Preserving the Past Provides the Foundation for the Future

December 6, 2011

BEIJING, December 6, 2011 – The rich cultural heritage of China represents its collective identity. The country’s archaeological sites, historic architecture, expressive arts, cultural landscapes, and ethnic diversity are also treasured around the world. However, over the last three decades, China’s unprecedented economic growth and urbanization have seriously endangered many of these invaluable cultural assets. The World Bank has been working with China to conserve the country’s cultural heritage. Now, through a new report launched today, a set of best practices and lessons drawn from this partnership is made available to city planners and conservation professionals in China and other parts of the world.

In the past 18 years, the World Bank has supported 12 cultural heritage-related projects in China with approximately US$1.323 billion in loans. Based on these 12 projects, the new report, titled Conserving the Past as a Foundation for the Future: China-World Bank Partnership on Cultural Heritage Conservation, presents an overview of the project approaches and experiences, extracts initial lessons learned, and identifies new directions and challenges ahead.

In the foreword of the report, Shan Jixiang, Director General of China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage writes: “This joint work has addressed many different types of heritage, under varying levels of threat, and in highly diverse environments. The partnership has contributed greatly to the conservation of cultural heritage in China.”

“This China-World Bank partnership has been innovative because it has combined theory with implementation, standard practice with unique site characteristics, and conservation with economic development. The work has focused on the relevance of cultural heritage conservation to urbanization, environmental management, and cultural tourism development,” he writes.

The report highlights three broad areas of lessons:

  • Integrating cultural heritage conservation in infrastructure upgrading and urban regeneration. It is important to strengthen multisectoral urban planning and development-control mechanisms. Local administrations need to develop a clear understanding of the full range of historic, scientific and cultural significance of their cities and involve many different disciplines, such as engineers, planners, environmentalists, conservationists, architects and economists in the planning process. They also need to define and control the use of land to avoid unsympathetic development adjacent to historic sites, through measures such as creation of buffer zones, controls on building heights and the preservation of significant views. In infrastructure upgrading, guidelines for the design, specification and construction that are compatible with historic areas and buildings should be developed and enforced. In residential upgrading, conservation of traditional housing in historic areas should be done in ways that meet residents’ expectations for a rising standard of living.
  • Supporting best practice in conservation to protect cultural heritage with all of its values and significance. Conservation tools that can be long-term resources for cultural heritage bureaus, planners, and site managers should be developed. These tools include cultural heritage strategies, digital archives, and updated conservation and management plans for World Heritage sites. Technical assistance should be provided to conservation institutions and specialists to strengthen their capacities. Involving communities in defining their cultural assets and prioritizing initiatives for conservation can increase not only their appreciation of heritage but also their willingness to take responsibility for its stewardship. For long-term sustainability of conservation activities, it is important for government administrations to plan for the financial and human resources needed for regular operation and maintenance of the cultural heritage sites, and, in some cases, develop strategies to generate extrabudgetary revenues by developing culturally appropriate, fee-based activities.
  • Strengthening the links between cultural heritage conservation and local economic development. Adaptive reuse of historic buildings is an effective strategy for both sustainable conservation and economic development. Experience shows that historic buildings are more likely to be maintained and cared for when they host activities relevant to the daily lives of their surrounding communities. Adaptive reuse also is a direct and significant source of jobs. With fast growth of international as well as domestic tourists, development of sustainable cultural tourism calls for better strategic planning and integrated site development that includes development of tourism products and services, training for local communities and administrative systems for site monitoring and maintenance in addition to conservation and infrastructure upgrading.

While summarizing the past lessons, the report also emphasizes the need to consider a next generation of issues that, if constructively approached, can increase opportunities to conserve China’s cultural assets. Four of these forward-looking issues are to:

  • Maximize the economic benefits of heritage conservation;
  • Leverage traditional knowledge for smart growth and energy conservation;
  • Strengthen the integration of cultural heritage conservation and tourism development; and
  • Recognize cultural heritage conservation as an asset for creative industries.

“The World Bank’s approach to cultural heritage conservation has evolved over time: from an initial pipeline of projects that sought to “do no harm,” to investing in single heritage assets, and finally, to a new generation of projects aimed at leveraging cultural assets and historic cities to achieve economic and social development,” said Klaus Rohland, World Bank Country Director for China. “The World Bank has benefited greatly from its collaboration with China to meet the challenges of managing urbanization while addressing social, economic, and environmental concerns. These considerations, coupled with the irreplaceable nature of cultural assets, mean that the World Bank fully supports the country’s commitment to cultural heritage conservation and stands ready to continue this successful partnership with China,” he added.

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