Does historical preservation threaten future city growth?

The debate surrounding growth, whether that is city, economic or global, always pitches modernisation or progression against tradition or preservation. The two sides are often so juxtaposed and contradictory that the choice is often assumed to be binary. Furthermore, there needs to be some clarification on whether we mean historical preservation in the physical or human behavioural sense.

There is no doubt that in order to grow, at least in the economic sense, that we should harness new technologies and development.  It keeps efficiencies high, returns on the investment high and allows a competitive advantage to be maintained.

So in a physical sense, a prime example would be in infrastructure. Greater efficiencies are to be gained from using an integrated transport system. Furthermore, if we are serious about the localism agenda and want all UK regional cities to be able to drive their own economic growth then high speed rail could be a viable option. The value initially to the West Midlands is £5bn with the full network estimated at £44bn. In France, the high speed rail helped create 20,000 jobs inLyon. Nonetheless, the economic benefits are rightly countered with concerns that the communities and countryside will face in its development.

Buildings too can be improved. With a better understanding of the necessity to become greener and more environmentally friendly, new technologies can allow buildings to become carbon neutral and cost effective. The initial investment will lead to large long term gains to not only competitiveness but also sustainability.

But upgrading old buildings to make them more environmentally friendly can damage them according to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Furthermore, the thought that we replace some of these old buildings or clear them and create enterprise zones or business areas often met with great resistance.

Progression is hampered further by extensive planning restrictions, large amounts of red tape and a difficulty to upgrade or modernise old buildings. These restrictions certainly impact on economies, especially those weaker ones in the regions, when faced with competition from around the world. Cities need a large scale modernisation to boost their potential but tradition and historical preservation can impede this.

The Centre for Cities’ report, ‘Sunderland: The Challenges for the Future,’ recommends phased regeneration, improvement to infrastructure/transport and further investment are all vital – these are restrained often by physical historical preservation.

Looking at historical preservation in the tradition/behavioural sense then we are posed with new obstacles. In general, people want progression, they want an improvement to their lives and they want their children to have a better life than they did. But a natural scepticism to change means large scale changes of any nature can be hampered especially where there is a need to augment the skillset.

Furthermore, attachment to certain buildings or areas based upon historical importance is irrational when looking at it in an economic sense, especially one which looks at the return on investment ratios.

But we should devalue these economically irrational feelings at our peril.

Cities are comprised of many individual communities; communities which are built upon traditions, relationships, family, ethics, religion. The attachment to these common ties is what holds them together and allows people to continue to live and work. Yes, people need jobs and yes communities need investment but ignoring the importance that people attach to this sense of tradition will break up communities and devalue the broader life they live.

I would couch that this will have a larger negative effect than the benefits ‘pure’ development and progression would bring. Traditions and historical preservation provides people with a direct stake in their community – removing this would be dangerous to society.

In sum, it is important for cities to harness new technologies and to modernise skillsets where possible in order to stay competitive and ensure sustainability in a global market. However, the importance of historical preservation is that it holds communities together and empowers people by creating a stake in society.

Future city growth, therefore, does not depend upon solely ‘modernisation’ or solely ‘historical preservation’ but rather on how to extract the benefits of them coexisting.


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