Cultural Heritage and Urbanisation in China

Emeritus Professor Ken Taylor AM is an Adjunct Professor in the Research School of Humanities & the Arts at The Australian National University. He was a Visiting Professor at Tongji University in October/November 2012, has been a speaker at China ICOMOS meetings and conferences in Beijing, Hangzhou and Guizhou. He has been asked to take part in a meeting in Guangzhou and to discuss on site conservation of historic towns around Guangzhou and to give an address at the plenary meeting ‘The Responsibility of Cultural Industries in the New-type of Urbanisation’ at a conference at the Communications University of China, Beijing.—The Editors


China’s rapid urbanisation has generally meant the destruction of traditional neigbourhoods that are replaced with modern buildings and community spaces that are usually architecturally dull and unpleasant to inhabit. This problem is global: Zetter and Watson note in the Introduction to Designing Sustainable Cities in the Developing World that globalisation has dramatically impacted city design with two particular negative outcomes.[1] One is the accelerating destruction of the patrimony of indigenously designed and developed urban places and spaces, with culturally-rooted built environments eroding. The other is that the pressures are commodifying the place-identity of historic urban places spaces and places, detaching them from their local, spatial, and temporal continuity, whilst still representing them as preserved authentic artefacts for global cultural consumption.

Hangzhou West Lake (2007).

West Lake, Hangzhou, 2007

This is sadly an accurate portrayal or the development of most Chinese cities, but a striking example of a successful Chinese attempt to address the negative outcomes is the case of the city of Hangzhou and adjacent West Lake. The area holds a special place in Chinese thinking on key aspects of its culture.[2] In 2011 an area designated as West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou was inscribed on the World Heritage List. It extends over West Lake and the hills surrounding its three sides; its beauty has inspired famous poets, scholars and artists since the 9th century era of the Tang Dynasty (618-907CE). It comprises numerous temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens and ornamental trees, as well as causeways and artificial islands. These additions have been made to improve the landscape west of the city of Hangzhou to the south of the Yangtze river. The West Lake has influenced garden design in the rest of China as well as Japan and Korea over the centuries and bears an exceptional testimony to the cultural tradition of improving landscapes to create a series of vistas reflecting an idealised fusion between humans and nature. It is a landscape of immense tranquil beauty and cultural meaning for Chinese people, and marks, in my view, a high water mark in World Heritage thinking. It is immensely popular with Chinese visitors either taking a tranquil boat ride or walking through its park edges and along the causeways and islands. Of fundamental significance to its future is that management will be directed by constraints on the overall development of the city in relation to its potential impact on the West Lake landscape. These constraints are intended to ensure that there is no encroachment laterally of the city behind the hills that flank the lake. Modern high-rise developments of the central part of the city are visible at the head of the lake, although considerable tree planting along the lake edge helps to ameliorate visual impact. Hangzhou, ancient capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) is today a modern bustling industrial city; its juxtaposition next to the dreamy West Lake is an interesting example of how to manage urban change that shows respect for the landscape setting.

Zetter and Watson further point to the way literature on cities and urbanisation in the developing world has framed sustainability questions mainly in terms of the environmental agenda preoccupied with issues such as pollution, urban waste, energy, transport and the urban footprint.[3] However, urban areas in the developing world are more than this. Taking Chinese towns and cities we see, in spite of rapid modernisation, that they are vibrant, living entities where life on the streets and sense of living history are palpable. From this follows the argument that viable responses to the pressures of urban growth, deteriorating quality of urban life and homogenisation of urban form and design need to address and explore the resilience and adaptability of local urban traditions, technologies, place identities and cultural precepts under the rubric of cultural heritage conservation in urban design and development. In other words, there needs to be a focus on cultural sustainability.

Chinese Urban Conservation

The PRC has a remarkable array of historic towns and cities and historic sections of urban areas reflecting the country’s rich cultural heritage. These urban agglomerations reflect both physical tangible heritage values and intangible values related to regional building styles and traditions, ways of living, sense of place and a multitude of cultural assets. A number are included in the World Heritage list (Ping Yao, Ancient villages of Xidi and Hongcun, Macao Historic Centre and Lijiang Ancient Town.) By 2004 there were ninety-nine nationally recognised Historically and Culturally Famous Cities,[4] and many regional examples of historic traditional settlements and urban areas exist throughout the PRC.

Chinese tourists at Lingying Temple, north-west Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province (2012).

Chinese tourists at Lingying Temple, north-west Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, 2012

Over the last thirty-five years economic development in the PRC has been dazzlingly rapid. Urban areas have expanded exponentially, Chinese people are flocking to the country’s historic places in ever increasing numbers, international tourism to PRC is gaining ground. In the example of West Lake, Bandarin and Van Oers note that in 2010 there were twenty million tourists and one can only speculate how this number might increase given World Heritage listing.[5] Chinese people, proud of their patrimony are visiting places and wanting to know more about their history, their culture, their heritage. The impact on the country’s cultural heritage resources is palpable as pressures mount on PRC’s historic legacy so that national, provincial and local governments are hard pressed to meet management challenges. One area of critical concern is that of urban conservation and protection of traditional urban communities. The loss of these communities in major Chinese cities under urban renewal schemes is well documented. ‘The obliteration of most of Beijing’s hutong, or courtyard lane residences, is but one highly visible example.’ [6] This area of concern is mirrored in international initiatives and new ways of addressing urban conservation. Notwithstanding destruction of urban communities as part of urban renewal in China, there are particular examples of a sympathetic initiatives where local communities have been allowed to continue in their traditional settlements. A specific example serves to illustrate this and to act as a guide for further work: the historic canal towns of Shanghai. Such towns have rich histories, traditional architecture, and daily life that make them distinctly and unmistakably Chinese such as Zhuijiajiao. Taking Zhuijiajiao we see changes have taken place, but they are changes that can be seen not to be simply touristically fashionable vernacularism. Notably the local community consists of people who have traditionally lived here for generations; people who want to continue to live here because it is a community, not merely a population. It is a cogent example of changing social values where tourism now substantially helps the local economy, but where changes have not destroyed the place from the point of view of tangible values (traditional buildings and canal setting), and from point of view of intangible values (people’s lives, community feeling and sense of place). Significantly the place still belongs to them and they belong to it. In one building you may catch a glimpse of a local aged persons’ group playing mahjong. Heritage conservation planning addressed the views and feelings of local people who wanted to stay in their community: here is the essence of the city as cultural landscape within the HUL paradigm. The sense of authenticity and that of integrity are palpable.

Historic Zhuijiajiao (2007).

Historic Zhuijiajiao, 2007

During the 1980s and early 1990s critical thinking on cultural heritage conservation led to a widened mindset where heritage values were not seen as residing simply in famous monuments and sites of the rich and famous. Arising from this – and the burgeoning interest in cultural landscapes in the 1980s – came a comprehensive definition of an operational framework for three categories of World Heritage cultural landscapes in 1992. These embraced the concept of ordinary places having heritage value and acted as a driver to re-think other heritage categories – particularly in the field of intangible heritage values and vernacular heritage – and their conservation principles that had been established in earlier periods. The declaration, therefore, at a conference in Vienna in May 2005, of the UNESCO Vienna Memorandum on World Heritage and Contemporary Architecture – Managing the Historic Urban Landscape, was timely. It followed concern by the World Heritage Committee about impacts of modern developments on historic urban areas and compatibility with the protection of their heritage values. This was particularly so with its proposition of the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) notion as a tool to reinterpret the values of urban heritage, and indication of the need to identify new approaches and new tools for urban conservation. Of seminal importance was the primal shift in thinking on the urban environment away from purely physical architectural fabric to that of one fitting the cultural landscape model as seen in paragraph 7 of the Memorandum which refers to the historic urban landscape as:

… ensembles of any group of buildings, structures and open spaces, in their natural and ecological context, including archaeological and palaeontological sites, constituting human settlements in an urban environment over a relevant period of time, the cohesion and value of which are recognized from the archaeological, architectural, prehistoric, historic, scientific, aesthetic, socio-cultural or ecological point of view. This landscape has shaped modern society and has great value for our understanding of how we live today.

Building on the Vienna Memorandum a major intellectual endeavour of rethinking and broadening of ideas has evolved in urban conservation. Specifically the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) approach, through its recognition of the layering of significance and values in historic cities – deposited over time by different communities under different contexts – relates intellectually to the cultural landscape concept. Van Oers lucidly summarises this thinking in the following definition:

Historic Urban Landscape is a mindset, an understanding of the city, or parts of the city, as an outcome of natural, cultural and socio-economic processes that construct it spatially, temporally, and experientially. It is as much about buildings and spaces, as about rituals and values that people bring into the city. This concept encompasses layers of symbolic significance, intangible heritage, perception of values, and interconnections between the composite elements of the historic urban landscape, as well as local knowledge including building practices and management of natural resources. Its usefulness resides in the notion that it incorporates a capacity for change.[7]

The culmination of thinking on new international approaches to urban conservation was the 2011 UNESCO General Conference Recommendation on Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) [8] with its recognition of the layering of significances and values in historic cities deposited over time by different communities under different contexts, relates closely to the cultural landscape concept. The Recommendation recognised the challenges of urbanisation today, as well as the importance of cities as engines of growth and centres of innovation and creativity that provide opportunities for employment and education. The Recommendation identified urban heritage, including its tangible and intangible components in their natural context, as a key resource in enhancing the liveability of urban areas and fostering economic development as well as social cohesion.

The Chinese Experience

Traditional dancing in Kongbai public square (2008), Guizhou Province.

Traditional dancing in the public square, Kongbai Village, Guizhou province, 2008

China has enthusiastically embraced the cultural landscape idea within its cultural heritage thinking, not least through the support of the State Administration for Cultural Heritage (SACH) to the extent that it now has two listed World Heritage cultural landscapes: West Lake, Hangzhou (2011) and The Hani Rice Terraces (2012). Others are planned. This focus of interest has extended now to embrace the HUL concept and is slowly influencing some key personal in the field of heritage conservation and management. This has been aided by the move of Dr Ron Van Oers from UNESCO Paris to the World Heritage Institute for Training & Research (WHITRAP), Tongji University, Shanghai in the role of Vice Director with the particular brief to work on the HUL Paradigm in China and Asia. The application of the HUL principle has also spread to management thinking for ethnic villages. A notable example is the Miao Ethnic Group in the mountains of Guizhou province at Kongbai Village and Xijiang Thousand- household Village where Guizhou provincial government and SACH with input from Tongji University have liaised to prepare management plans. From the perspective of respect for local values, the conservation management proposals for Kongbai aim to protect and revitalise the vulnerable traditional customs and to stimulate the traditional management. Respect for the wisdom and knowledge systems of the villagers is critical rather than imposition of proposals from outside. Ethnographers worked in the village and successfully reactivated the traditional power of the Head of the village to organise the construction of a new road, which benefits every family. This event regenerated landscape values and collective memory for the village people which had been almost lost during modernization and addition of new buildings. Economists helped the traditional handcraft of this village – silver jewelry – to enter the market and to form an association to protect intangible cultural heritage aspects. This traditional handicraft has also been registered as National Intangible Cultural Heritage.[9]

China has already made a start in approaching urban conservation within the boundaries of the HUL paradigm. There is a growing realisation as Justin Davidson, New York Magazine architectural critic, speculated on WYNC Radio (New York), 15 October 2012, that preserving urban districts architecturally does not prevent change, it accelerates it in effect because it leads to gentrification. It preserves architectural integrity but not communities. I refer to this not as a blanket dismissal of gentrification, but rather to emphasise that there will be examples where local community voices need to be heard and allowed to participate in change that does not disenfranchise them: the HUL approach. The examples discussed above are the essence of the town/city/village as cultural landscape within the HUL paradigm. The sense of authenticity and that of integrity – critical aspects of successful management of cultural heritage places – are palpable.



[1] Roger Zetter and Georgia B. Watson, ‘Designing Sustainable Cities’, in Roger Zetter and Georgia B. Watson, Designing Sustainable Cities in the Developing World, Aldershot, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006, pp.3-18.

[2] Geremie R. Barmé, ‘West Lake 西湖, China Heritage Quarterly, no.28 (2011).

[3] Zhang Bai, ‘Afterword’, in Chinas ICOMOS, Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China, Beijing: China ICOMOS, 2004, p.91; trans. Neville Agnew and Martha Demas, Los Angeles: Getty Institute.

[4] Francesco Bandarin and Ron Van Oers, The Historic Urban Landscape. Managing Cities in an Urban Century, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2012.

[5] Tami Blumenfield and Helaine Silverman, ‘Cultural Heritage Politics in China: An Introduction’, in Tami Blumenfield and Helaine Silverman, eds, Cultural Heritage Politics in China, New York: Springer, 2013, pp.4-5.

[6] Ron Van Oers, ‘Managing Cities and the Historic Urban Landscape Initiative – An Introduction’, in Ron Van Oers and Sachiko Haraguchi, eds, UNESCO World Heritage Papers 27 Managing Historic Cities, Paris: UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2010, p.14. Note: Dr Ron Van Oers is Vice-Director, World Heritage Institute for Training & Research (WHITRAP), Tongji University, Shanghai, with a particular brief to work on the HUL Paradigm in China and Asia.

[7] See: UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape and New Life for Historic Cities, UNESCO 2013.

[8] See: UNESCO The Hangzhou International Congress. Culture’s Contribution to Achieving Sustainable Cities. Key to Sustainable Development.

[9] Feng Han, ‘Cultural Landscape: A Chinese Way of Seeing Nature’, in Ken Taylor and Jane Lennon, eds, Managing Cultural Landscapes, Abingdon UK and New York: Routledge, 2012, p.105.