"Urban heritage makes every single city unique and establishes its identity"

Flo P

In this interview, Remco Vermeulen, Ilaria Rosetti and Jean-Paul Corten, coordinators of the Urban Heritage Strategies short course, delve deeper into the complex relationship between urban development and heritage management.

Urban heritage preserves the soul of a city

“Heritage encompasses all remnants of humanity, whether buildings, landscapes and infrastructure or traditions, language, or cuisine. In the Urban Heritage Strategies course, we focus on the built environment, particularly historical buildings, and neighbourhoods in cities”, states Remco.

"Urban heritage makes every single city unique, it establishes its identity. Without heritage, a city loses its soul."

Heritage is pivotal to a city’s past and future development

Remco explains that urban heritage depicts how a city has developed and expanded. Each layer distinguishes itself with distinctive architectural styles and layouts of infrastructure and public space, and each layer influences the next. In other words, the city you see today has been shaped by its historical layers.

For Ilaria, cities are melting pots of people and cultures, which exposes them to multi-diversity, changing needs, and development processes.

“Urban heritage practices can offer opportunities by guiding and providing resources for urban adaptations and a development that is respectful of its social, cultural, and natural environment. On the other hand, heritage can also pose challenges for these change processes, if its multiple values and uses are not appropriately addressed, managed, and negotiated among stakeholders.”

“The effective integration of heritage management and urban planning, and the collaboration of stakeholders across governmental levels, sectors, and disciplines is fundamental to sustainable urban development.”

Jean-Paul reveals that preserving heritage is rarely a goal in itself, and instead, heritage should be kept where and when it is relevant. This is also why the course starts with rephrasing the classical heritage question into a more urgent one: “What societal needs can the heritage accommodate?”. By tradition, the heritage discipline looks into the cultural arguments: history, identity and beauty. They may still be valid – says Jean Paul – yet today we may observe that other reasons for conservation prevail, such as economic prosperity, social cohesion, eco-efficiency or physiological sanity.

Further, Jean-Paul emphasizes the necessity of integrating heritage into future developments. “If it is our aim to create a sustainable future, we should start considering what we have. We can no longer afford to neglect the natural resources that are embedded in the present-day city, nor the embodied energy, nor the cultural efforts made by our ancestors.

"We simply lack the resources to build everything completely anew, so we better use the potential our cities hold."

Water heritage and climate change risks in port cities

This year’s Urban Heritage Strategies course focuses on four port-cities: Casablanca (Morocco), Alexandria (Egypt), Istanbul (Turkey) and Amsterdam (Netherlands).

When asked how heritage is linked to water in such urban areas, Remco looks back at how port cities came to be.

“Many of the world’s cities are port cities, established as trading hubs on strategic locations. They are cities of arrival and departure, where many people from very different cultures meet and mingle. Often century-old bridges, waterways or locks still function today.”

“The closeness to, and dependence on, water is both a blessing and a challenge when you consider connectivity and traffic on the one hand, and the rising sea level or flooding risks on the other”

When it comes to challenges, Jean-Paul draws attention to climate change issues, which makes water an omnipresent topic in urban management.

“The port city is the place where the different water challenges come together. In the port city, changing rainwater patterns interfere with fluctuating river flows and sea-level rise; and here issues of flooding meet with issues of drought.

We need history to understand the current water systems. If we don’t take the historical water flows into account, we may make wrong decisions. Besides, in history, we may sometimes find forgotten solutions to current water challenges. Quite some urban heritage is under threat by current or future water issues. Which of this heritage should be protected? And, which of this heritage can be adapted to changing circumstances?”

“When heritage conservation and urban planning join forces, the outcome may be an improved living environment.”

As Ilaria points out, "water can be considered part of the heritage of these cities and strongly contributes to the definition of their ecosystems.” This is why she believes the exchange of knowledge on heritage management that will take place during the course will benefit all the professionals involved in the program, who will bring their experience in dealing with different aspects and needs of port cities to the table.

Hybrid learning environment

The first part of the programme is online, and it consists of pre-recorded lectures, live Q&A sessions with lecturers in Zoom, and individual and group assignments. In between the first and second part of the course, the participants work on a profile of each of the case study cities, which will be the basis for the second part of the course. For this second part, the participants will convene at IHS in Rotterdam, and learn the tools of the Action Planning method which enables them to address challenges in a structured and comprehensive way. They will also go on excursions to Amersfoort and Amsterdam, where they will meet Dutch urban heritage professionals.

Key takeaways for the participants

By the end of the course, the participants will acquire relevant theoretical knowledge on topics ranging from integrated heritage conservation, and economics of heritage, to strategic planning and community participation. They will also be able to apply the different Action Planning tools in their own work. And lastly, they will have created an international urban heritage network that will benefit them long after they finish this course.

One of the most enriching aspects of this study experience will be the international learning environment and the diverse peer group, which can set the base for “a network that enables exchanges, mutual learning, and collaborations beyond the framework of this course”, according to Ilaria. In her words, the idea is for the participants to “critically challenge disciplinary and sectoral boundaries, making use of this ‘forum’ to explore in-depth the challenges and the opportunities that working with heritage, water, and urban planning in port cities bring."

Find out more about course coordinators

Maarten Zeehandelaar

Remco Vermeulen is a Specialist in Urban Heritage Strategies at IHS. He also works as an advisor for cultural cooperation with Indonesia for Amsterdam-based organization DutchCulture. Remco is an external PhD candidate at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences and his research focuses on colonial heritage engagement in postcolonial Indonesian cities.

Ilaria Rosetti is a PhD candidate in the ARCHES group at the University of Antwerp and a guest PhD in the UNESCO Chair in Heritage and Values: Heritage and the Reshaping of Urban Conservation for Sustainability at TUDelft.

Jean-Paul Corten works at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science as a Senior Policy Officer. In this course, he represents the Ministry as a client and works closely with the course coordinators on the theme of integrated conservation, which he will also teach during the course.

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