Heritage conservation in urban planning

Heritage conservation in urban planning

From enCity’s extensive research of the heritage landscape in Singapore and of conservation best practices globally, we propose 3 fundamental notions to pave the path for urban heritage conservation.
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The partial demolition of 61 Tran Phu (an old industrial building in Hanoi, Vietnam) has stirred dissatisfaction amongst conservationists and the general public. And yet, it is not the first, nor will it be the last time the public bitterly mourns the loss of historical buildings and structures. Rapid urbanization has resulted in real-estate led economic development all across developing cities of Asia, at times causing irreversible changes to its urban landscape. In Vietnam, the traces of industrialisation and of port activities have slowly left the big cities; in Singapore, post-war low-rise developments have been bulldozed to make place for trending retails establishments, while in China, hutongs, or historical streets and alleys, are quickly disappearing despite conservationists’ pleas.

Some argue that demolition is a necessary evil for urban progress to occur, and cities cannot possibly retain everything that belongs in the past—with land being the most valuable commodity in cities, the opportunity cost of conservation is far too large to shoulder. Others question the very definition of heritage, doubting the cruciality of some calls to conserve. Officially, 61 Tran Phu is not included in the list of structures that require heritage protection in Hanoi, while some cited the lack of aesthetic merits and uniqueness of the building as reason to redevelop it.

As planners, it is our responsibility to shed light on these pertinent questions. A planner’s main goal lies in the sensible, equitable, and inclusive distribution of urban resources and infrastructure, with land being one of the most important resources. The decision to earmark a piece of land as a historical urban landmark has severe implications on the future urban landscape. From enCity’s extensive research of the heritage landscape in Singapore and of conservation best practices globally, we propose three fundamental notions to pave the path for urban heritage conservation.

First, heritage lies beyond what the eyes can see. The merits of a building lie not just in its architectural value, but also in its value for large groups of people in the community, as witness to historical events, and as part of a larger urban development landscape. Planners must collaborate with heritage and conservation experts to evaluate the potential value of historical assets in detail, and to define, put on record the valuable assets of such buildings. Any future development must incorporate these elements into the planning and design of the site.

In the case of 61 Tran Phu, it was one of the last bits of evidence of the industrial growth of the country’s capital. Together with a network of other buildings, it witnessed one of the most significant historical milestones of the nation, all while sitting in architectural harmony with other historical buildings from the French era. The building’s retention value cannot be seen from its individual architectural merit, but from its communal and historical value, situated in its larger context. Elements such as the war murals and the exterior architecture should be documented and incorporated into the architecture of the new development.

In Singapore, there is ongoing assessment of various structures built more than 30 years ago to determine their architectural and historical merits. Examples of conservation of seemingly ordinary architecture around the world include Dakota Crescent in Singapore, as evidence of the first public housing blocks of Singapore that are quickly being torn down for more intensive developments; Flourmill Studios in Sydney Australia, a defunct flour mill transformed into a commercial space; and Hongkong Central Market. These structures add variety to the otherwise monotonous trajectory of economic development.

Dakota Crescent, the last of the old playgrounds of Singapore (Source: Minister Lawrence Wong)

Second, the idea of heritage must be collectively defined for custodianship to be developed. Evident through the cases above, what is worth conserving  from one viewpoint might not be from another. The alignment of varying perspectives and effective communication of these values to the public, allow for buy-in from various stakeholders, which then aids in the process of assigning value to architectural structures, as well as the decision to keep or to discard older buildings. Planners must engage, as well as communicate, with the larger public to achieve an ideal outcome.

Despite being one of the most dense cities on Earth, Hongkong has had its fair share of success when it comes to heritage conservation, especially in a collaborative manner. One of their most successful transformations—Staunton Street—involves the consultation of local residents, businesses, associations, to collectively define the values and determine the future of the building blocks. This has made way for a conservation plan that benefits all participants of the ecosystem, giving them a stake in the protection of the site.

Staunton Street – a home to many local businesses in Hongkong

Third, successful heritage conservation must not be detached from economic success. It is a common misconception that heritage conservation is antithesis to economic growth, yet some of the most successful tourism destinations in the world, such as the quaint towns of Europe, are all a product of conservation. Equitable and inclusive economic growth is a result of a diverse economy that is built on multi-faceted layers of development, and the shape and size of buildings play a role in determining that diversity.

Situated by the river with the CBD  as the backdrop, Singapore’s Boat Quay is a striking example of how conservation leads to economic success. The riverfront has retained the row of shophouses from Singapore’s colonial days, and now plays host to a large number of bars, restaurants, and nightlife activities in a finance district. This has created a conducive environment for small businesses and offices to thrive while attracting tourists from all around the world, and adding to Singapore’s night time economy. Boat Quay is a distinctive part of the Singapore skyline, thanks to the maintenance of the unique urban architecture and layout in combination with effective programming.

Singapore’s Boat Quay, home to a vibrant nightlife, with the CBD as the backdrop (Source:DerekTeo via Shutterstock.com) 

61 Tran Phu, along with other buildings that have witnessed the history of the nation and the test of time, cannot be measured at face-value. Buildings are not just vehicles of economic progress and utilitarian functions; they are living witness to the stories of our cities, and to the different development stages of history. More importantly, they can be adapted for modern uses, hence adding a variety to an otherwise purely functional, monotonous urban landscape while at the same time allowing for a diversity of economic activities to flourish. The most successful cities are the ones that embrace their past and mold it into their future. This is the outcome that as planners, we must strive towards.

Hoa Nguyen (Senior Associate, Policy + Planning, enCity Singapore)

Hoa Nguyen is an urban planner and researcher with a particular interest in community engagement, participatory planning, and citizen empowerment. Hoa’s experience spans a variety of fields, from research to strategy consulting to community and urban design. Hoa has led countless interviews, focus groups, workshops, and engagement activities with a range of stakeholders, from older adults, students, to community groups, nonprofits, businesses.  

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As planners, it is our responsibility to shed light on these pertinent questions. A planner’s main goal lies in the sensible, equitable, and inclusive distribution of urban resources and infrastructure, with land being one of the most important resources.

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