By Guest Author Vaswar Mitra
Should a city struggling to provide its residents with basic amenities concern itself with issues of heritage conservation and identity? For the postcolonial cities that are facing this crisis, it is important to start considering the built heritage as a major economic driver and to encourage private investment in this sector and increase the margin of tax profits, which can again be pumped into the same historical zone for its better preservation.
The major conservation drives in nineteenth-century Europe that gave us the grand boulevards, museums, and magnificent riverfronts of cities such as Paris or Vienna displaced thousands of people from the historic core of the city, pushing the suddenly homeless outwards toward the suburbs. This is very difficult approach to apply in a present-day developing country, where in the name of conservation, the demands cannot be increased exponentially overnight. Rather, this highlights the need to not only conserve historic buildings, but also to rehabilitate them.
Historic rehabilitation through adaptive reuse of heritage zones and ‘infilling’ empty or deserted areas reduces the need to expand the community infrastructure. It has been found that demolition followed by re-building is much less expensive than a major renovation of the existing building. In the process of rehabilitation, a large number of properties rendered unusable from decay or ownership fragmentation can be rejuvenated for tax profits.
In addition to the building stock of the old mansions that are falling into disrepair, in many developing cities there are housing complexes that date back to the colonial era in the erstwhile ‘European Quarter.’ These buildings still encourage continuity of use, after minimal repairs, as middle and lower-middle income group housing. This again emphasizes the potential of older building stock, if not the buildings designated as ‘heritage’ only, to be reused and merged into the current urban fabric.
Rehabilitated older buildings enjoy the significant advantage of proximity – to work, to schools, to shopping, and to transportation in addition to being located in geographically ideal spots. These buildings are enticing since most buyers prefer a structure that reflects their identity and individuality. The most important element of this housing, however, would be the ‘invisible’ benefits of conservation; for example, the continuity of social and cultural traditions and the sustenance of the ‘functions’ that gave the city its ‘form.’ This is difficult to achieve without the collaboration of private developers, conservation architects, and the homeowners. Tax credits can be provided in heritage zones along with more relaxed floor-area ratios as incentives for rehabilitating the existing buildings of cultural significance, which allows rents and property prices to be more attractive.
Kolkata’s Architectural Legacy — Die Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), Zurich
Housing Conservation — Dr. Florian Steinberg