UNESCO: Culture is integral to sustainable urban development

A UNESCO report cites the Philippine city of Vigan as a place that has used historic preservation as a tool for sustainable urban development. (Akarat Phasura/Shutterstock)

Efforts to promote sustainable urban growth don’t add up if preserving culture and heritage is not central to the equation.

That’s the overarching theme of a 300-page report published late last year by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The report explores culture’s role as an enabler of urban development.

Culture Urban Future: Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development aims to ensure that implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the New Urban Agenda adopted at last year’s Habitat III conference on cities, does not neglect this UNESCO priority.

The U. N. organization emphasizes that culture can be promoted in a variety of ways. Efforts can vary from the restoration of historic neighborhoods to employing local artisans to make traditional goods to rebuilding architectural treasures lost to war or natural disaster.

Among the main takeaways:

  • Urban governance is critical to promoting culture: Local decision making that promotes national heritage and conservation is essential to protecting cultural identity. “To lay the basis for a smarter urban governance, the commitment of all stakeholders at all levels is needed,” the report says.
  • Financing and management of culture starts with local authorities: City leaders are best positioned to pinpoint funding opportunities, tailor financing to their municipal needs and forge public-private partnerships.
  • Resources must be mobilized to promote culture: Funding is a tiny part of the picture. To ensure the success of cultural projects, local authorities also must be savvy about harnessing talent, skills and knowledge.

The report features more than 100 case studies about cities that span the alphabet and the globe, from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Zanzibar, Tanzania. Many are recognizable names, such as Bangkok, Dubai, Seville, Marrakech and New Orleans. Others are less known outside their regions or countries, including Cotogchoa, Ecuador; Khorog, Tajikistan; and Saint-Louis, Senegal.

The profile of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, focuses on preservation of its historic core, or medina. The city’s rich urban heritage is rooted in its 19th-century “tower houses.” Those distinctive features are under threat by both unchecked urban expansion and the emergence of a “new town” with modern, utilitarian architecture, the report says.

[Read: How Quito saves its historic district]

Some cities revive culture with fresh approaches to their colonial past. In the Philippine city of Vigan, locals assist with the preservation of Spanish colonial architecture and its “fusion” with Asian designs, the report says. Maputo, Mozambique, uses music, dance and theater to add vibrancy to parts of the city associated with colonization, according to its case study.

UNESCO has teamed with Bhaktapur, one of three royal cities in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, to safeguard and regenerate temples and other historic sites damaged by devastating earthquakes in 2015.

The report also spotlights efforts to revive fragile, war-torn cities. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is rebuilding a treasured landmark — the Stari Most, or Old Bridge, which was destroyed during ethnic conflict in the early 1990s.

“The rebuilding of the Old Bridge was considered a symbol of the reunification of Mostar and integral to the healing process for the divided city,” the report says.

UNESCO views culture and heritage as the soul of a city. As Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, writes in an introduction to the report, heritage “provides a sense of meaning and identity” for cities and can make them more livable, prosperous and exciting.

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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