Examining The Importance Of Built Heritage Cultural Studies Essay

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An important characteristic of built heritage is that it is located in space and time, and often functionally active in everyday life serving as "shells for our activities" (Nijkamp et al. 1998:2). At the same time such 'assets' tend to have long life cycles (ibid) - even though these may have already reached functional, physical or economic obsolescence (Rojas et al. 1999:5). This means that society is frequently faced with the decision to replace these assets, adapt them for reuse, or conserve them - at a cost - for present and future generations (Nijkamp et al. 1998:3). Very often the decision to conserve is based on conservation principles that have been incorporated into planning and regulatory schemes. As such, many governments in both the developed and developing world have adopted conservation policies to guide the management of cultural heritage.

Over the past four decades an extensive international literature has evolved documenting the tension between growth, development and conservation. In South Africa this debate has been particularly fraught as past colonial and apartheid conservation practices were seen as unrepresentative of the interests of the vast majority of South Africans (Coombes 2004:16).

In the case of Johannesburg, within former 'areas of exclusion' such as Soweto and Alexandra, as well as Inner City residential areas closely associated with urban neglect and decay, a new dialogue around heritage significance is emerging. Grassroots organisations are seeking to use heritage and cultural preservation as a means to advance wider social justice concerns. Case studies, largely ignored in the academic literature, from Alexandra, Kliptown (in Soweto), Pageview, Fordsburg, Yeoville and other Johannesburg Inner City districts, pose interesting questions about the manner in which social claims are articulated. Overt concerns with cultural identity and the historic built and cultural environment are being addressed in these communities. [1] These examples are also reflective of similar experiences being documented elsewhere in countries as far ranging as the United States, Turkey, Eritrea and India (see for example Nieves et al. 2008, Symonds 2004, and Askins 2004).

To date much of the recent South African literature on heritage and the historical environment has been limited to studies dedicated to the transition of the public culture of a white minority to that of a democratic state (see Nuttall et al. 1998; Coombes 2004, Delmont 2004 and Bakker 2007). Case studies are being documented around efforts to publicly commemorate sites of political struggle (see Gevisser 2004, Jonker 2005, Madikida et al. 2008, Field 2001, Deacon 2004, Minty 2006, Hlongwane et al. 2006 and Marschall 2006). Historic and culturally significant sites and structures (or 'resources' in the parlance of the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA; Act no. 25, Republic of South Africa 1999)) that are located in inner city 'slums' have until recently received far less attention - in particular when such neighbourhoods are home to large immigrant populations who are resident in former 'whites only' suburbs. This neglect is sadly also reflected in the academic literature.

Johannesburg - while a relatively young, industrial metropolis - enjoys historic districts of cultural significance both for the urbanistic and architectural interest they offer, as well as the historical associations these suburbs enjoy with their diverse cultural communities dating as far back as the founding of the City. Many historic neighbourhoods on the eastern and western sides of the Central Business District (CBD) have long standing associations as mixed race, culturally diverse, working class suburbs. They are often home to first generation migrants and immigrants drawn to the City's nebulous status as 'the City of Gold'. It was also in these suburbs that consecutive City administrations attempted to demarcate and enforce residential space along strict racial lines.

Today, these historic and older neighbourhoods are in a state of neglect with countless buildings suffering severe decay from a lack of maintenance, disconnected, illegal and unsafe services, and overcrowding. During the 1990s perceptions around 'slummification' and rampant 'bad buildings' predictably led to 'red lining' by financial institutions. This gave rise to the resultant depression of real estate markets. In addition, weak urban management coupled with high levels of crime has meant that the informal sector has been left unchecked, while streets and public spaces have become degraded and unsafe. At the same time, parts of the City's heritage and cultural fabric have been significantly eroded. Importantly the value that can be ascribed to centrally located residential and commercial properties and the extensive built and social infrastructure available to support these, has not only been ignored by the authorities but also diminished.

Although the first decade of this century saw a spate of urban regeneration projects implemented across large sections of the Inner City, these were largely confined to prime retail, commercial and financial nodes. Attempts to regenerate residential neighbourhoods on the other hand have shown how difficult it is to respond to residential conditions that are highly uncertain, complex, rapidly changing and in some areas nothing but chaotic (Lipietz 2004:2). In both the western and eastern suburbs the erosion of older housing stock continues unabated while many empty tracks of land that had been cleared under apartheid forced removals remain undeveloped. This despite the obvious locational advantage such land parcels hold from both a public and private housing perspective.

For this reason, the announcement of the Bertrams Neighbourhood Regeneration Strategy (BNRS) - an offshoot of the Greater Ellis Park Development (GEPD) was greeted with interest as it held the promise of an integrated area development focusing on a declined, Inner City residential area. While some residents (mostly property and business owners) looked forward to the development, for others the prospect of eviction and forced relocations loomed large. For many critics the project raised troubling questions about the continued expansion of Council's perceived neo-liberal urban regeneration policies. Grave warnings were issued about gentrification and the displacement of the poor. It was apparent that Bertrams was earmarked for redevelopment primarily due to its proximity to the Ellis Park sports complex - one of the principal host stadiums of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The City was therefore under immense pressure to fast-track developments in view of the tight deadlines - and ensure strict compliance to (what many saw as draconian) FIFA standards and requirements. This led some to argue that local interests and democratic processes were being undermined with Council, in effect, abdicating political responsibility in respect of the poor (Bénit-Gbaffou 2009). For commentators the City was displaying alarmingly anti-poor sentiments. Filmmaker and activist Rehad Desai even suggested that a battle against the poor was playing itself out in the streets of Johannesburg. [2] The image of the 'Red Ants' evicting residents from high-rise slums, and dumping belongings on streets and pavements, reinforced these sentiments. [3] 

Furthermore, the developments also raised concerns about the manner in which the City's development agencies would respond to heritage. The area containing notable historic houses and walk-ups (some Council officials intimated) that should simply be demolished as a solution to the slumming problem. Subsequently, the City has applied for permits for the demolition of historic houses and apartments with the intention of building medium-rise apartment blocks. This, it argued, will create the necessary densities required to address the housing shortage which had led to slumming in the area and will ultimately make Bertrams a more sustainable suburb. Low-rise Victorian and Edwardian houses were seen by officials as a 'missed opportunity' as they ostensibly inhibit further densification.

Cultural and community activists also argued that the proposed developments were at risk of displacing a large migrant and immigrant community who had successfully claimed a space in an often too hostile Inner City. By 'sanitising' the public space, the City was undermining the networks of informality these communities rely on for their survival. In the words of artist and social development consultant Ismail Farouk, "Bertrams is set to change, in fact the Inner City is about to change. The ordered chaos that we all know and love is under threat" (Farouk as quoted by the Mail&GuardianOnline, 2006b).

This research project is concerned with the potential for - and limitations of - heritage rehabilitation and conservation in so-called 'slums', particularly when, as is the case here, the study area is a historic Inner City district in one of sub-Saharan Africa's major urban centres. Bertrams has been characterised by extreme poverty, social exclusion and rapid urban change and where heritage conservation at present carries little political or economic weight. The central research question is therefore whether the neighbourhood regeneration project underway in Bertrams advances the rehabilitation and conservation of the historic environment in a manner that supports and encourages the creation of a more socially inclusive, quality neighbourhood? A related question is also whether urban regeneration and place-making interventions appropriating local heritage and place identity are at risk of boosting gentrification and thus deepening the social exclusion of vulnerable groups? The study assesses strategies and programmes that have been initiated by the City of Johannesburg and its partners and agents. It is hoped that the research will advance the development of a Sub-Saharan African literature concerned with the tensions between urbanisation, growth, development and conservation of the historic environment.

The research methodology entailed qualitative research involving, among others, a detailed review of the Bertrams Neighbourhood Regeneration Strategy (Urban Skywalkers 2006) and the identified heritage precinct, as well as the processes that underpinned the proposed developments. In-depth interviews were carried out during the information gathering phase. This analysis was complemented by a literature and policy review, as well as the referencing of documented experiences elsewhere. In this regard, the work of Eduardo Rojas (1999; 2002; 2007), based at the Inter-American Development Bank, and Florian Steinberg (1996; 2008), working at present for the Asian Development Bank, was particularly useful. Sadly, their respective work on urban heritage conservation in Latin America and Asia highlights the paucity of similar research on Sub-Saharan Africa.


In Chapter Two I review the African and South African heritage conservation experience and how conservation policies and practices have evolved in recent years in response to a critique of colonial-era and dominant western-centric preservation practices. It is argued that heritage conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa is marked by a legacy of weak heritage management capacities and the inadequate resourcing of conservation efforts in the region. Most heritage administrators still fail to move beyond a narrow concern with legislative prohibitions (poorly enforced) to a heritage management approach principally concerned with improving the quality of life of the poor, the development of quality urban neighbourhoods and the conservation of valued and valuable housing stock. It is argued that urban African heritage and built 20th century heritage is still notably absent from discussions around what constitutes African built and cultural heritage. This situation is seemingly worsened by international conservation efforts concerned principally with Africa's world heritage sites. Lastly, I review the heritage conservation experience of South Africa where, despite progressive heritage policies having been adopted since 1994, severe institutional and financial constraints have left mandated conservation agencies largely ineffectual.

In Chapter Three I look at the Johannesburg experience and the impact of poverty and urban decline on older and historic, Inner City suburbs. What emerges from this review is an uneven picture. Government entities, such as the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), now regularly undertake heritage impact assessments as part of the development process. However, it is clear that the legislative requirement in and of itself does not guarantee protection or necessarily lead to a sensitive engagement with a particular community. Secondly, where heritage is considered in such developments, significance often tends to be narrowly interpreted purely in relation to the built environment as opposed to the Burra Charter prescript, which calls for a comprehensive understanding of the significance of place in its broadest sense. [4] Thirdly, while government has since 1994 funded major commemorative projects aimed partially at consolidating a national liberation narrative through the so-called 'legacy projects', 'heritage from below' remains poorly served by state institutions. The few grassroots initiatives that have emerged in recent years have singularly failed to attract sustainable funding from government, donors or the private sector. Their long-term survival remains largely uncertain.

Lastly, I also note how race and the politics of identity continue to influence the way in which different heritage communities respond to developments. The inability of the heritage community to craft an inclusive and independent pressure group operating across the City, means that challenges to developments whether legal or otherwise remain highly localised, are often uncoordinated and, even in the most well publicised cases, are mostly ineffectual. The emergence of a strong heritage pressure group - affiliated with a range of environmental and social justice constituencies - is required if meaningful progress are to be made. Most importantly, this requires that heritage professionals approach urban conservation challenges differently and are willing to engage with urban conditions marked by informality and poverty.

Chapter Four contextualises the historical significance of Bertrams and surrounds, and reviews efforts to include a heritage precinct as part of the Bertrams Neighbourhood Regeneration project. Bertrams is significant because different migrant and immigrant communities have been associated with this area over the past century. These communities have often been forced to operate along the margins of Johannesburg society. They have, since the 1920s, primarily through the 1923 Natives (Urban Areas) Act and the 1934 Slums Act, been faced by sporadic forced removals and so-called 'slum clearance' programmes that continued well into the second half of the 20th century. It has been well documented by others that most of these clearances were in order to enforce racial segregation. What is of particular interest here is how City planners and officials condemned not only the resident communities, but also the buildings they inhabited. As Achmat Dangor notes with reference to Fordsburg,

"[t]he state had developed a whole arsenal of laws to help it achieve the unimaginable: people of different races living in separate, pre-planned ghettos. These laws ranged from the Slum Clearance Act to the much blunter Group Areas Act. In my grandmother's case, her perfectly good - even beautiful - house was declared a slum because it had been built before 1920 and was not constructed of brick and mortar." (Dangor 1998:F10).

As late as the 1970s and 80s tourist publications on the City noted, without sense of irony, that outmoded buildings ("colourful old cottages" as one book termed it) were making way for more "modern" and "efficient" structures; and this in reference to areas that had been forcibly cleared in terms of the Group Areas Act (see for example Hughes 1978).

Post-1994, slum clearances are of course also still part of the contemporary South African landscape. During apartheid the 'right to the city' was essentially dictated by racial classification. In a democratic state this has been replaced by what Neocosmos has called "a conception of citizenship founded exclusively on indigeneity" (Neocosmos 2008:2) with the result that immigrants - legally resident or not - are subjected to ongoing social exclusion, xenophobia and violence. Sometimes this is perpetrated in the name of urban regeneration. For activists such as Ismail Farouk urban renewal programmes as instituted in Bertrams, Hillbrow, Yeoville and elsewhere in the Inner City have the potential to disrupt the fragile survival patterns of immigrant communities.

For Landau (2005) and Steeneveldt (2006) there is deep irony in this as South Africa has largely committed to a modernist project of nation building through a narrative of reconciliation. Many citizens of the Inner City operate in a post-modern geopolitical space and are automatically and, as was demonstrated during the 2008 xenophobic attacks, violently excluded from this citizenship in the making.

"On the one hand, there are national efforts made towards nation-building and unifying its diverse populations, which is seen as a distinctly modern phenomena; whilst conversely from the migrant perspective, there are formations of 'nowherevilles', spaces which are 'in' but not 'of' South Africa, which are marked by cosmopolitanism and lives in constant transit" (Landau 2005:13).

That Bertrams can be read as a 'nowhereville' is ironic. (It successfully served earlier immigrant communities in assimilating into Johannesburg society. This history remains largely uncommented upon.) It is also ironic that this should be the case in a 'World Class African City' that claims to be, par excellence, representative of an urban, cosmopolitan and democratic Africa at home in the global economy; sadly no Tenement Museum here. [5] 

In Chapter Five I assess the Bertrams Neighbourhood Regeneration programme. This is an urban renewal project initiated by the JDA as part of the GEPD to rehabilitate this suburb in run up to the FIFA soccer world cup (hosted in June and July 2010). How City officials and heritage professionals respond to conditions of informality, urban poverty and social exclusion is telling. By restricting cultural significance to architectural values, styles and the built fabric, professionals portray an extreme discomfort when engaging with contemporary uses marked by informality and poverty. A failure to engage the community on the meaning of heritage and its management also undermines efforts to build sustainable and localised institutional capacities. Importantly, this also leads to a lack of explanation of the developmental potential inherent to urban conservation. It is clear that existing heritage programmes and policies are ineffectual given the stark resource constraints faced by legislated heritage institutions. I argue that a new conceptualisation is needed, one that emphasises the connections between historical neighbourhoods, affordable housing, quality of life and importantly cosmopolitanism. Lastly, I address concerns by critics that GEPD and the BNRS developments will ultimately encourage gentrification and fuel the displacement of vulnerable groups. That conservation has deep-rooted associations with gentrification is clear. That some politicians and City officials seem unconcerned about the potential displacement and marginalisation of poorer Inner City residents is troubling.

Note on terminology

Key concepts that this paper is concerned with are 'cultural heritage' (or 'heritage'), 'heritage conservation' and 'historical environment'. Yet, these are also exceedingly ambivalent and fluid concepts that resist easy definition.

'Cultural heritage' is most often defined as encompassing those elements of the past that society wishes to retain as an inheritance from one generation to the next (Timothy et al. 2003:2). Heritage encompasses both cultural traditions (intangible practices or 'living heritage' as in the NHRA) and tangible physical structures and artefacts, and how these relics of the past are placed under custodianship (ibid).

'Custodianship' is of course all about 'conservation' that, following the Burra Charter, "is based on a respect for the existing fabric, use, associations and meanings. It requires a cautious approach of changing [a place] as much as necessary but as little as possible. The traces of additions, alterations and earlier treatments to the fabric of a place are evidence of its history and uses that may be part of its significance. Conservation action should assist and not impede their understanding" (Australia ICOMOS, 1979). Conservation is therefore concerned with all the processes of looking after a place or object so as to retain its cultural significance. It includes maintenance and may, according to circumstance include protection, preservation, restoration, reconstruction and adaptation. Most often it involves a combination of more than one of these (ibid).

In conserving a place or object, a compatible use or combination of uses (or constraints on uses), must be found that retain the cultural significance of that place or object where 'cultural significance' means the aesthetic, architectural, historic, scientific, social, spiritual, linguistic or technological value for past, present or future generations (ibid; Republic of South Africa 1999).

As cultural theorists have argued, custodianship is a selective process and often represents societal biases that "filters heritage through a value system that undoubtedly changes over time and space, and across society" (Timothy et al. 2003:2). Similarly, 'heritage' has in recent years become associated with the 'heritage industry' and the process through which the past is manipulated (or even invented) for commercial, tourism and propagandist purposes. In this view, 'heritage' is linked to concepts of power, identity and the economy, and is seen as open to abuse and manipulation (ibid).

Partially for these reasons, the term 'historic environment' is increasingly finding favour with practitioners in some countries as it implies a more inclusive approach than 'heritage' with its strong associations with official heritage lists and registers graded according to the application of professional criteria. Historic environment is therefore used to refer to both the natural and cultural material remains of the past. Unlike traditional heritage approaches, this approach does not ascribe to chronological limits, has no thematic limits, knows no geographic limits, knows no limits to its scale and knows no limits of culture or ethnicity (communiqué issued by English Heritage 2000). 'Historic built environment' in turn limits its focus to architectural and urban history and is therefore principally concerned with the physical presence of the built environment.

The primary concern of this research is with the historic built environment and the objects and places associated with it. It is also accepted here that cultural identity, and heritage through which cultural identity most readily finds expression, includes a wide range of meanings, values, attitudes, customs and more. As such the call by Deacon for a holistic definition of heritage that includes the tangible and intangible is acknowledged, "[t]here is little reason to perpetuate the distinction between intangible heritage per se and intangible values associated with objects and places" (Deacon et al. 2003:34).

A secondary concern is that culture and heritage have a spatial dimension. As Teresa Dirsuiwit points out "political, ethical, environmental and aesthetic negotiations around historical memory - and associated meaning - continue to involve negotiations around landscape and its representations" (Dirsuiwit, unpublished, n.d). The urban landscape is therefore not only a space in which the contestations around public memory play out but at the same time also become visibly representative of such conflicting meanings. The built form is therefore more than just architectural styles or physical forms. It also carry associations and meanings that are often rooted in urban struggles - struggles that unfold in specific places.

Social discomfort is unavoidable when using the term 'slum'. Farouk (unpublished PowerPoint presentation; Farouk, 2006a) correctly argues that this term is particularly fraught in the South African context given its associations with apartheid-era social engineering and the legacy of modernist planning practices in upholding racial segregation through 'slum clearances'. According to UN-Habitat, the term denotes "a heavily populated urban area characterised by substandard housing and squalor" (UN-Habitat 2007:1). All these elements can well be applied to Bertrams but which, as Farouk cautions, can also detract from the socio-political dimensions of how slums are formed and why they persist (PowerPoint presentation; Farouk, 2006a). According to the editors of Wikipedia the term has early 19th century origins and used to refer to a "back slum" - a back room or back alley (www.wikipedia.org).

As 'gentrification' is a key research problem, I accept Slater's useful definition that "gentrification is a process directly linked to the injustice of community upheaval and working-class displacement" (Slater as quoted by Winkler 2009:370).

Lastly, it must be noted that, when I use the name 'Bertrams' unless specified I am referring to the study area as identified in the Bertrams Neighbourhood Regeneration Strategy (Urban Skywalkers 2006) which incorporates the residential areas of Highlands, Bertrams, Lorenzville and Judith Paarl. There may also be some overlap with New Doornfontein, Bezuidenhout and Bezuidenhout Valley. The focus area therefore extends beyond the 'heritage precinct' as proposed in the BNRS. When reference is made to the Greater Ellis Park Development area, the above areas are included in addition to Troyeville and Doornfontein. Where reference is made to the Johannesburg Inner City, I refer to the area containing the CBD which comprises the core retail, commercial and financial districts as well as the larger surrounding area. This is made up of high-density residential suburbs (such as Hillbrow and Berea), light industrial areas (mostly located in the southern and eastern parts), related office nodes (principally Braamfontein) and associated low-rise historic suburbs located in the east and west of the CBD. The Inner City is located in the administrative region, Region F, of the City of Johannesburg. While the 'City of Johannesburg' suggests a coherent institutional structure, this is decidedly not the case (Wafer et al 2008:55). City administration operates in a decentralised and fragmented manner with various agencies, entities and departments operating at different levels and scales. These bodies are responsible for a wide range of functions and services.