The eighth volume in the Getty Conservation Institute‘s Readings in Conservation series is focused on studies and writings around issues in historic cities and urban conservation. In 2016, one of the book’s editors, Jeff Cody, began to tell me about his work — along with that of his co-editor Francesco Siravo — to gather both historical and recent scholarship around the conservation of urban settlements, as opposed to heritage conservation of individual buildings or urban planning. Jeff was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome that year, and during my stint as an Affiliate Fellow we came to know each other and — along with my wife — spent considerable time together both in conversation and in visiting some of the city’s many treasures.
Having stayed in touch with Jeff since our time in Rome, I was delighted earlier this year when Historic Cities: Issues in Urban Conservation showed up in my mailbox. Published in 2019, this masterly survey brings together 67 different articles and groups them into eight sections covering topics such as the shared nature of the historic city, significant values, sustainability, and managing the historic city.
This is a richly illustrated book with a range of writings sure to interest both practitioners and the merely curious layperson who cares about past efforts and current concerns and work to maintain historic cities and their buildings that, as noted by architect Marwa Al-Sabouni, hold the “values — the aesthetic values, the moral values — of the place.”
The editors state one of the key rationales underlying their text:
“…as global urbanization runs rampant, architectural heritage becomes more imperiled, fragile and expedient… Few historic places survive the onslaught of poorly coordinated mal-development, an artifact of harmful planning practices related to so-called urban renewal that have rewarded investors while ignoring less wealthy and less powerful residents from North American cities in the 1960s to Chinese (and other) cities more recently.”
More than one reviewer has noted that it is “refreshing to read papers that focus away from more traditional geographical foci for built heritage conservation.” Instead, the editors have assembled writings which “address modern urban heritage issues in locations including the Middle East, Africa, India and Japan, among others.” I found this wide net equal parts helpful and evocative. Helpful in that while diving into different readings I found my perspective widened. Evocative in the sense that the vivid stories and photographs of work from places unfamiliar or faintly known from my personal experience were a constant reminder of the shared challenges faced by humanity’s global cultures.
Historic Cities arrived as I was working on a sustainable tourism project for an international conservation organization. The happy confluence of those two actions provided the incentive to dive deeply into the book’s writings on the topic to see how this new survey served as a reference work in a segment of the field changing quickly due to the global pandemic. It more than met the challenge.
The editors write in their preface that tourism, “as beneficial as it might be for economic and cultural reasons, has contributed to the crass commercialization of historic places.” The writings they include in the section on sustainability by such disparate scholars as economist David Throsby, economic revitalization consultant Donovan Rypkema, and architect and urban planner Noha Nasser, among others, provide both historical context and current pathways forward in the study of sustainable tourism. Nasser’s argument that “Sustainable tourism is rooted in sustainable development, in the sense that if tourism is to contribute to sustainable development, it must be economically viable, environmentally sensitive, and culturally appropriate” in a way that increases “local involvement” sums up what is faced by those seeking to support tourism efforts that move from crass commercialization to a more locally-focused, sustainable model.
Ian Wray notes in his review of Historic Cities that the book does a masterful job of showing how rather recent fundamental values of conservation have become ascendant at one level, so that a 1965 master plan to demolish much of the 19th century center city of Liverpool for highways and mega-buildings has been scrapped, replaced in part by a World Heritage Site and buffer zone. The answers to this change in values, as well as studies of the new challenges we face today, can be found in the readings collected by Jeff Cody and Francesco Siravo in this important new work.
More to come…
Image: Jodhpur, India, as seen from Mehrangarh Fort by DJB (2007)