An article I read on the dwindling built heritage of Macau got me thinking once again on the role of cultural heritage in the urban environment of up and coming global cities. Too often these days, centuries old buildings rich with craftsmanship and architectural detail, and social and cultural history have either been decimated in favor of a new row of generic glass towers to appeal to huge multinational corporations or super luxurious new attractions to entice that elite group of tourists. The speed of contemporary development has often prevented thoughtful development. Skyscrapers and brand new towns go from the drawing board into construction at record times all over the world in the hopes of outdoing the competition in the next city.
In this age of lightening speed technology, communications, construction and global competition, after studying this phenomenon for years and years now, I am convinced that governments of nascent global cities (by that I mean cities that are on the verge of taking a prominent place on the world's stage and becoming a key player in the global economy - like Dubai was 20 years ago) need some sort of guidelines or caveats as to how to develop an urban environment that is progressive, competitive and advanced and yet still respectful to local cultural heritage. For many of these cities, they need to realize that their architectural history is not an impediment to becoming a global city, it can be an advantage.
- Cities that are embarking on becoming a more influential player and stakeholder in the global economy and thus are going to undergo a dramatic transformation of their urban environment should at first take the time to develop a comprehensive urban strategy that allows for the construction of new infrastructure and at the same time promotes and protects your built heritage.
- Built heritage can be an economic driver
- Don't be so consumed with chasing FDI and tourists that you forget your obligation to your own citizens.
- Authenticity matters.
Qianmen, a centuries old shopping street with all its extraordinary buildings and in its place recreated an inferior Disneyland-like substitute. Perhaps that is a better alternative to historic sites that have vanished all together? 30,995 historic sites on an incomplete list from 1982 of 225,000 sites have already disappeared in China. According to He Shuzhong, of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, "The last 20 years have been the worst time for cultural heritage site protection with rapid development. It is even worse than in the Cultural Revolution."
When development happens in a blink of an eye, local governments have to partner with local cultural organizations, businesses, entrepreneurs, architects, urban planners and other experts so that there can be an more engaged, robust dialogue as to how a global city should be developed, designed and built. There has to be a smarter way of countering this endless pattern of cultural destruction then hasty reconstruction in so many cities. Thoughtful more holistic strategies to urban development must be developed far in advance and not as an after thought.