Urban conservation and sustainability: the challenge for the 21st century
The world’s demographic profile has now surpassed a defining threshold. For the first time, fifty per cent of the world’s population lives in cities – a proportion that is forecast to increase steadily in the decades ahead. This urban half of the human population accounts for three quarters of the world’s annual consumption of resources and discharge of wastes. Cities, therefore, constitute an important starting point for a sustainable world. Their continuously accumulating cultural heritage, ancient and modern, has a vital role to play in meeting this challenge.
Historic buildings and urban areas constitute not merely a non-renewable cultural resource: they also represent a non-renewable capital resource – of materials, embodied energy, and financial investment. Further, they constitute an essential functional resource, one that has been demonstrated time and time again to be highly adaptive to creative reuse.
By combining our concerns for the heritage value of historic buildings, urban areas and their infrastructure, with the wider environmental imperatives of respecting the finite material resources of our planet and the threats posed by global warming and climate change, the rationale behind the protection and conservation of our heritage is reinforced and magnified many times over.
Two further influences contribute to this reinforcement of the value of protection and conservation: firstly, increasing emphasis in our globalising world on cultural diversity; and secondly, recognition of the intangible values that attach to human traditions and practices. These support an approach to cultural evolution that is focused at least as much on processes that require to be sustained as on artefacts and monuments to be preserved.
This human approach, characterised as the anthropological vision of geo-cultural identity and cultural continuity, reinforces the rationale and processes of conservation and integrates them with the dynamics of human societies. It focuses on people as both the custodians and creative vectors of cultural diversity and identity.
Building on the classic definition in the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainable development is today recognised to have four components: environmental protection, economic growth, social equity, and cultural continuity.
My book Conservation and Sustainability in Historic Cities seeks to identify and highlight the opportunities for conservation and sustainability to work together in a partnership of strength for the achievement of common objectives, and for architectural and urban conservation to position itself as a determining component of sustainable development.
My current research, publication and practical focus is the extension of this theme to embrace the challenge of climate change.
Dennis Rodwell © 2011