Building A Future, Inspired By The Past
In India, urban development is often seen as divorced from heritage conservation.
However, the relationship between the two is critical, says, international sustainability expert Olga Chepelianskaia.
Swarajya picked her brain to learn about threats to urban heritage, the importance of heritage conservation, and about the programme she is spearheading.
Indian cities boast of a rich and diverse heritage. However, due to pressures of urbanisation and population, we are fast losing our heritage assets. We have a very small window of opportunity to act and save them. Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) is one such organisation that is working towards conservation and revival of India’s heritage. They recently launched an integrated urban initiative called SEHER (Sustainable Cities Through Heritage Revival), which seeks to tap into the potential of heritage as a valuable social, economic and environmental asset that contributes to building sustainable and liveable Indian cities.
We had the chance to speak to Olga Chepelianskaia, who leads the SEHER programme within INTACH. She is an international sustainability expert, specialising in sustainable and climate-resilient urban development in Asian cities. Over 13 years of professional engagement, she has managed five major international programmes, covered over 20 cities and 40 countries, and worked with seven international institutions including Asian Development Bank (ADB) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Chepelianskaia talked to us about threats to urban heritage, the importance of heritage conservation, and about the programme she is spearheading. Excerpts from the interview:
1. You have worked as an environment and urban development consultant with a number of international organisations including the UN and the Rockefeller Foundation. What sparked your interest in urban heritage?
Since school, I’ve been fascinated with ancient architecture. I spent hours watching the Saint Sernin basilica – the biggest European church on the Roman art period, located in Toulouse, France – from my high-school windows. Impressively, over the three years I spent there, I constantly noticed new details, new light shades, new perspectives, and they inspired new thoughts in me. A critical difference between today’s architecture and most of heritage architecture is that the latter keeps talking to you, surprising you, inspiring you. Because it is unique, it has a personality.
This is precisely what drew me to heritage revival as an urban development specialist. I’ve been working on sustainable urban development in Asia since 2010 and I’m seeing how, gradually, Asian cities are becoming uniform and losing their uniqueness. The process of heritage demolition and large-scale construction work go hand in hand in Asia. Is this what we want for a region that we see as the richest in cultural diversity globally?
I want Asian cities to flourish and this is hardly possible without love and connection to the place they belong to. I’m delighted that INTACH offered me an association and gave me the opportunity to explore the connection between heritage and sustainable urban development in Indian cities.
2. What do you see as the biggest threat to Indian urban heritage today?
I see two major threats.
Heritage legislation in India is weak. As per INTACH’s estimates, only 0.7 per cent of heritage buildings in India are protected. This makes it exactly 7,781 buildings – about half under the national protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the other half by different Indian states. Which means that the overwhelming majority of heritage buildings in India can be demolished at any point in time. Is this an acceptable state of affairs for a nation with such an ancient diversity of cultures as India?
Before I started visiting India, I kept hearing stories of how you see the country change when you travel from one state to another. Now, I feel immense pain and disappointment each time I see the same concrete boxes along the roads from Uttarakhand to Tamil Nadu, from Odisha to Gujarat. I hear the economic argument to justify this, but I don’t buy it. It does not cost much to use local materials more often, to bring basic decorative motives related to the place. On the contrary, it creates jobs and spreads skills. The Indian nation has the responsibility to preserve unique cultural assets. This needs to urgently reflect in our heritage legislation.
An equally important threat is the disconnect that has come about in India between people and their built heritage. I traveled to a number of historic cities under SEHER and talked to people (luckily, I speak Hindi and can directly listen to them). Most of them dream of a concrete box flat. Why? I’m yet to understand this. There are reasons, such as people’s association of a higher social status with modern amenities, or the colonial period which may have disrupted the connection to local arts and crafts to an extent, or religious politicisation of heritage assets that makes one disregard a monument if it is not of one’s religion. Without the roots, a tree, no matter how strong it is, fades.
There is a lot to be done to shift the perception. Through SEHER, we are planning interactive campaigns in select cities to raise awareness about the importance of built heritage assets. We want to create short films on how people in Europe perceive heritage; we want to share successful Indian examples widely.
3. Indian historic city cores, instead of being assets, have become a concentration of poverty and vulnerability. What is the reason for this?
Yes. And more that that, historic cores have often taken the status of slums in India as per the Indian definition of a slum. This means the area lacks basic infrastructure and concentrates poverty and vulnerability. Now, I want to attract your attention to an important point: this is not specific to India. A number of historic European cities have been in this situation.
A couple of years ago, I had the chance to look closely at the case of Monopoli, a small town in the south of Italy. Its magnificent historic core used to be the poorest area of the city. The situation turned 180 degrees when some citizens convinced the local government to take action. Several measures were introduced – the historic core was pedestrianised, inactive historic churches benefited from adaptive reuse, incentives were provided to businesses to settle in the historic town. Simultaneously, restoration took place and inhabitants received guidance on how to preserve the character of the facades, accompanied by financial incentives.
Today, the historic core is the most vibrant part of the town, popular both among locals and tourists. So, yes, we can change the situation in India. For this, we need to realise the value these areas hold and unlock it.
4. How do you see the relationship between heritage conservation and “modern” urban development?
This relationship is vital for cities to be sustainable, inclusive, economically attractive and vibrant. What we see now is a near-complete disconnect between the two. Heritage practitioners work on conservation whereas the city develops in a sporadic and uncontrolled manner with a design disconnected from heritage aesthetics, or no design at all – just standard buildings we see all across Asia. Where does it take the city? It loses its uniqueness and identity. It loses human scale, human touch, diversity and aesthetics.
One could say it doesn’t matter as long as we provide housing and facilities for all, but with this view we fail to see one critical point – qualified work is becoming extremely mobile with the advent of information and communication technology; so, the qualified workforce is now more in a position to choose its location.
Currently, Asia faces significant migration from rural to urban areas, in the search for better incomes. However, we already observe a shift – people prefer to live in the outskirts of medium-sized cities for a better quality of life. They strive for space, greenery, air quality. The city will increasingly need to provide a competitive environment to attract talent and innovation. So, to be sustainable and competitive, a city wants to generate urban design, creatively taking root in the city’s historic core, which is a unique asset. This is a fascinating field – how to create an urban environment with inspiration from the past rather than in visually and spatially incompatible parts. Cities such as Paris and Berlin have showcased exemplary creativity in this regard.
Now, think about the economic aspect. Typical uniform, contemporary buildings are built from materials that age poorly. They require high-level maintenance and lose their aesthetic attraction quickly, in contrast to heritage buildings. This means we are being very short-sighted and building for the next 30-50 years. What can be more unsustainable than rebuilding every 30-50 years from scratch?
What do we leave as heritage legacy to future generations with such an approach? This is why it is critical to connect heritage and urban development. This is precisely the mandate of SEHER INTACH.
5. Activities to do with heritage are generally considered to be in the elite realm. How do you think heritage can be made relevant to the common folk? What role can the local community play in heritage conservation?
This is a critical and complex aspect. We are conducting dedicated research on this to understand how we can increase the connect between people of all social classes with their built heritage environment. As of now, what I can say is that people need to own their spaces. And this ownership comes in a whole variety of dimensions. For example, it is a common scenario that heritage buildings have been for generations inhabited by tenants who pay a nominal amount to the owners in relation to the post-independence Rent Control laws . As a result, no one feels ownership with the place. Second, heritage areas lack basic infrastructure services. Third, as per the regulations, one cannot alter any part of the building in the vicinity of a protected monument without official approval. At first glance, it is an intelligent measure, but when you give it a closer look, you realise that the approval procedures are ineffective, that there is no collaboration between heritage conservation professionals and communities. This state of affairs dispossesses people from their built environment, which is no longer a living, evolving environment.
Connection, care, attachment, love for a place are everything. When this connection is missing, we can enforce certain matters through regulations, but enforcement rarely works in India and it is never as effective as people standing up for their heritage assets.
6. What role can tourism play? Is there a need for sustainable tourism given how more tourism over the years has caused damage to heritage in some cases?
Tourism is both a strong driver of heritage revival and related economic benefits, and poses a threat of gentrification and gradual displacement of the local population. Paris, for example, is now losing 35,000 inhabitants a year despite being a major French economic hub. This is due to the fact that the land value of the historic city core increased beyond what the middle class could afford.
Barcelona historic core’s citizens suffer from the overwhelming surge of tourism. The municipality had to sue Airbnb to ensure there is rental accommodation for the local population. Noise pollution is also the city’s major challenge. These are possible outcomes of more tourism. At the same time, in the early stages, tourism potential can attract attention and investment into a heritage area, generate employment, directly connect local crafts with buyers, bypassing the middleman. And yes, as much as with anything related to infrastructure, sustainability is key.
7. How did the idea of SEHER programme come into being?
SEHER INTACH is a full-fledged cooperation between INTACH, the most influential Indian institution for unprotected heritage advocacy and conservation, and me, with my expertise in sustainable climate-resilient urban development, gained in over 40 countries over the past 13 years. I would like to acknowledge the critical role of K T Ravindran and Divay Gupta in making the programme come into being.
Over the course of numerous discussions and brainstorming, we understood that it is time INTACH leads its heritage work in this critical direction. We are currently enlarging both our outreach and capacity by reaching out to various international institutions, think tanks and prominent professionals to strengthen our work and widely raise awareness about the need for a new approach to heritage in Asian cities before it is too late.
8. The pilot cities chosen by the programme are relatively unknown and are small urban heritage centres. How has the experience of working on ground with them been?
We are still in the process of finalising our pilot cities. Our major criterion is having full commitment and support from municipal and state authorities. We aim to work holistically at the city level, not just parts of the heritage area. We are focusing on linkages; we look at how revived heritage assets play for the whole city at all levels: economic, social, environmental.
Upon UNESCO’s request, we, for example, initiated work with Chanderi. This tier-three town of Madhya Pradesh is an example of a holistic heritage experience, which has already been damaged by large-scale uniform development across areas. In fact, tier-three cities in India may be the future of sustainable urban development. Because there is still scope to approach development in a holistic and creative manner, building on the existing cultural and natural aesthetics of the city. With urbanisation, making sure future cities develop in a sustainable way is important. Success will also demonstrate to tier-two and tier-three cities the advantages of holistic development over sporadic one.
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