Heritage And A Concern With The Historic Environment Cultural Studies Essay

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While officials and professionals express a desire to ensure that a greater emphasis is placed on matters of culture and heritage in urban regeneration projects, there are daunting resource constraints that prevent more systematic programmes from emerging. As a result the concerted identification, listing and management of local heritage areas (or urban 'conservation areas') in old and historic low-income communities have failed to materialise, despite national policy advocating for this to happen. The Johannesburg experience suggests that successful neighbourhood-level conservation in South Africa is still largely confined to a few wealthier suburbs where the private sector has the visible means to undertake financially profitable reinvestments. This trend is also still apparent in Cape Town and eThekwini (Duggan interview). What is clear, is that institutional backing and support is uneven and that political apathy towards environmental matters, in general, and the historical environment, in particular, prevails.

Faced by formidable budget constraints and constrained institutional capacities and a lack of political validation, Johannesburg city officials are limited to small-scale project-specific interventions located in areas undergoing revitalisation (principally as part of JDA-led initiatives). Through these projects, important restoration work has been carried out on threatened structures and notable successes achieved around place identity interventions (often carried out in partnership with CIDs) where distinct districts have been created using local historical references (Itzkin 2008). Similarly, a progressive public art policy has seen successful public art interventions undertaken in Johannesburg over the past few years, many works commissioned explicitly referencing the historical context (ibid).

Where important landmarks have been threatened or offer viable commercial redevelopment opportunities, some successful initiatives have been implemented by small informal coalitions of city officials, professionals, activists and journalists working together to exert pressure, cajole and lobby. Among others, this has resulted in structures being adaptively reused as community facilities. Precincts with tourism potential (such as Newtown, Soweto and Constitution Hill) also show the willingness of city authorities to support conservation efforts where tourism facilities or attractions can be created that support the municipality's global city aspirations and the strengthening of its tourism economy.

The experience of older and historic Inner City districts has sadly been less promising. Bertrams shows how the severe financial and institutional constraints faced by the city compound the unfavourable local conditions which are marked by high levels of transience, absentee landlords and abandoned buildings, as well as the lack of localised civic structures to lobby on behalf of the community. While professionals are well intentioned, their primary concern is to ensure legislative compliance with, what are in effect, formulaic and sometimes technocratic heritage procedures (in what I have referred to as western-centric conservation models). Such a 'checklist' approach has a number of disadvantages. The first is that these fail to meaningfully engage with the severe economic and financial challenges faced by local residents and businesses, thus potentially missing opportunities for conservation that may arise from a more nuanced engagement with property owners, residents and the community at large. An analytically rigorous engagement with residents may yield a more sensitive understanding of how residents not only perceive their community and its built form, but also how reinvestment and custodianship could be achieved by involving residents in planning processes and redevelopment projects. A 'whole of neighbourhood' approach is therefore required that frames urban rehabilitation and conservation as a social, financial and organisational challenge, "the foundation must be that of economic efficiency rather than sentimentality" (Steinberg 2008:10).

This approach must allow for the community to engage in debates around what it sees as heritage and therefore, what is worthy of conservation. Familiarity with basic socio-economic data may assist in formulating research questions that better align conservation objectives and approaches with the needs of residents, while seeking creative policy and practical solutions to the very real challenges faced by those living in economically depressed, historic neighbourhoods. Clearly, these communities visibly lack the financial or legal means, and economic motive, to secure reinvestment in individual properties.

It is argued that traditional conservation approaches inadvertently lead to a narrowing of what is regarded as 'heritage' by reducing significance to purely a question of urban aesthetics, fabric or style. This denies the fact that significance is as much a matter of social and political history, as it is of architectural evolution, and importantly that 'sense of place' requires a recognition of people - communities past and present - who have lived in that community.

Conforti points out that "[p]reservation is clearly a selective process and what is selected usually reflects the interests of those making the choice" (Conforti 1996:839). For this reason, the establishment of urban heritage committees or reference groups are advocated by institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (Steinberg 2008:19). It is also essential that professional teams approach heritage assignments from a multi-disciplinary approach. Too often heritage surveys and impact assessments are carried out principally by architects, historians, archaeologists or other professionals working in isolation from one another.

A historical survey of Bertrams shows that successive communities (economically, ethnically, racially, culturally and religiously diverse) have fought for, what Mbembe has termed the "right to be urban" (Mbembe 2008:392). How one of the city's original 'villa suburbs' became a contested zone for different generations of urban immigrants is compelling and extends beyond the architectural and material legacies these communities left behind. As Svetlana Boym stress, "[p]laces in the city are not merely architectural metaphors; they are also screen memories for urban dwellers. Projections of contested remembrances" (Boym 2001:75-77). That Bertrams can today be regarded as a 'nowhereville' and a temporary abode for uprooted African immigrants is ironic, as it successfully served earlier immigrant communities in assimilating in Johannesburg society. This is a history that remains largely hidden and uncommented on.

The regeneration of Bertrams highlights the complexities involved in urban heritage management as formal local government heritage planning systems and professional approaches are challenged by increasing urban informality and poverty. In fact, traditional conservation approaches betray a profound sense of unease when confronted with urban informality. As Mbembe points out, "[p]articularly in Africa, the blurring of the distinctions between what is public and what is private, the transformation and deformation of inherited urban shapes, is one of the ways by which urban citizens generate meaning and memory" (Mbembe 2008:64). This is to recognise something fundamental about the contemporary African urban environment, a perspective that acknowledges how urban forms will have to creatively adapt and transform. As Tiwari acknowledges,

"[u]ndoubtedly, the growth of future cities depends on how well we are able to plan for the unplanned. The generic theme evolving from Asia, Latin America and Africa is that as cities expand, the 'informal' sector grows faster than the 'formal' sector. This means that our plans will need paradigmatic change to deal with the heterogeneous housing and mobility needs of growing city populations. We will have to plan spaces for activities that cannot always be well-defined and predicted. It is better to plan for what is inevitable rather to turn a blind eye to the future" (Tiwari 2007:351).

By posing more nuanced questions around culture, heritage and identity in the development literature, heritage conservation approaches that are more suited to highly uncertain and challenging urban conditions may emerge.

Sadly, how heritage can be used to frame questions around inequality and distributive justice remains too often unexplored. A pro-poor heritage management approach must therefore strengthen the connections between affordable housing, quality neighbourhoods and heritage conservation. The urban decline experienced in central Johannesburg arises from the lack of affordable housing (see the Inner City Regeneration Charter, City of Johannesburg 2007). While affordable housing is fundamentally an urban policy issue, it also impacts on environmental protection, urban regeneration, community development, public transport and economic development policy. For Rypkema,

"the affordable housing crisis can't be addressed with just housing - it must be addressed on the neighborhood level. So instead of looking at architectural styles… look instead at the needs of families, particularly families of modest means, and look at the nature of the neighborhood rather than the building. Families need proximity - to work, to schools, to shopping, and to public transportation…" (Rypkema 2002:7).

Upgrading vandalised and abandoned housing in older and historic suburbs may in the long-term be much more efficient and impactful than new housing developments in peri-urban areas. If the costs of providing subsidised public transport, new social amenities as well as bulk service infrastructure connections to new housing developments are considered, then it can be argued that preservation of older housing units can be more cost effective than new housing construction. The locational advantage of historic suburbs, on its own, makes a compelling argument for the urban regeneration of these communities. Most importantly, conservation and rehabilitation can lead to the creation of more healthy communities. Bertrams despite significant urban decline and decay, still offers its poorer residents significant urban amenity including walkability, social and educational facilities, locational benefits and easy access to diverse transportation modes. Bertrams also offers diverse types of accommodation, different forms of economic activity (formal and informal), and well-established green and public spaces. These factors together not only create positive urban amenity, but also establish the conditions necessary to facilitate social mobility, inclusiveness and integration.

Placing the emphasis on housing and the neighbourhood is not to dismiss the need for the systematic mapping and classification of heritages sites, nor even for the protection of important landmarks and monuments. For city officials, traditional heritage surveys and impact assessments have become invaluable sources of information and serve as useful planning tools to direct future interventions (Itzkin interview). The concern is rather, that the principal function of such surveys is to inform and guide national and provincial heritage structures on the identification, listing and protection of significant heritage resources. This has obviously not been achieved, with SAHRA and the PHRAs widely discredited by critics, commentators and practitioners as ineffectual. As it stands, these authorities are, simply put, drowning in paperwork (ibid). Some experts are even proposing the complete scrapping of the existing three-tier grading system as a measure to deal with, what many regard, as an impossible task given current resources and institutional capacities (Duggan interview 2010). The literature from Latin America and Asia suggests that not even the most prosperous societies are able to sufficiently finance the full conservation need. At present there are no dedicated funds available for the conservation or preservation of historic structures in South Africa.

While the practice has been to look towards other regions for conservation models - often in the 'global North' - it is clear that weak institutional capacities among a range of other factors, render 'first world' conservation policies and practices, associated with the transfer of best practices, largely ineffectual if not completely irrelevant. While experiences from North Africa, Asia and the Americas show that the incorporation of cultural heritage conservation can successfully be integrated into urban regeneration programmes, sub-Saharan Africa faces particular challenges that require further analytic research. That there is an opportunity for major regional institutions such as the African Development Bank (ADB) and the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) to drive research programmes concerned with African urban heritage and its development potential is clear. That the most important initiative to date by African governments, the African World Heritage Fund, focuses principally on UNESCO-listed sites is telling.

Post the World Cup and fears about gentrification appear to have been overstated. This has largely been due to the limited scale of the developments that have materialised to date. The global economic recession and a depressed local property market have meant that private sector interest has been more muted than anticipated. Much of the intended upgrading of Bertrams and the revival of investor interest have therefore not materialised despite the goodwill of city officials and planning professionals. That private sector investment has not been unlocked should be of concern. Successful urban revitalisation will require that landowners are suitably incentivised to reinvest in their properties and that new investors are brought in to develop abandoned and demolished properties. As Graeme Reid argues, a healthy urban environment requires that Bertrams become more socially and economically integrated (Reid interview 2010).

Without private investment, property markets will remain depressed, which means that households (who own their properties) currently in distress cannot leverage growth in the values of their property to reinvest. According to an ex-resident and property owner, his house in Bertrams was recently sold for not much more than it was worth almost 20 years ago (Purkey interview). This is in contrast to property values elsewhere in the city which have seen robust growth across much of the municipality in the past two decades.

While it is often implied that all urban regeneration projects carry the seeds of gentrification, in that, the ultimate objective is to "produce a profitable real estate market" (Steinberg 2008:23), commentators such as Winkler caution that urban regeneration projects that are not primarily concerned with reducing Inner City poverty risk failure. "Free-market economic strategies rather than social policies act as catalysts for change, to help create jobs and wealth via a trickle-down philosophy" (Winkler 2010:366). As Winkler points out, this risks the inter-generational perpetuation of poverty, particularly where planning practices fail to engage Inner City residents in decision-making processes (ibid).

While concerns regarding gentrification remain, research in the US suggests more hopefully that low-income households "actually seem less likely to move from gentrifying neighborhoods than from other communities" (Rypkema 2002:14). Improving housing and general neighborhood conditions appear to encourage the housing stability of low-income households to the degree that they more than offset any dislocation resulting from rising rents. In short, "[t]he answer is not to have fewer historic districts - the answer is to provide historic district protection to more neighborhoods" (ibid, 14).

While fears about gentrification may have been overstated, concerns about the displacement of poorer residents on the other hand have been proven partially justified. Rights of tenancy in the context of Inner City regeneration projects continue to be highly fraught with the city still reluctant to provide adequate transitional housing for poorer residents affected by upgrading projects. For critics such as Farouk, Winkler and Bénit-Gbaffou the city is relinquishing its duties to its poorer citizens. While the acceptance of "market-led redevelopments, tax incentives, public-private partnerships, flagship projects, intensive urban management, middle and high income homeownership, and the disintegration of concentrated poverty are deemed essential for the successful revitalization of urban centres" (Winkler 2009:376), in Johannesburg these measures are undertaken often with scant regard for the rights of the poor. More worryingly it appears that this is done with a blind faith in the power of markets and the assumed correlation between economic growth and reducing inequality (ibid, 367).

More importantly, these authors show how the city pays scant regard to matters of participation and shared decision-making. As Winkler stress, "[c]ollaborating with the private sector alone negates possibilities for social/mutual learning between state officials and residents, it forecloses residents' active political engagement in public decision-making, and it diminishes an opportunity to embrace participatory governance" (ibid, 377) and further, "informed social studies that embrace principles of social/mutual learning, and that facilitate the development of residents' political capacities for involved and effective public decisionmaking, are seemingly rejected by municipal officials as they already 'know what residents want" (ibid, 371). In relation to the GEPD and the BNRS, the evidence to date suggests that such concerns are worryingly valid.

While the lack of serious attention given to heritage in low income and working class communities often arise from a sense of dislocation many communities feel in relation to matters of conservation (Field 2006:), the absence of local community activism means that conservation and other matters of culture remain largely ignored. For Farouk and Bénit-Gbaffou the failure of the city to empower established networks and ensure meaningful participation in urban development projects is an indictment of an administration that fails to take political responsibility for the urban poor and their rights.

That Johannesburg appears to have "accepted the assumptions that underpin the world city system" (Preston 2007:2) is also apparent. The city therefore advocates heritage planning and policy regimes that favour a 'world class heritage'. Recent developments such as the Vilakazi street precinct, the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown, the remaking of Newtown, the Constitution Hill precinct and the redevelopment of Gandhi Square, shows that the development of a 'world class heritage' is intentionally undertaken with the interests of private investors and tourists in mind. This view is in line with authors who note the growing commercialisation of heritage in the global economy.

One of the arguments that have been put forward in this paper is that 'ordinary heritage' should not be ignored in favour of 'world class heritage' as this will clearly perpetuate a situation where questions of culture, heritage and identity are left purely to market forces as public funds are diverted to projects conforming to notions of nation-building, national identity or national prestige. Already, there is a sense from commentators that the GEPD have been more concerned with surface aesthetics than a real concern with neighbourhood regeneration. Commendable as the public art programme of the JDA may be, Habraken reminds us that "monuments will eventually grow in a healthy built environment, but… a healthy built environment can never be made out of monuments" (Habraken 1983:9).

While much of the national focus has been on the construction of a new national public culture as reflected in the country's newest public monuments and museums, the coming decade will hopefully provide far greater scope for the emergence of small community initiatives as called for by Bakker and Le Roux (Bakker et al. 2002). This will hopefully also allow for the 'heritage of the ordinary' to receive greater academic interest. 'Ordinary heritage' may form the basis for developing new insights into heritage planning within a context of Inner City social exclusion.

As much has been written about the role of public culture in propping up colonial and apartheid ideology and the contestations around heritage as a focal point for identity politics, I approached this project from a different perspective. My intended approach was therefore to show how heritage can be framed as an urban planning and development problem. Chapter two and three addresses the critical question of why there is so much apathy towards urban heritage conservation in much of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in South Africa's local government system. Chapter three also looks at the impact of urban neglect, decline and poverty on heritage places and structures as witnessed in Johannesburg. As Mistry confirms,

"[t]he Spatial dynamics of Johannesburg after apartheid have resulted in an unstable urban landscape where abandonment and neglect have left once-valued and stable parts of the built environment in decline and ruin, where unbridled growth and horizontal expansion have undermined the Herculean efforts at city planning and regulation, and where the steady expansion of sequestered sites of fantastic luxury has been matched by the proliferation of places of degradation and despair" (Mistry 2010:161).

In chapter four I contextualise how the 'ordinary heritage' of Bertrams masks a powerful narrative of immigration, worker activism and the 'rights to the city' under colonial and apartheid conditions. These conditions are not dissimilar to that faced by Bertrams' contemporary residents. Chapter five contextualises the upgrading projects undertaken in the run-up to the FIFA soccer world cup - an event that raised the hopes of many residents in the area. How city officials and heritage professionals respond to conditions of informality, urban poverty and social exclusion is telling. I have argued that a new conceptualisation for heritage management is needed, one that emphasises the connections between historical neighbourhoods, affordable housing, quality of life and cosmopolitanism. Such an approach requires a more analytically rigorous understanding of the role heritage rehabilitation plays in driving or countering gentrification. Sadly, the fate of Johannesburg's tenements remains uncertain.