By Jane Slate Siena
Long before Roman times, societies attempted to restore or protect important structures located in urban areas. But the survival of the old and historic in today's urban environment does not reflect any single set of standards or priorities. The long history of urban conservation has yet to produce a consensus on how to balance the goals of conservation with the ever-changing demands of city life.
Contemporary dialogue on urban conservation reached the international level with the establishment in 1964 of both the Venice Charter and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). In 1972 UNESCO issued its "Convention for the Protection of World Heritage and Natural Heritage" to provide international protection to many of the world's most outstanding cultural and natural treasures. Of the 339 sites on the World Heritage List today, 73 are historic cities or towns.
Since 1964, ICOMOS and UNESCO have instituted a series of international charters, conventions, and recommendations to address the long-term protection of historic cities. Other agencies have either joined the campaign and/or embarked on their own. The International Committee for the History of Art devoted its 24th Congress in 1979 to historic centers (see Centri Historici di Grandi Agglomerati Urban, Bologna, 1982). This was followed by a landmark meeting in the United States in 1982 to discuss the use of historic city centers in contemporary environments, organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Harvard University School of Design, and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture (see Adaptive Use: Integrating Traditional Areas into the Modern Urban Fabric, Cambridge, 1982). In 1987 ICOMOS established a special "Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas," calling for regional approaches to complex conservation issues, such as infrastructure development, disaster preparedness, traffic management, and pollution control.
Today, development agencies, banks, private foundations, and local and national governments are more aware of the need to integrate economic development and conservation seemingly disparate endeavors in the past within historic environments. The constituency for conservation is growing.
To highlight these developments, the GCI joined the UNDP Regional Project for Latin America and the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, D.C., to host a seminar on "Conservation of Cultural Property in Urban Environments." The seminar, held in November 1990 in Quito, Ecuador, focused principally on the needs of historic cities throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. Architects, urban planners, economists, and engineers exchanged information and discussed strategies for conserving inner cities and their monuments while respecting social, political, and economic realities.
Case studies presented during the seminar offered a variety of innovative strategies and approaches. Old Havana's restoration in Cuba, for example, and the Savannah Landmark Rehabilitation Project in a southern U.S. city pursued similar objectives. In Havana, new community services and improved housing went hand-in-hand with conservation, sparking intense local debate on the advisability of new construction in old environments. In Savannah, preservationists joined forces with business and government to upgrade housing without displacing populations. In both cities, these broad-based strategies resulted in viable tourist industries that enhanced the local economies but further complicated the delicate balance of sometimes conflicting community needs.
Throughout the discussions of other historic cities, seminar participants concurred that a new attitude toward restoration must be fostered to successfully cope with the difficulties of conserving historic cities. Thirty- year old Brasilia, called a "laboratory for dynamic preservation' was cited as an opportunity to develop management guidelines that are directly related to contemporary urban needs and a modern architectural heritage. Comparisons were drawn to the highly political process that functions to preserve historic districts in the United States, where public-private partnerships grapple with litigation, citizens' movements, and high-profile funding campaigns. The city of Quito itself may prove to be the place to watch, as the local authorities attempt to work with disparate populations within the historic district to rehabilitate one of the region's most impressive historic environments. The effort will require increased resources in conservation and community development to address the kinds of social, cultural, and technical problems common to countless other cities that make up a substantial portion of the world's cultural patrimony. And thee is what makes preserving historic cities one of the most dynamic conservation issues of the decade.