In conjunction with World Heritage Day (April 18), we share the knowledge a conservator has gained in successfully looking after the ancient heritage-listed city of Edinburgh.
Seek early input from all stakeholders to avoid problems later. That is Edinburgh World Heritage Trust director Adam Wilkinson’s advice to those involved in the management of Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) heritage sites.
He believes that Malaysia, particularly Penang, has “all the right skills” to manage the heritage sites – what’s needed is the confidence to do so.
“Confidence will come with continuous dialogues although there may be friction between the various parties involved,” says Wilkinson, who was in Penang last week to share experiences under the George Town: Expert Dialogues on Liveable Heritage Cities project organised by the British Council and Khazanah Nasional Bhd.
George Town and Malacca were named World Heritage Sites by Unesco in July.
“Everyone has a big role to play and you cannot just say that it’s the responsibility of the state or federal governments or the local authority or the NGOs. It’s got to be a partnership whereby the community and the developers are involved,” Wilkinson adds.
“In Edinburgh, the local authority and the national Government work closely and they are essentially from different political parties. We have a nationalist Government in Scotland; in the city centre, we have a coalition party, and in the United Kingdom, a Labour Government is in charge.
“You can always play the blame game but you need to settle down and work this one out together. Find a common ground which, in this case, is the heritage site management plan – and build on that. You can’t do everything tomorrow.”
It’s crucial for developers to be socially and environmentally responsible, he says. “It would be morally wrong for a developer to embark on a project solely for profit.”
On the other hand, “It’s wrong to say that all developers are bad – there are good developers who are perfectly capable of doing good, sensitive work and who aren’t out to make enormous, as opposed to healthy, profits.
“For instance, a good architect with good imagination can deal with historic buildings well. You don’t need to build massive, 400-room hotels to make a profit. Smaller buildings that blend into the fabric of the heritage city can be profitable too.”
Developers need to be aware of the management plan and the outstanding universal value of heritage buildings so that they are aware of their role and duty in helping to manage them.
“Every heritage site has its own management difficulties but developers can be part of the solution. The community, individual NGOs and the local authority can propose developments that are profitable and acceptable for a world heritage site.”
The hard part, he says, is to strike a balance between private and public interest. “The problem is developers who take a short-term view of what is essentially a long-term project. Heritage sites have been in the making for hundreds of years so developers need to think about the effect of their buildings 30 years down the line instead of the immediate impact on their wallets.
“Sometimes you have to knock and shout to get heard. But don’t just say no to development – you need to propose and explain an alternative that will still make a profit but is sensitive to the surroundings.”
Wilkinson believes a street of historic buildings has value which is often higher than a street of new buildings, and developers need to capitalise on that by adding value to the area with their buildings.
“Just because a place is growing physically, does not mean that it is growing economically. People sometimes make the mistake of linking the two. Of course, when you are developing a country and putting in infrastructure, physical growth does equate economic growth, but Malaysia is past that. To grow economically, you need entrepreneurs, not more office buildings.”
The Unesco listing must create value for the community, and while tourism adds vibrancy to a city, a heritage site should not be turned into a “Disneyland” (theme park).
“We have managed to avoid that with Edinburgh. Tourism is the second largest industry for us, but it is only concentrated on a few streets and at certain times of the year.
“The locals let out their rooms during festivals and peak seasons and the money goes directly into their pockets. Ultimately, the Unesco listing must benefit the people. As long as you are prepared to handle tourism and have a management system in place, it should be fine,” he says.
Wilkinson describes the cultural value of a heritage city as “fundamental”.
“Cultural value is what’s important to your country. When you have empty buildings and people are moving out (as in the case of George Town’s inner city enclave), the state must use its purchasing powers to buy up these buildings and use them for public benefit.
“Positive action can be used, but in consultation with the community. Ask the people what they want and expect from being listed as a world heritage site.
“George Town is intimate and fascinating with its humble houses and local restaurants. Here you can still see the local community sitting outside on the door steps in the afternoons – it shows how life can carry on undisturbed in these modern times.
“I hope those qualities can be retained. The worst thing that can happen is if George Town turns into Khiva – a city museum in Uzbekistan. There, the locals have been emptied out of the wall city. Don’t let George Town become a giant museum.
“It is very difficult to protect living heritage in a globalised world but if you can keep the community intact, then you can encourage traditional trades to flourish. Tourist interest will make it economically viable.”
Wilkinson emphasises the need to explain the meaning of “World Heritage Site” to the community and stakeholders in terms they can understand.
“People appreciate cultural value although they may not know how to describe it. As long as they say, ‘I like living here’, it means that they value the place. Not everyone speaks the same language when it comes to cultural value but you have to try and translate it into terms they can relate to.
“If they say, ‘I like the place because my grandfather lived here’ or ‘I had my first kiss here’, then the place has a heritage value.
“Penangites are very friendly, the food tastes wonderful, it’s an amazing old city, and the beaches are beautiful – you’ve got a lot of amazing strengths to capitalise on.
“Managing a heritage place like this is an ongoing process. The process has begun and whatever we can do from the other side of the globe to propagate greater exchange of ideas with all Unesco listed heritage sites around the world, we will do.
“I see many areas of mutual benefit where we can look at problems together and share our expertise,” Wilkinson says. – By Christina Chin