Challenges of Heritage Conservation in the Developing World and Urban Impact Investment (Part 1)

As the new and rapidly growing urban areas of the developing world reach to build dynamic, competitive cities, promoting heritage conservation is a central issue – not just for foreign tourism, as is often thought – but also for promoting livelihoods, economic development, cultural identity and urban sustainability.

Heritage conservation itself is a broad, loosely defined subject. In urban areas especially, heritage conservation means more than just restoring old buildings. Buildings are not located in a vacuum; they are connected to their surroundings, both physically and socially. What is considered heritage differs in many parts of the world, but heritage places can range broadly from those with unique architectural styles and traditional uses to places where an event happened, or a notable person lived. These can range in size from a single building to an entire neighborhood. These places can also be noted for their intangible heritage contributions – traditional dance, music, costume, art, and oral traditions.

Today, those living in the historic city centers of developing countries are often poor or members of minorities, sometimes elderly, often female-headed households.  At the same time, they inhabit some of the most architecturally and culturally dynamic places in the world. These neighborhoods may also be economically dynamic places despite outmigration from the city centers and deteriorating infrastructure. Today’s best restoration practices now consider all stakeholders – community members, businesses, historic sites and visitors – into an overall plan to revitalize historic places and create unique opportunities that can dramatically improve the lives of the inhabitants living there.

The most inclusive and sustainable heritage conservation initiatives aim at improved housing, sewage and sanitation, job opportunities, security and an overall higher quality of living in addition to restoring historic structures. These initiatives also provide education opportunities within the community to educate younger generations on the history and significance of the places they live. Building rehabilitation creates not only higher quality housing (at times from abandoned underutilized buildings) but also opportunities to train and employ local craftsmen in traditional building techniques, thereby teaching those skills to a new generation.

Heritage conservation is also more involved in modern urban planning. In places like India, nationwide legislation like the JNNURM planning scheme now have heritage toolkits to assist municipalities integrate heritage into master plans to make sure historic resources are not left behind.

Public investments in heritage and city center revitalization plans ideally make space for and promote urban impact investment opportunities. Creative adaptive re-use strategies are one effective solution. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an organization that has a long history of working on heritage projects in the Muslim world, has funded several projects that involve converting historic buildings into profitable operations like the Zanzibar Serena Inn. In China, traditional lilong housing complexes, historically used as mass community housing in Shanghai, have become vibrant mixed-use commercial centers as well. While some pioneering investments have been more philanthropic in nature and long term (more than 20 years in some cases), their knock-on social and economic effects have been multifold.

Urban investment in developing country cities is ripe for exploration in the evolving impact investment universe. There are already powerful examples of urban regeneration investments in Europe and, more and more, in the US. In the developing world’s chaotic and exploding cities, heritage and culture have to be assets, public goods, accessible by all. Letting these ideas drive investments with social and environmental impact helps put city center revitalization on the table with more mainstream economic development topics.

We’ll follow this entry up with a variety of projects that exemplify these principles.

With writing and editorial support from Lenora Suki, Founder, Smart Cities Advisors.

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