By Francesco Siravo

Conservation image

The development of planning ideas applied to historic urban areas extends back to the nineteenth century. Yet despite a long and rich development, many of the most thoughtful concepts regarding planning in historic cities have yet to be fully embraced. A review of nearly a century and a half of ideas from a remarkable group of planners and thinkers demonstrates that conservation planning has relevance beyond its application to historic contexts, and that it can make essential contributions to the general planning of cities for the benefit of those who call those cities home.

Urban conservation was born out of disorientation and dismay. The irreversible loss of treasured monuments led Victor Hugo (1802–1885), in his Guerre aux démolisseurs, to argue passionately against the destruction of France's medieval monuments. He had no doubt that collusion between public officials and speculators was the cause of the destruction, and he lamented the transformation of the traditional, organic medieval city into something shockingly different: the sweeping avenues built a few years later by Baron Haussmann in Paris, which were then framed with rigid regularity by oversize pseudo-Baroque buildings.

Victor Hugo's position was echoed in England, where John Ruskin (1819–1900) spoke of the momentous changes occurring in cities across Europe and anticipated the effects: "The peculiar character of the evil which is being wrought by this age is its utter irreparableness."¹ This sudden, irrevocable damage to cherished cities was decried by many who witnessed unprecedented urban transformations in the mid- to late nineteenth century—not only in Paris but also in London, Vienna, and Rome.

These losses led to a reconsideration of the city of the past, which became for the first time a separate field of inquiry. Camillo Sitte (1843–1903), an Austrian architect and planner, pioneered such studies with a reevaluation of ancient and medieval urban heritage. His arguments go from dismay at the lack of beauty in the new industrial city to a fresh appreciation of the historic city. For Sitte, traditional urban structure is not just the sum of individual monuments but, instead, a coherent ensemble where every element is part of an organic pattern with aesthetic rules that can be observed and analyzed.

Sitte's work is the beginning of an analytical appreciation of the historic city as the repository of a method that can provide continuity in city building. He advocated a living urban environment in which architecture plays an integral role in determining the form and structure of spaces, and he highlighted the complementarity between the practical and the aesthetic found in the historic city. These characteristics are the antithesis of the functional fragmentation, bloated infrastructure, and aesthetic poverty now an inalienable part of our urban experience. Sitte was the first to identify the split in the contemporary city between function and technology, on the one hand, and aesthetics on the other—a divide that persists.


Analytical appraisal of the city was also the starting point for Scottish planner Patrick Geddes (1854–1932), whose influential book Evolution in Cities (1915) expands consideration of the traditional city by exploring its effect on the well-being of its inhabitants. The medieval city is perceived as a positive environment with a balanced integration of nature and man-made artifacts. In critiquing the industrial city, Geddes does not limit himself to the form of the city, as Sitte had, but also examines broader environmental and social aspects. His holistic approach is truly innovative. Restoration of a river basin, improving regional transport, and protecting green areas and open spaces are some of his ideas that were well ahead of his time.

Geddes, a biologist by training, looked at the city like a naturalist exploring a particular environment. This explains his emphasis on observation and analysis and his recommendation that any plan be preceded by a careful and detailed survey. Surveying and analyzing together constitute an ongoing process that generates the essence of a plan. In addition, Geddes called for the participation of as many actors as possible and championed the Know Your City movement as the best means for people to learn about their city and to improve it.

He was also the first to understand the danger of urban renewal and to foresee the damage it would inflict. In his plan for the city of Madurai in India, he advised against demolitions and against reconfiguring and sanitizing neighborhoods, advocating instead for "conservative surgery" to improve housing conditions with minimal interventions and expense. Good planning for Geddes is soft planning: creating fewer constraints, refraining from irreversible transformations, and allowing the soul of the city to speak for itself. This lesson was lost on his contemporaries, not to mention the czars of slum clearance still to come. The utter failure of the urban renewal projects of the mid-twentieth century, with their enormous social and economic costs, proves the validity of Geddes's ideas. "There are finer architects than I," he wrote, "and bolder planners too: but none so economical." ² Or, we might add, with more foresight.

A giant step toward full appreciation of the historic city and its special planning requirements may be attributed to Gustavo Giovannoni (1873–1947). In his 1913 seminal publication Vecchie città ed edilizia nuova: Il quartiere del Rinascimento in Roma (Historic Cities and New Construction: The Renaissance Quarter in Rome), Giovannoni enlarged the concept of "monument" to comprise an entire historic city. He introduced the notion of vernacular architecture, considered not only an integral part of the urban fabric but worthy of conservation. He was also the first to recognize clearly the historic city's incompatibility with modern urban developments. He understood that the latter are based on decentralization, mass transportation, unlimited expansion, and a larger scale of design, all trends in opposition to the historic city. He therefore advocated city expansions away from the urban core and the removal of motorized traffic from historic areas. His theory of thinning out the built fabric sought a compromise between integral preservation and limited forms of intervention. He believed the new city must live side by side with the older one—not replace it.

Giovannoni's ideas appear more modern today than those advocated in the 1920s by the avant-garde of the Modern Movement, which considered the historic city a cumbersome relic incompatible with modern needs. Yet his views were on the losing side, both vis-à-vis the Modernist urban theories of the period and the practices of the Fascist regime, which favored celebrative and highly disruptive public works. Giovannoni was the first to really define the problems of the contemporary city, as well as anticipate means of preserving living historic areas. His ideas waited nearly a century for the serious consideration they deserve.


historic photo - Chrleston, South Carolina

The loss of historic urban areas gained new urgency with the destruction of World War II and the massive transformations in the postwar years. The response was not the same everywhere. In Warsaw, Poland, the answer was a faithful reconstruction. Old paintings and photographs were used to reproduce the historic core, although there was no attempt to reestablish its original functions and activities. In London and the big German cities, heavily bombed during the war, the response was different: the decision was to completely reconfigure the scale and layout according to the functionalist theories of the Modern Movement.

Italy, in many respects, was an exception, as war damage there had been limited. Moreover, the country is dotted with innumerable living historic towns and cities that maintain a high level of integrity. Nevertheless, a quarrel arose between innovators and conservators. The innovators claimed the right to introduce modern buildings and modify the configuration of cities. The conservators pointed to the alien nature of modern architecture and its incompatibility with the traditional context.

An exemplary urban plan for Assisi, prepared in 1955 by Giovanni Astengo (1915–1990), addressed these conflicting issues, providing a point of reference for many subsequent interventions in historic urban settings. Astengo acknowledged the need to rehabilitate Assisi, but without introducing new roads and contemporary buildings; rehabilitation was to be based on recognition of the historic area as a self-contained entity, in line with the principles established by Giovannoni. The Assisi plan included two further innovative aspects: the importance of protecting the views of the town from the surrounding areas, with controls to limit conflicting urban expansions; and the establishment of a local public entity to prepare and implement the plan. Astengo was convinced that historic areas cannot be sustained without a permanent planning office.

The debates of the postwar years and the effects of Modernist transformations of city centers led to a pro-conservation reaction throughout Europe. André Malraux, the French minister of culture from 1959 to 1969, promoted legislation (still in place) to identify, protect, and manage city sectors on the basis of comprehensive conservation plans. Initially the Loi Malraux was interpreted not as an instrument for preserving historic areas in their entirety but one that allowed for a combination of conservation and modernization. The best-known example of this mixed approach is the Marais, 126 hectares in Paris where the old city fabric was "adapted" with extensive demolitions, new construction, and considerable social change. Perhaps most controversial was the demolition of Les Halles, the ancient market, which resulted in the relocation of long-established market activities away from the city center. This sparked a long-running debate regarding gentrification— the middle-class replacement of lower-income residents and businesses in central areas of many cities.

Parallel developments in the United Kingdom led to recognition of the value of historic ensembles and the introduction of Conservation Areas in the Civic Amenities Act of 1967, which continues to be the nation's principal reference. Pilot projects for four historic cities (Bath, Chester, Chichester, and York) were launched to test planning methods and conservation measures applicable to Conservation Areas. The most successful is the Chester plan—prepared by Donald Insall and Associates in 1968—which makes a significant contribution to our understanding of townscape values and the policies needed to revitalize depressed city centers.³ The analysis of townscape values in the Chester report are the result of the pioneering work of Gordon Cullen (1914–1994), who, with his studies and publications, contributed to a renewed appreciation of the historic urban landscape.4


city view photo of  Assisi, Italy

In the United States, although designation of a historic area dates to the 1930s (the Battery, Charleston, 1931), the first federal legislation with specific provisions for historic districts was adopted in 1966 (the National Historic Preservation Act). Since then, twenty-five states have given municipalities the ability to protect urban areas through selective zoning, accompanied by a set of ad hoc building regulations. Some of the best guidelines for repairs and construction in traditional contexts are produced by U.S. municipalities.

Since the 1960s, the United States has produced a second important stream of positions and practical experience in preservation planning, a reaction to massive slum clearance and urban renewal projects implemented from the 1930s to the 1970s. Jane Jacobs's passionate criticism of slum clearance programs and expressways carved out of the dense fabric of New York City remains legendary.5 Jacobs (1916–2006) went beyond denouncing Robert Mosess destructive mega projects to offer a refreshing view of cities and city planning. She noted the multidimensional character of cities and the close relationship between people and their activities. She exhorted planners to learn from what exists, to understand what works in neighborhoods and what does not, and to make the best of the common sense, resources, and inventiveness of living communities. Her views were a far cry from the top-down approach of modern planners and their simplistic and abstract recipes to increase vehicular access, isolate uses, sanitize neighborhoods, and build lifeless public places. She understood, in the 1960s, that abolishing diversity would produce the chilling and homogenized urban landscape to which we have become accustomed all over the world.

Jacobs's views have been embraced by a new generation of urban critics and community planners promoting revitalization projects and grass roots initiatives. Roberta Brandes Gratz, in particular, advocates a flexible approach, where urban revitalization is a continuous process of incremental growth, with small-scale improvements carried out as opportunities arise. Named urban husbandry, this process mirrors more closely the long-established city cycles of adjustment and organic adaptation than the traumatic, large-scale, headline-grabbing, and ultimately short-lived developments pursued in recent years. It recognizes the cumulative value of long-term investment, and it seeks to channel existing resources and capabilities toward the care and management of what already exists. This process is also the surest way to preserve and sustain the physical and social identity of places.


photo of Bologna, Italy

In Italy, Astengo's pioneering work in Assisi was followed by new legislation and a series of significant planning experiences. In particular, Giuseppe Campos Venuti and Pierluigi Cervellati introduced the notion of integrated conservation with their 1969 plan for the center of Bologna. Its main tenet was that conservation of historic ensembles cannot be limited to preservation of their visual and aesthetic character but must also include consideration of the underlying physical, social, and economic structures, as well as the larger citywide systems. There are several aspects of particular interest in the Bologna Plan: the importance given to the city's typological and morphological character as a basis for future interventions, the effort to maintain the existing residents through establishment of a housing rehabilitation program funded by the municipality, and the adaptation of monuments and historic buildings to house public services.

In those same years in Italy, new national legislation was introduced to cover detailed forms of intervention in historic urban areas. These took into account the theoretical studies of Venice and Rome by Saverio Muratori (1910–1973) and Gianfranco Caniggia (1933–1987) from the late 1950s to the 1970s.6 These studies were given an operational dimension in plans prepared by Leonardo Benevolo in the 1970s, which remain exemplary for their vision and clarity of method, and for their attempt to reestablish a sense of place and an awareness of the historical vicissitudes of each place as a basis for planning. This approach is illustrated in Benevolo's 2004 proposal for the restoration of the Borgo area next to the Vatican. The old Borgo was demolished in the 1930s and replaced with a single, poorly conceived monumental access to the Basilica of St. Peter designed by Marcello Piacentini. Benevolo's proposal combines different forms of intervention to repair the damage inflicted decades earlier to this historic sector. "My proposal aims at healing a wound . . . I am convinced that there exists a different way to modernize (the real one) by means of repairing the mistakes of the recent past and putting back, in part, what has been destroyed."7


An integrated, socially conscious approach to conservation inspired the Declaration of Amsterdam and the European Charter of the Architectural Heritage issued by the Council of Europe in 1975. These international documents refer not just to historic urban areas but also to towns, villages, and surrounding regions.

The 1980s and 1990s mark a progressive extension of the notions of conservation. Greater awareness of natural landscapes spread as a result of the 1972 international conference on the environment held in Stockholm. Fifteen years later, the Brundtland Report introduced the idea of sustainable development: The use and development of environmental resources for the present necessities of humankind must not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. An extension of this concept some years later called for development to be attuned to and compatible with the cultural traditions and values of a community, opening the way for the identification of culturally determined forms of development and for an expanded notion of cultural heritage.

The establishment of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, following the World Heritage Convention in 1972, brought together natural and man-made sites of worldwide significance. This list closed the gap between environmental and cultural conservation, demonstrating that similar criteria and methodologies can be applied to ensure preservation and promote sustainable development for both. This enlarged notion of environmental and cultural heritage was fleshed out with specific reference to management criteria in the 1979 Burra Charter and, with respect to the determination of significance, in the 1994 Nara Document on Authenticity.

One consideration remains: the conservation of cultural identities and their associated intangible values, together with their implications for planning. This notion is spelled out in the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage of 2003. This latest convention is a response to globalization and the concern that, in its wake, cultural identities may be lost. It is also an acknowledgment that planning and conservation cannot be separated from the cultural beliefs and know-how of each society, and that these must be protected to ensure their survival. This last frontier of conservation reminds us that places are the tangible manifestations of our humanity, including their intangible meanings and social and cultural continuity. Desecrating our habitats or obliterating our cities is akin to destroying the essence of our humanity.


What lessons can be learned from the thinkers and the enlarged notions of conservation reviewed here? These ideas represent the minority position—the one often ignored by city planners convinced of the need to obliterate the past and start afresh. And yet the minority position is the one that makes the best of the millenary tradition of city building embodied in our historic towns and cities. This position appears all the more relevant in times of diminishing resources and environmental concern about the livability and sustainability of cities. Its tenets may be summed up as follows:

  • Camillo Sitte reminds us that interventions in new city contexts must reestablish a closer relationship between city planning and architectural expression, between function, technology, and aesthetics. A satisfactory resolution to the aesthetic problems of the contemporary city remains to be found.
  • The lesson from Patrick Geddes is that planning must be based on a thorough appreciation of the existing context and review of available data. It cannot be left to the casual dynamics of market forces or the improvisations of high-profile architects.
  • Geddes also supported the involvement of residents in the fundamental choices regarding their cities and countryside. Geddes reminds us that a plan should be the expression of the aspirations, sense of place, and efforts of a community, and he warns against the dangers of top-down planning.
  • Gustavo Giovannoni's work points to the need for methods of intervention in historic contexts clearly distinct from those applied to the newer parts of cities. Confusing these two spheres can only lead to disruption in the homogeneous context of historic cities and to undue constraints on present-day developments.
  • Giovanni Astengo's insistence on ensuring continuity of investment, action, and management through a special public planning office draws on the lessons from historic cities: only patient, ongoing implementation of consistent policies and interventions will yield a coherent and harmonious urban environment in the long term.
  • A plan, however, should not be an abstract design imposed from the top. Jane Jacobs and Roberta Brandes Gratz advocate a more realistic and socially conscious approach to planning in a world that is no longer a tabula rasa. The issue today is that of reordering poorly designed and hastily built city areas and improving regions in critical environmental conditions.
  • The more recent appreciation of the environment and the risk to its long-term sustainability redefine the very notion of planning. The purpose of planning is to achieve better use of resources and to manage our habitats with minimal intervention and environmental disruption.
  • Finally, the recent extension of conservation thinking to the realm of the intangible is a reminder that the identities of places will live as long as we are capable of sustaining their distinct human dimension. A sense of place must be cared for and regenerated every day if it is to reflect the values and traditions of our societies.

Together, these tenets offer a concept of city planning distinct from the ideological ones of partisans of unrestrained destructive growth (a powerful minority of movers and shakers) and champions of total conservation (a powerless minority of well-meaning intellectuals). Their divide can be overcome with a better understanding of what a city really is and of how its development can be channeled toward the creation of a harmonious environment in the interest of the vast majority of users.

Political will remains key. But greater awareness on the part of architects and planners is also important, so that they understand that the road more often taken until now—and still largely followed—is not the only available route. Less costly and smarter ways to improve our urban environment are available if we absorb the legacy of these past thinkers and planners. Theirs is the road less traveled, but it is worth rediscovering if we believe that beauty should still find a place in our cities.

Francesco Siravo, a preservation architect, has consulted for national and international organizations and is currently working for the Historic Cities Program of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

1. John Ruskin, opening speech given at the Crystal Palace, London, in 1851.
2. Patrick Geddes, letter to the Dewan of Patiala, 15 Sept. 1922, Geddes Papers, MS10516, National Library of Scotland. See Helen Meller, Social Evolutionist and City Planner (London: Routledge, 1993), 203.
3. Donald Insall and Associates, Chester: A Study in Conservation (London: HMSO, 1968).
4. Gordon Cullen, The Concise Townscape (London: Architectural Press, 1961).
5. Jane Jacobs's most influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House), was published in 1961.
6. Saverio Muratori, "Studi per un'operante storia urbana di Venezia," Palladio 3—4 (July–Dec. 1959). See also Gianfranco Caniggia, Strutture dello spazio antropico (Florence: Uniedit, 1976).
7. Leonardo Benevolo, San Pietro e la città di Roma (Bari: Editori Laterza, 2004), 85. (Quote translated by Francesco Siravo.)