I. Preservation paradigms
Framing the issues
This essay consists of personal observations about the preservation of China’s heritage resources at the urban scale. While many of the issues raised also directly impact the protection of individual structures, my concern is for ensembles of structures, and for the cultural attitudes and economic strategies that determine their fate in the face of rapid urbanization.
While preservation efforts serve objectives within the domain of the conservation of cultural patrimony, they also contribute to broader city-building and culture-building objectives and thus finally to the “common good”. The western model of ‘preservation for its own sake’, cannot adequately protect ensembles of buildings at the urban scale, and it cannot make critical contributions to the common good. China’s prevailing preservation strategy -- the “Tourism Model” referenced in the title -- has its own limitations, limiting its effectiveness at both scales: delivering preservation outcomes, and contributing to broader community objectives.
Preservation is just one of a great number of causes or determinants of change in a city. Diverse actors, with diverse motivations, economic, political, social and cultural, interact in the dynamic arena of the changing city. All of these acts and efforts are rarely coordinated, but form a complex adaptive system that relies on emergent patterns to maintain the flow of resources. Paradigms are deep cultural patterns that influence the choices of many actors along similar lines.
“Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues.”
Paul H. Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky, Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. Department of Psychology, Stanford University, February 23, 2011.
Paradigms are not policies, and are not the opinion of any one person, but instead are widely held and usually unconscious “truth biases” -- assumptions about what is true and about what other people are likely to consider as truth.
Preservation also proceeds under the indirect guidance of paradigms. How we think about heritage resources limits the set of actions we are able to consider taking to protect them. This essay examines China’s current preservation paradigm, and seeks out the roots of emerging alternatives.
The preservation handicap
Under any paradigm, we should recognize that heritage elements present significant handicaps to the profitability of redevelopment projects. Fundamental facts of scale and expense pose impediments to the successful incorporation of older structures in redevelopment plans. Historic buildings are likely to be low-rise, with small and irregular units or room sizes; they present an opportunity cost, in the lost development potential of their footprint and surrounding landscape elements; their repair and rehabilitation is expensive and specialized; they can form obstacles to modern transport and land use planning; and they bring along large constituencies of residents, business owners, cultural groups, and other stakeholders who may impact the speed of development approval processes, and affect the brand identities of projects.
On the other hand, heritage resources bring some significant advantages to redevelopment projects:
Cultural endowments such as traditional architecture, unique streetscapes, and historic sites are increasingly recognized as important economic resources in both developed and developing countries.
Improving the conservation and management of urban heritage is not only important for preserving its historic significance, but also for its potential to increase income-earning opportunities, city livability, and competitiveness.
Katrinka Ebbe: Infrastructure and Heritage Conservation: Opportunities for Urban Revitalization and Economic Development; World Bank, February, 2009.
Heritage resources, when properly integrated into redevelopment projects, can support broader strategic objectives of the resilient city:
engagement. Cultural heritage can contribute a widely shared mental map of community resources, marked with memorable buildings and public places, and reinforced through everyday travel through the city.
social stability. Cultural resources contribute to neighborhood identity, creating smaller scaled communities and geographies that support social justice and community policing strategies.
economic stability. Cultural heritage environments are fine-grained and diverse, creating a richer habitat for small business development. Cultural and heritage resources support local economies. They offering branding identities for new business development, particularly valuable for inspiring inward investment.
health and safety. Historic structures and cultural landscapes contain a treasure-trove of appropriate technology strategies for improving sanitation and healthy living conditions, and resisting and surviving natural disasters. Communal maintenance of traditional structures, landscapes and infrastructure provides opportunity for ongoing community education in environmental stewardship.
resilience. Cultural activities, such as holiday celebrations, performances and dramas, can provide opportunities for public information and education about resource management and environmental stewardship.
empowerment. Maintaining historic structures and districts engages residents in small scale communal initiatives that can be “practice runs” for more serious challenges. This kind of activity builds skills, leadership, and a culture of collaboration.
The Tourism Model
The current prevailing paradigm for the preservation of historic districts -- what I call the Tourism Model -- views heritage resources as tourism resources. In this view, collections of historic structures are visitable, educational amusements, more “up-market” than entertainment parks but similar in function. Their value as historic artifacts is measured by their value in the market to produce tourism revenues.
The paradigm has its origin in China’s larger modernization narrative: in the context of industrialization and urbanisation, historic urban environments are seen as functionally obsolete remnants of an out-dated economic system. In this narrative, they are asked to play the role of foil to new structures that embody the values of a modernizing country: big clean, and technologically advanced.
In China’s state capitalism economic system, redevelopment is a for-profit endeavor, with the sale of land by local governments funding investment in infrastructure. As government officials and developers search for a function, and a revenue stream, for protected heritage districts, the Tourism Model presents itself: easily implemented, with its familiar financing and management process, much like any other entertainment facility. And it works: the cafes and ice cream shops of Lingnan Tiandi, Foshan’s newly rebuilt Old Town, filled quickly, mostly with visitors from the immediate region. When Lijiang was rebuilt after an earthquake destroyed most of its modern buildings, its new wooden guesthouses in traditional styles quickly made it a premier tourism destination.
The Tourism Model can produce successes, measured in preservation outcomes, land development outcomes, and in even in broader community revitalization outcomes. But it brings with it some significant flaws and limitations, that urge us on to find new paradigms for the preservation of historic districts.
Limitations of the Tourism Model
Historic districts redeveloped under the tourism model usually display several of the following unintended consequences:
loss of cultural continuity. Whether it happens up front or in later stages of gentrification, the tourism model almost always makes a clean break in the chain of ownership, occupation, and use of the structures, resulting in a loss of continuity with living traditions.
loss or falsification of context. The tourism model relies on the redevelopment of surrounding areas to take advantage of the attraction amenity of the protected site, and to generate sufficient revenue to offset the cost and opportunity cost of preserving the historic asset. Consequently, these projects lack geographic continuity with their surroundings, and often consist of tourism support facilities or leisure housing. However well-designed the new surrounding development may be in aesthetic terms, its function and market level doesn’t play the same supporting role as a traditional neighborhood.
narrowed experience: Tourism activities are shorter, cleaner, more standardized, and more superficial than “real-life” activities. A visitor may more likely find themselves taking a snapshot and buying a trinket, rather than taking a class, participating in a ritual, or engaging in work.
distancing experience: Even when well-executed, a district preserved under the tourism model comes across as a curated museum experience; the tourism model positions participants as outsiders, visitors from outside of the traditional Chinese culture that the site presents.
erasure of other time periods: historic districts retain traces of each era of history. the tourism model edits this record down to a single and simple narrative with commercial appeal.
erasure of contemporary culture and livelihoods: unrelated activities, activities that might distract from the visitor’s voyeuristic experience of travelling to another time period, are relocated out of the district, or moved out of sight. Local residents have fewer reasons to live or work in the district.
loss of economic diversity: either by policy or district branding, unrelated businesses locate elsewhere, weakening the district’s economic resilience and narrowing its contribution to the regional economy.
erasure of visible signs of subsistence activities: Although often cited as a benefit, the loss of visible poverty can mask deeper economic problems, by moving poorer families elsewhere in the metropolitan region, where there is less incentive to improve their living conditions.
While all preservation approaches involve some degree of erasure and simplification of the historic record, the tourism model drastically oversimplifies the “message” of a site, narrowing the visitor’s experience and excluding local residents’ pursuit of everyday life. The tourism model offers a prepackaged set of project objectives and strategies, centered around a tourism revenue model. In the end, this approach excludes the ideas and people who might use preservation as a means toward broader social benefit.
Desire for alternatives
In most places, the problems with the Tourism Model are present but not felt, or perhaps felt but not discussed. The exceptions are in smaller cities, with lower land development pressures and tourism prospects; in older cities, with established tourism narratives, long-protected heritage districts, and mature preservation advocates; and in industrial conservation areas, where historic assets are not very old or significant, and standard tourism narratives don’t apply. In these places, the search for alternative paradigms is well underway.
There are not yet very many stakeholders and advocates for historic preservation in China; indeed, this essay would hardly be necessary if large numbers of citizens and community organizations shared a preservation vision. Among all of the loud voices for progress and growth, many are also calling for China’s longstanding cultural values to be brought to bear on deepening the modernization process. Many people believe that policymakers at the highest levels are seeking to reassert core Confucian values, as they build up, and lay claim to, an authentic and distinctive alternate modernity for the Chinese nation.
For now, these instincts for cultural continuity mostly feed preservation efforts along the lines of the Tourism Model. I am hopeful that these same instincts and motives, as the conversation matures, will lead us to a distinctly Chinese preservation paradigm.
Obstacles to seeking alternatives
Because paradigms are such passive, unconscious patterns in our collective minds, they persist without any active support. The Tourism Model provides an answer to preservation problems, and a great number of other economic and cultural factors reinforce it, making it more difficult for us to imagine alternatives. Those factors include:
land value pressures. China’s modernization focus, its preference for building at urban densities, and the economic structure of local government put incredible pressure on the land value of heritage structures. The same factors also make money much more available for new development than for redevelopment.
plastic concepts of authenticity. Chinese culture has very flexible concepts of authenticity, which don’t call for heritage protection with the same urgency as in Western countries. Hong Lou Meng, written in the 18th century, describes the construction of “instant” pleasure gardens, complete with antiqued palaces and rustic retreats.
perceived abundance of heritage resources. Due to persistence of patterning in Chinese culture, great numbers of very similar villages and structures were built in each historical era. Although there are attempts at comprehensive inventories, demolition still proceeds on a “first come, first served“ basis.
chinese exceptionalism with regard to international examples. Because western preservation models are so fully developed, Chinese decision makers are frequently confronted with all-or-nothing choices, without enough time to develop their own approaches. It is easy to visualize international NGO partners, arriving in China with multi-volume preservation standards and methodologies, and demanding full compliance. And it is easy to understand Chinese refusal of such partnerships.
lack of established regulatory channels; China lacks detailed and consistent regulations to preserve ordinary historic environments and environments with multiple owners. There is an over-reliance on partnerships with large property owners and negotiated custodial arrangements with large tourism companies.
lack of champions of preservation. There are not enough educated and informed advocates for preservation in government, in the planning professions, and among ordinary citizens. There are not enough cultural organizations dedicated to preservation.
still moving off the farm: urban populations are predominantly recent rural immigrants. Their images of success are formed by popular culture, and usually do not include living in old, low-rise buildings.
lack of hipsters: Cultural creatives are frequently cited as the natural inhabitants of historic districts. In China, relatively few young people build up urban cultural identities. They are mostly focused on economic goals, and they quickly mature into mainstream parenting demographic types.
dead people’s houses: Many people have a deeply ingrained cultural reluctance to occupy older structures as housing. Civic leaders prefer large, new “flagship” projects or iconic historic landmarks to carry their city’s brand. Ordinary historic districts can play a supporting role, at best, in current city branding paradigms.
land succession issues; Properties may be claimed by many heirs, or they may revert to government ownership. Lack of confidence in future tenure in the building, and lack of confidence in the future coherence of the district as a whole, weaken private sector investment in historic properties.
Despite these obstacles, China’s preservation paradigm is evolving. To see it, we must visualize the obstacles as constraints -- simply the determinants of the path ahead, they are specific opportunities for changing mindsets and opening new possibles from the old impossibles. It’s not just a matter of advocating for better preservation outcomes, but rather of claiming preservation as part of a larger effort in community building and cultural survival.
II. Seeking alternatives
Reviving historical imagination
The core of any preservation paradigm is the historical imagination: how we think about the past, or how we ”occupy” the past, as a state of mind, or as a shared cultural reference. The current paradigm sees the past as a kind of theater set dressing for lessons in civic virtues; not without merit, but too limited. We are currently suffering from a failure of the historical imagination: we are failing to imagine the past as a vital part of the future.
What is needed is to first seek out forms of historical memory with contemporary social utility, and then build preservation strategies from them. Social utility means, “what is history good for, or used for, in the present?” We need to look at current answers to this question, even if they seem small, or trivial, or removed from the realm of the built environment. It is essential that the answers need to come from the general public, from the mainstream culture, in order to have momentum and authenticity.
Today, most people approach China’s traditional culture as outsiders. We imagine the past as an occupiable fantasy realm, whether our motives are superficial:
- nostalgia/ historical fantasy themed resorts and restaurants;
- historical drama TV and cosplay;
or more serious:
- personal development: yoga, spirituality, the search for identity and tradition;
- Confucian schools;
- personal memorials;
- truth and reconciliation processes.
In this view, the past is a kind of movie reel, that can be rewound and replayed, that we can step into, and then completely out of, in a moment.
What is needed is a new way to imagine the past, one that sees tradition as vehicle, carrying us forward through the ages. Seen from within, the vehicle is familiar and belongs to us. It integrates innovations in an ever expanding storehouse of cultural responses to environmental challenges.
Paradigms are deep structures in our collective landscape of ideas. They resonate simultaneously in several fields of human activity, and can’t be directly manipulated. To rediscover a contemporary Chinese preservation paradigm, we must look at concurrent trends in contemporary chinese culture, that frame the attitudes and “imaginables” of the actors in urban transformation.
1. cultural foundation -- China’s cultural resilience
Traditional cultural practices continue as an integral part of contemporary chinese culture. Familiar examples include chinese medicinal practices, social exercise in parks, amateur music groups, and regional holiday celebrations.
While mobility continues to increase, many families have stayed in place, building cultural continuity at a neighborhood scale. This includes: continuity of tenure, continuity of teacher/ protege relationships; continuity of annual community events and of the cultural groups that support them. Communities continue to build up cultural capital, even as families build economic capital.
Affluent and educated Chinese are mining traditional cultures and religions for guidance in personal development. Examples include: the emergence of yoga, interest in travel to Tibet, staying in temples/ monasteries, and practicing traditional martial arts and calligraphy.
While urbanization increases the stresses of local, national, and global cultures coexisting, Chinese cities are finding ways to manage the conflicts. public spaces and public institutions are given new roles and new challenges related to integrating migrants, and building local culture.
“In societies where traditions are still alive, historic cities can be seen as surviving engines of cultural identity…. They convey the inner dimension, the soul, of an unfolding human development process.”
Stefano Bianca, “Resources for Sustaining Cultural Identity”, in Historic Cities and Sacred Sites. The World Bank, 2001.
The impact of these threads of cultural continuity on the preservation paradigm are potentially quite significant:
Established and increasingly affluent native/ local residents are emerging as stakeholders for preservation.
Contemporary community cultural organizations are eager to occupy historic structures and nurture historic districts.
Growing, multicultural cities have new cultural challenges that historic districts can address. City leaders are recognizing the need for the shared spaces and shared stories that historic districts offer.
2. economic development foundation – emergent local economies
As Chinese economy matures, competition between cities is increasing. Cities must create distinctive market niches, with increasingly sophisticated, and nuanced, identity-building strategies.
As rural to urban immigration continues, governments are called upon to more comprehensively fulfill the economic promise of the city. Cities have a renewed focus on neighborhood-scale job creation and support for small business. This type of job creation supplements and leverages the impact of core industrial job creation. It also helps maintain the geographic balance of jobs and housing, maximizing the benefits of transit investments.
Market saturation and online shopping are bringing about significant changes in retail. Retail is becoming an immersive entertainment experience, a voluntary leisure time activity, while daily necessities are supplied by big-box shopping and home delivery.
The significance of these trends for the preservation paradigm are:
Cities have new opportunities to promote historic districts as part of the industry market niches. In Foshan, the restored historic Nanfeng kilns form the centerpoint of a very significant dimension of the city’s brand and economic base, the ceramics industry.
Cities can use heritage resources to build brands that attract new business throughout the city. Xiamen’s historic buildings are a universal identifier for the city, while in fact are limited to a very small part of the city.
Local business and historic districts are a great match: small businesses fit in small buildings, on small streets; locally-owned businesses fit in easier than large firms, and can more confidently take advantage of an historic district location. Cultural industries/ businesses are also good fit, and also form good links between historic districts and surrounding redevelopment areas.
The new retail landscape is full of opportunities to develop non-tourism markets in historic districts. Emerging phenomena include: the rise of cultural creatives yuppies, and bobos; local branding and microbranding; bar streets, family-owned hostels, and artist villages.
3. social foundations – emergent demographic trends
Transit investments are empowering marginal urban communities. Transit is changing the nature of metropolitan populations. Rural and urban, formal and informal, are no longer useful distinctions in the new geography of the connected city. Transit empowers edge cities to participate in metropolitan economies while maintaining their own cultures, and allows immigrants to attain the cultural identity of citizenship.
Immigrant business associations (representing business owners from each province in Shenzhen, for instance) build economic strength for immigrant subcultures. Dual cultural membership, in one’s hometown and in one’s adopted city, helps migrants to bridge cultural divides and nurture transplanted cultural traditions.
Hukou reform is empowering urban residents. The incremental reform of the hukou system is bringing very concrete entitlements to migrant families, allowing them to engage with much greater commitment in the economy and culture of their adopted cities.
Affluent youth are engaging in new forms of culture-building. Affluence and family planning policies have converged to produce a generation with high levels of personal development and educational attainment, who are slower to marry, slower to have children, and have less urgency to find paying work. This generation has the time and interests to engage in new types of cultural organizations and culture-building activities.
Travel, interaction with foreigners, and the return of Overseas Chinese are increasing the sophistication of city dwellers As more Chinese have the resources to travel, have business contacts with foreigners, and engage the perspectives of overseas chinese, they develop a “proto-cosmopolitanism” that opens new markets, new cultural practices, and new social networks.
Consequences for preservation paradigms:
- Urban cultures are becoming more diverse and geographically distributed.
- New constituencies are emerging to pay for and animate community cultural organizations.
- Leisure patterns are shifting from blockbuster weekend entertainments to everyday lifestyle activities.
Each of these increases the market relevance of non-landmark heritage resources targeting local users.
4. “everyday urbanism” -- humanizing the city
Great cities are marked by a diversity of urban scales; cities need large, medium, and small places, with distinct identities. Chinese cities become richer humanist places and develop diversity of scale as they mature. Historic districts can seed human scale in cities.
Transport facilities and government buildings are increasingly designed with public use social spaces; they merge with retail environments to form a new commons. Historic districts can complement or integrate with the new commuter-centered public realm.
Walking is recapturing a dominant place in the transportation mode share mix. Attractive routes, with integrated, human-scaled mix of amenities along the way, are connecting all major points in the city to the transit networks. Historic districts have pedestrians in their DNA.
5. ‘Good’ tourism -- current trends in tourism
Changing tastes, looser regulations, and increasing automobile ownership lead to more independent family trips.
Sophistication of taste broadens the types of attractions that appeal to tourists.
Architectural sights are becoming less of the focus of trips, and more the background for additional consumer activities.
Ecotourism and industrial tourism offer new travel concepts centered on participation -- people come to see new solutions to environmental and social problems.
Changes in the tourism market will impact the resilience of historic district business models. New types of tourism activities will create new opportunities for historic districts that may have been deemed infeasible in the past. Tourism will continue to play a role in almost all historic districts, complementing the function of other factors.
An alternative paradigm
Paradigms are widely shared and deeply held -- they can’t be manufactured, but they can be discovered, nurtured, and accelerated. A new preservation paradigm won’t be found in isolation. It will emerge as part of a new approach to redevelopment. Preservation will play a critical role in a deeper, dialectical approach to community development, one that includes residents’ livelihoods, contemporary cultural practices, and the economic identities of cities. It will emerge from, and be integral to, the new solutions and ways of seeing in the various fields we just surveyed.
As Chinese cities gestate a new preservation paradigm, we need to make some room, or clear the way forward, on the practical level. This preparatory work should include:
- new zoning and building controls; with multiple levels of protection for historic structures and cultural landscapes;
- support for the renovation ethic, including skills training and cultural attitudes;
- new traffic planning approaches, including alternative measures of congestion
- new direct support for preservation projects: community engagement and financial support;
- formation of new multiparty partnerships; including empowered cultural organizations;
- greater stability of district planning processes, ownership status of properties, and established financing models for preservation projects.
Qualities of place
When Chinese cities start to enact a new preservation paradigm, as a part of a broader approach to redevelopment, the results will be distinctive. Historic districts will re-emerge as the true centers of city life. Unlike the movie stage sets of tourism-focused districts, these districts will support and draw vitality from the everyday lives of their contemporary occupants. To live in such a district is to live inside Chinese culture, in the hub of a living, growing tradition that is creating China’s future.
Without further defining new preservation paradigms, I will simply suggest a few of the qualities of such districts, namely: inclusion, equity, engagement, and celebration.
The inclusive historic district makes room for a full spectrum of inhabitants, users and visitors, including the original residents, new demographics representing the entire city, and visitors of all kinds. It makes room for residents of nearby neighborhoods who feel it is their own. It includes all income levels and all ages, and the ordinary and occasional activities of families.
- aging in place
- reversing brain drain
- low income housing and services
- family life in the city
The equitable historic district is a place where a great number of people have ownership and the feeling of ownership, much like a traditional community. It supports locally-owned and small businesses and homeownership at all income levels. Public spaces serve common activities, without the sense that tourism is the priority.
- street culture
- cultural industries
The engaged historic district builds on the active participation of all participants -- residents, workers, and visitors. It has an intimate physical scale, supporting social relationships at a community scale. It supports hands-on activities that ground participants in place and occasion. The governance of the district, from strategy to routine maintenance, is broadly participatory.
- engage the body and the senses
- engage with ordinary activities of life
- engage skills and loyalties
The festive historic district shows us what we are working for, in the everyday appreciation for simple pleasures, without waiting for retirement or an escape-themed vacation. A rich web of social and cultural activities is presented as both the means and ends of city life. In the festive district, we consume and enjoy culture, but we also put effort into giving back, becoming the hosts of cultural offerings.
- events and event spaces
- storytelling and memory
- groups and organizations have homes
Emergence of the new
Where will a new paradigm for preservation emerge? It won’t come from one person, or from one profession. It won’t come from policy. It won’t come from outside China. It will come from many small changes in the culture, in the structure of society, and in the economy, as we have touched upon in this essay.
New paradigms emerge as responses to deep societal needs. For the preservation of historic districts in China, a new paradigm will respond to:
a call from the common culture. It will come in response to a broad swell of demand within the common culture, an invitation from the Chinese people to meet the changing conditions of urban life with new ways of thinking.
a new use of language. It will need to find a home in the language. Linguists tell us, “that which can be thought is that which can be said”, and this is particularly true in China. New ideas cannot be spoken and enacted until they are cradled in new words or new usages of old words.
new openings in the workflow. In China, the types of activities that local planning departments and land developers can undertake is highly patterned. So we will need new patterns -- new kinds of studies, new kinds of projects, new procurement process, new kinds of firms, and new kinds of professional qualifications -- to make a path for new ways of thinking about, and valuing, heritage environments.new champions. Finally, it will require new kinds of client protagonists: not just “preservation advocates”, but civic leaders with a deep, persistent, drive to carry forward Chinese cultural identity, and help forge a true Chinese contemporaneity.