Monday, January 2, 2012

City Development Experiences in the Preservation of Ten World Heritage Sites

The Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region has a rich and varied urban heritage that includes fine examples of the architecture and urbanism that dates back to the pre-Columbian times and was greatly enriched in the 16thcentury by the city-founding activities of the European conquistadores. A significant number of historic centers and historic cities of the region are included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List (WHL)and many others are protected by national and local legislation.

Throughout the 20th century, much of the heritage in the region suffered because of abandonment and misuse of many monuments, including convents and churches, schools and universities, and theaters and meeting halls, among other buildings. These processes were the result of the profound changes experienced by society. The upper- and middle-income households vacated the traditional houses in historic centers to enjoy the modern amenities of the suburbs. Also, commercial, office, and manufacturing buildings were left vacant by enterprises that moved to the periphery, following their  customers and searching for modern building facilities. These buildings were taken over by low-income households and informal businesses that benefited from their central location and low rents. Others buildings, mostly for industrial and manufacturing uses, were left vacant. The new users informally subdivided residential buildings to provide affordable housing or workspace, and occupied public spaces to sell products and services. Because of abandonment, as well as stress from overuse, the structures decayed, fueling further deterioration of the urban heritage areas in the region. Buildings in the historic centers suffered a dual and mutually reinforcing process of obsolescence: functional obsolescence, as buildings no longer served modern uses, and physical obsolescence, as the structure and installations of the buildings deteriorated due to abandonment or overuse. The third process negatively impacting the preservation of urban heritage areas is economic obsolescence, which occurs when the centrally located historic buildings are worth less than the land that they occupy. This process has led to the demolition of heritage buildings, particularly in fast growing cities.

There are also cultural issues involved in the loss of urban heritage. The rapid expansion of more modern cities in the 20th century led to a devaluation of the historic cities in more than the physical dimension. Often historic cities were considered synonymous with backwardness and colonial exploitation. 
The modernity-oriented cultural elite and educational systems did not place value on the heritage and often created the physiological conditions that led  the communities to accept the destruction of most of the urban heritage in rapidly growing metropolitan areas during the second half of the 20th century. With the exceptions of Brazil and Mexico, which pioneered preservation efforts during that time, most countries and local communities began active urban heritage preservation programs much later in the century. 

Today there is a growing interest in the rehabilitation of urban heritage areas in the LAC region to preserve their social and cultural values and put them into productive uses. However, progress is hampered by lack of interest on the part of the private sector to invest in urban heritage areas, the absence of effective policies and programs to promote the process, and a scarcity of effective institutional arrangements to design and execute heritage preservation and development programs. Most countries in the region are still in what can be considered an early phase in the institutional and policy development process toward sustainable preservation and development of urban heritage sites. Typical interventions in this phase include the sporadic rehabilitation of emblematic buildings. Confronted with the imminent loss of their heritage assets, the cultured elite pressures their governments to intervene and gather resources from public sources and private philanthropy to rescue deteriorating buildings. To generate a more sustainable urban heritage preservation process, comprehensive policies and more effective programs are needed. Such programs should increase awareness of the value of heritage,  mobilize the community and private philanthropy, and, above all, attract private investors and consumers to do business in heritage areas.

Inter-American Development Bank, 2011. Eduardo Rojas, Francesco Lanzafame