settings of the city demands new terminology of preservation, since the ‘monument’ (i.e. individual building), the ‘site’ (i.e. the historical area), the zoning (i.e. determining and differentiating areas according to their historic/al/ significance), the town- or cityscape (i.e. the three-dimensional preservation of the built city) are not sufficient to integrate the natural setting. The notion of ‘urban landscape’ is the recent attempt to link the built and the natural and to put the city to an ecological scale. For example, the former gold-rush city of Ballarat in Australia is a proud Historic Urban Landscape pilot by planning its future on the basis of a holistic approach regarding its tangible and natural heritage in unity. This recent evolution can be made easily intelligible for Social Sciences and Humanities due to current post-humanist approaches and to the viewpoints expressed in the material and spatial turns.
The fusion of cultural and natural Heritages would entail the theoretical clarification of the two principles of World Heritage: Authenticity and Integrity. Authenticity’s original relevance is undermined by the arrival of intangible cultural heritage and Integrity is becoming a major reference without being endowed with the appropriate conceptualization as in the case of the notion of visual integrity. Which is widely used in the evaluation of urban heritage, but never truly defined. From the viewpoint of urban heritage conservation and urban planning, the re-formulation of the two notions raises questions about the feasibility of the management and development of concerned urban territories solely on the basis of tangible heritage and that of the built environment, however sophisticated and comprehensive its definition might be. Though the post-war reconstruction of the historic centre Warsaw was totally unauthentic from the point of view of monument protection, it was recognised as a World Heritage site because of its unique historical situation. More recently, the partially destroyed earthen architecture of the Timbuktu World Heritage site was also reconstructed identically.

Once the Syrian war is over, Aleppo and other demolished sites will be most probably reconstructed in a non-authentic way too. Historical significance tends to overwrite the traditions of urban monument protection even in international standard-giving institutions, when the monuments are inhabited. The theoretical dilemmas of current heritage are reflected also in the notions of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, which are the result of the splitting of the original concept of cultural heritage. The conceptual novelty represented by the intangible heritage is one of the most significant markers of the third regime. Urban planning is confronted with participatory principles and practice in expanding urban heritage territories, in which the growing awareness of urban heritage might hinder corporate investments. Intangible urban heritage could be regarded as an opportunity of the popular appropriation of the heritage discourse as a new means to express local identity. Thus, the one-time administrative language of heritage conservation is used by a larger group of social actors.

Conceptual endeavours

The globalization of urban heritage preservation is proved by the fact that beyond the UNESCO-initiated universal concepts of Historic Urban Landscape and Visual Integrity, several local endeavours –such as Community-led Urban Strategies in Historic Cities and Integrated Urban Cultural Heritage Management (European Union), Comprehensive Urban Development (Havana), Living Urban Heritage (Hoi An, Vietnam), Sustainable City (Delhi) can be identified to conceptualize current urban heritage in order to bridge the preservation and development and the offer a holistic definition to the urban phenomenon. Though these concepts ­offer different solutions to the dilemma of contemporary urban heritage, they share the same approach characterized by the arrangement of formerly detached elements of urban heritage into a spatial and temporal continuity. In this continuity, historical distance and Authenticity can be easily replaced by newly constructed significance.


  • Herzog, L. A.  (2006) Return to the Center. Culture, Public Space and City Building in a Global Era (Austin: University of Texas Press)
  • Sonkoly, Gábor (2017) Historical Urban Landscape (New York: Palgrave Macmillan)
  • Ballarat and UNESCO’s historic urban landscape approach (2013, Ballarat)
  • Labadi, S., Logan. W. (eds.) (2016) Urban Heritage, Development and Sustainability. International frameworks, national and local governance (London-New York: Routledge)

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