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Cities of Asia


Heritage for the Future

If the future of humanity is irrevocably linked to the city, then this future - political, economic and cultural - will be apparent above all in Asia as recent trends indicate.
Throughout time, cities have played a vital role in the development of Asian civilizations. Almost everywhere, the heritage of the past - palaces, places of worship, fortifications, as well as infrastructure and simple dwellings - testifies to urban planning that respected the environment, to innovative architecture and to abundant artistic wealth. Today, the role of the cities is just as vital. But the traditional relationship between cities and the countryside, unchanged for centuries, has undergone a radical transformation in recent decades.

For better or for worse, over the last thirty years, Asian societies that were traditionally rooted in the economy of rice production have been overwhelmed by an unprecedented economic boom. Starting in Japan in the sixties, the industrial boom did not take long to enrich the three "dragons" (Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea), shortly followed by Southeast Asia, China and, to a lesser extent, India.

The world's megacities: the shift to Asia

Within a few decades, a rural exodus on a scale matching the region's economic development and population growth shifted hundreds of millions of peasants to the cities. Their social fabric, habits and culture changed along with their environment.
Some figures illustrate this vertiginous dynamic. In 1970, the Asia-Pacific region included only eight cities of more than five million inhabitants. Today there are more than thirty. Among the most populous, Bangkok, New Delhi, Calcutta, Seoul, Jakarta, Osaka-Kobe, Manila, Bombay, Madras and Karachi each count at least ten million inhabitants. Beijing has fifteen million and Shanghai twenty million. As for the megalopolis of Tokyo, thirty million inhabitants (one fourth of Japan's population) are concentrated along a 150 kilometre urban corridor which leads to the Osaka-Kobe ensemble.

In only a few years, the city has imposed its primacy everywhere. Those in charge of managing this urban explosion face a formidable and puzzling challenge. Today, it appears that "the limit" has been reached, where the inconveniences outweigh the advantages. However, none of the Asian megacities have stopped growing. Far from it.
In 1990, after thousands of years, the population of Asia's cities totalled one billion. If statistics are to be heeded, by 2020, in just 25 years, the urban population of Asia will have doubled, totalling nearly two and a half billion. By then, more than half of the urban areas of the planet will be located in Asia. They will hold more than a third of the world's population. And more will remain in reserve: some 45% of the Asian population will still be living outside the cities.

Those who have seen these cities swell, saturated and pulsating, stretching the limits and verging on paralysis and asphyxia, have difficulty imagining a doubling of the population. The idea seems impossible, even absurd, like attempts at setting the record for the maximum number of persons to fit in a telephone booth... However, it seems inevitable. One can only ask, in the light of past experience, whether humankind will be able to rise to the challenge -in a long-term satisfactory manner - that will be imposed by history, demography and the frantic race for progress.
The rise in power and the domination of the city has had numerous positive effects in the economic social and cultural domains. From one day to the next, millions of people have gained access to "progress" and to the new distribution of wealth. For many, the city became synonymous with work, housing, culture and, most of all, education, health and social advancement. And cities themselves have been transformed. On the impetus of the rising bourgeoisie and middle class, having adopted the value of prosperity, a new urban culture progressively took root, with new consumer trends and architecture.

But the effects of urban explosion were not all positive. Uncontrolled development, lack of infrastructure, slums, pollution, crime and disintegration of the social fabric: the list of ills suffered by most Asian megacities - yesterday and today - is long, just as on other continents. In some cities, the centres have bern taken over by the elite, and the poor have been pushed out towards disadvantaged suburbs. Elsewhere, it is the middle class who are monopolizing the fashionable suburbs and have abandoned the city centre to the poorer population. Everywhere, speculation and the ups and downs of the real estate market threaten the city with cultural and social impoverishment. In many cases corruption, laissez-faire leadership and the absence of political will, as well as misguided regional planning, have seriously handicapped the city and alienated segments of its inhabitants.

The uncontrolled frenzy of construction has provoked ecological, aesthetic and cultural disasters right to the historic heart of the cities claiming many icons of art, history and tradition. Only the financial and tourist interest represented by many of these places has saved the historic districts from demolition. But, over and above commercial concerns, it is as a symbol of the cultural identity of the citizens and the community that this heritage should be protected and used as a basis for new cultural creations.
On the eve of the year 2000, persons in positions of responsibility must strive to organize and master a complex process requiring interdisciplinary planning, decentralization of management and the participation of numerous actors: the public and private sectors, the media, NGOs and others. For, tomorrow like yesterday and today, the singular and common goal is to adapt the city to humankind and to the needs of the citizen.

Planning for the future

What does the 21st century hold for the cities? This is not a matter of predicting, but of planning. Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the scale of urban development. Moreover, the nature of the problems facing cities has changed significantly. No longer can we be content with setting urban policies in the traditional sense of the term; now it is a matter of defining and implementing global development policies.

The world's cities will determine:

  • the social and cultural future of human civilisation in the face of the global generalisation of values;
  • the planet's ecological future in the face of rampant consumption and the continuing depletion of natural resources and encroachment on natural reserves;
  • and future economic development amid ballooning non-material investments and internationalisation of decision-making.

Despite the globalisation of the world's economy, the reality of each individual city remains unique and complex. There can be no "urban model" of reference; only case studies. Any city's future must be anchored in its individual identity. Its "urban heritage" must be the starting point for the development of an urban policy. This heritage and its accumulation - the history of a city, its neighbourhoods and its residents - must be studied. recorded and told.

Once an understanding of this heritage is achieved, action is required on two fronts.
The first concerns land use planning and development involving the national, regional and local levels. Any such programme must have the force of law, establishing basic regulations that are so often lacking to protect cultural and natural heritage. Regulations are needed to govern land use, the management of natural resources and the siting of new infrastructure - particularly transport links, utilities, and educational, research and cultural facilities.

Planning instruments lend coherence to public and private investments and help distribute population centres and activities. An urban fabric can be maintained through a network of neighbourhoods and medium-sized cities. A city's expansion can thus be organised, slowed or even halted avoiding the urban sprawl.
Such planning requires the collusion of national and local authorities. At the national level, an interministerial framework must be in place for analysis and decision-making, while local authorities must enjoy genuine decentralisation. They must be able to intervene at two levels: at the macro level, to organise the management of a vast urban territory, and at the level of the neighbourhood, to encourage the direct participation of the inhabitants.

The second front is philosophical and resides in the very content of urban policies. An effective urban policy must be based on actions that contribute to the raison d'être of a city - as a centre of civility and urbanity, a place of exchanges and encounters, a place where cultural goods and heritage accumulate. This vision must be supported by legislation, in particular with regard to housing -allowing a mix of affluent and low-income homes in the same neighbourhood, for example - and with regard to social and physical infrastructure to guarantee equal access to educational, cultural and health services especially for the young people who will dominate the cities of the future.

A political vision is necessary to give direction to urbanisation. City development will not succeed unless it is founded on continuity. A city's cultural heritage - embedded in its neighbourhoods and historic centres - offers an extraordinary opportunity to urban planners. An investment in intelligence - from the national planner to the individual city dweller - will assure that cities will thrive and continue to contribute to the progress of human civilisation.

Safeguarding and Development

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre and its partners have launched a Programme for the Safeguarding and Development of Asian World Heritage Cities for the 21st Century. The aim of the Programme is to preserve the historic fabric of cities, testifying to the past and enshrining a "heritage" on which to base each city's identity and future development. The idea is to manage socio- economic and cultural development to promote the city as an entity instead of as an ever-expanding urban sprawl. Activities have been initiated in the following cities:

  • Xian, Shaanxi Province (China)
  • Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region (China)
  • Lijiang, Yunnan Province (China)
  • Luang Prabang (Laos)
  • Kathmandu Valley - Kathmandu, Patan & Bhaktapur (Nepal)
  • Vigan (Philippines)
  • Intramuros Manila (Philippines)
  • Hue (Vietnam)
  • Hoi An (Vietnam)

This programme, founded on the principle of international cooperation as enunciated in the World Heritage Convention, involves municipal and provincial authorities, academics, tourism authorities, and the local populations of the Asian cities as well as those of the donor states.

The Programme offers support for:

  • needs assessment;
  • strengthening legal and administrative frameworks to promote conservation and development;
  • integration of the cultural resources preservation plan with the overall urban development scheme;
  • architectural survey and documentation, including cultural resources mapping with tools such as the geographical information system (GIS);
  • elaboration of construction regulations and guidelines for conservation of historic buildings;
  • establishment of locally administered "heritage advisory centres" for conservation, re-use of historic buildings, etc;
  • establishment of locally administered credit or revolving funds for the conservation of privately owned historic buildings;
  • elaboration of sustainable tourism development plans including advice on funding for conservation through tourism revenues;
  • technical assistance for educational and promotional activities;
  • and promotion of local community participation in preservation actions.

Partners in this programme include: the State Bureau for Cultural Property of China and its local bureaux; the municipalities of Xian, Lhasa, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Patan, Metro Manila and Vigan; the Luang Prabang provincial authority; the People's Committees of Hue and Hoi An, the universities of Tsinghua, Trondheim and Bordeaux; the city of Chinon (France), the Patan Development Programme/ UDLE/GTZ-Germany, the Directorate for Cultural Heritage of Norway, the European Commission and the French and Netherlands governments. The programme is coordinated by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, which also promotes its linkage to other international activities and to the World Heritage Committee.

Integrated Community Development and Cultural Heritage preservation through leap -- Local effort in Asia & the Pacific

Regulations intended to protect and preserve cultural monuments and sites, historic urban centres and cultural landscapes have often -- if inadvertently -- dispossessed local inhabitants of their ancestral homes. Their homes, neighbourhoods and land, imbued with the legends and legacies of the past, have been transformed into parks and tourist attractions, ostensibly for the greater benefit of society. But in many cases, those who manage the sites have no affinity with the collective memory; the site is just another economic asset to exploit and to abandon if the financial returns no longer justify the investment.

UNESCO's experience throughout the world over the past 50 years has shown that when a site loses the involvement of its community, its conservation problems are aggravated. The continued participation of the local community is particularly important in the developing world where public funds are insufficient to cover the costs of site maintenance.

LEAP's objective is to empower the local community to:

  • understand and advocate the longer term conservation of the historic cultural sites;
  • play a leading role in the work of protecting, conserving, presenting and managing the site;
  • benefit financially from enhanced conservation while maintaining social and spiritual traditions.

It is a people-centred development project that addresses issues of environmental conservation, the right to shelter, urbanisation and the globalisation of culture within the context of cultural heritage preservation and enhancement. The first phase (1996-97) of the project initiated in three of the historic cities participating in the Programme for Asian World Heritage Cities for the 21st century has been made possible by a generous grant to UNESCO from the Netherlands Government. The project is administered by the UNESCO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific based in Bangkok in cooperation with the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO Headquarters.

Text: Yves Dauge, Roland-Pierre Paringaux, Minja Yang;
Editorial Management: Minja Yang, Gina Doggett;
Production Assistant Réjane Herve, Kate O'Connor;
Graphic Design and Layout from which the WWW version was adapted:
Idé - 12, galerie Montmarte, 75002 Paris.

June 1996

Publication made possible by a grant from the American Express Foundation.

Date Start: Saturday, 1 June 1996