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Balancing change with
historic identity

The heritage capital in cities
How can cities balance development with their historic and cultural character? That's the question posed by Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage.

It has been argued, with good reason, that cities are man’s greatest achievement. The ability of millions of individuals to live harmoniously and healthily together with enough food, drink and energy is, where it happens, extraordinary.

This achievement is even more remarkable considering that many cities are hundreds, and in a small number of cases, thousands of years old. These are places that have had to renew and reinvent themselves to meet new situations, riding often tumultuous social, political and economic change.

Change is at the heart of metropolitan life. Development and redevelopment is what allows cities to survive and thrive. The central business districts of many cities have been rebuilt several times since the Second World War. Residential areas develop more slowly, but they do change as older houses are swept away to make way for newer ones, low rise is replaced by high rise and unfashionable areas become gentrified.

In this continuous turnover, the pride of one generation quickly becomes the blight of the next. Buildings erected with skill and imagination to meet current needs become redundant and unusable more and more rapidly. In many cities, this creates a dilemma, as buildings erected 100 years ago or more are integral to the look, feel and character of a place. Take them away and a city loses part of its identity. Take them all away and the city becomes somewhere else.

How to balance development and change with the need to retain and enhance character and identity is a central issue for cities in both the developing and the developed world, particularly in places where civic infrastructure was built around a century ago. Some cities have successfully embraced the challenges of reusing defunct infrastructure. Old industrial areas have become home to boutiques, bars and restaurants.

For example, the meat-packing district in New York and its old disused railway, now called the High Line, shows what can be done with redundant, but historically rich, structures. The massive King's Cross goods yard in London is now home to educational institutions, hi-tech businesses and trendy flats. An old custard factory in Birmingham has given way to fashionable shops, cafés and offices.

There are lessons to be learned in towns across the world for cities wanting to reuse historic buildings in their regeneration schemes. Yet successful schemes seem to be the exception rather than the norm. Generally, the assumption is that it is better to demolish and rebuild. Adaptation is seen as troublesome, time-consuming and, crucially for the developers, less profitable. Of course, sometimes buildings cannot be adapted and given new uses, but more often than not they can be. And when they are, they generally create value both in an economic sense and in terms of providing well-being for citizens.

In the most progressive cities, old buildings are now seen as capital that can produce significant economic return for a relatively small investment. This capital can be the defining factor as cities compete with each other to entice corporations, students, tourists and talent. Between places with a rich historic character and those that adopt the homogenizing architectural language of global capitalism, the choice for cities is increasingly easy.

This blog is part of a series managed by The Economist Intelligence Unit for AkzoNobel.