Talking World Heritage in Granada

By Brian Turner posted 10-04-2018 15:33


Editor's note:  For more on Brian Turner's presentation in Grenada read his previous post, in which he discusses intangible heritage preserved through the San Francisco Legacy Business Program.

The 2018 International Conference on Heritage and Sustainable Development had global purpose: a shared sense of commitment to preserving the world’s places and traditions. In June committed heritage advocates from six continents gathered in Granada, Spain, for three jam-packed days of presentations. From technically trained engineers to philosophical academics, the conference promoted knowledge-sharing across cultures and national boundaries.


The Albayzín | Credit: Photo by Juan Carlos Molina Giménez licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A committee peer reviewed and published papers from each of the 204 presenters in an ebook. "HERITAGE 2018 - Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Heritage and Sustainable Conference" features a wealth of stories of people’s role in saving heritage as well as showcasing what that heritage entails.

The subject matter ranged from the conservation rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia to craftmaking traditions in Boruca, Costa Rica. Stories reflected the importance of the intangible, like the practice of weaving silk textiles in Japan (“mōru”) or the “human treasures” program in Turkey, which features artists like Hayri Dev, a master of traditional music. (Check out Hayri playing a wooden whistle known as a “çam düdüğü.”)

The conference offered refreshing perspectives on preservation across cultural and socioeconomic lenses. The voluminous subject matter inevitably challenged one’s assumptions, and I can’t help but think that global engagements like these will help us better understand the role we play in saving a slice of world story.

I found a few of the presentations particularly compelling.

Assuring Equity in City-Sponsored Rehab of Private Buildings

While Granada’s fabled world heritage site is the 13th-century Alhambra palaces, the city is served by a still-intact vernacular residential district called the Albayzín. In 2011 the city of Granada noted that almost half of the buildings in the Albayzín were in poor condition and more than a quarter were abandoned. Complicating this fact, a high proportion of the residents who remained were elderly and risked displacement.


From left, Brian Turner with University of Cairo professor Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Ph.D. candidate Asmaa Medhat at the heritage conference. | Credit: Brian Turner

The conference plenary address focused on the innovative approach the city took to address equity concerns during the rehabilitation of the Albayzín’s deteriorated structures. It provided direct funding to the building owners for critically needed repairs. In exchange, the owners committed to maintaining low-cost housing for elderly and economically disadvantaged residents. This policy model for ensuring equity while upgrading historic homes is compelling—but while the state-sponsored rehab of private buildings may be politically feasible in Spain, one participant pointed out that it would not be in her home country of Brazil.

The Ethics of Reusing “Uncomfortable Heritage”

Dr. Yiwen Wang of Suzhou, China, presented focused research about the ethics of reuse. She described the adaptive reuse of the 1933 Shanghai Municipal Abattoir, which Atlas Obscura describes as an “eerie Gotham-Deco achievement in concrete, glass, and steel.” Originally one of the world’s first mechanized slaughterhouses, the structure has been repurposed as an event space, popular for Halloween parties and even wedding photography. The presenters asked the audience to consider whether we should be concerned when contemporary efforts to redeem architecture seemingly ignore the difficult aspects of its history.

The Future of Syria 

The preservation of Muslim heritage was a hot topic at this year’s conference. Presenter Zeina Elcheikh reminded the audience that the war in Syria has cost her country more than the ancient city of Palmyra, which was the focus of intense media scrutiny after much of it was destroyed by ISIS. She stressed the importance of involving communities in the decisions surrounding future rebuilding efforts. In her paper, she wrote that “each conflict must be understood in the context of its own historical, political, social and ethno-cultural context.” And in Syria the very balance of peace may rest on which heritage is preserved for posterity and who makes the decisions. As one audience member lamented during the Q&A, more historic buildings were knocked down in the re-building of Beirut, Lebanon, than had been destroyed during the country’s civil war.


Researchers from Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and Norway at lunch during the 2018 heritage conference. | Credit: Brian Turner

The Toll of Cruise Ships 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has long expressed serious concerns about the impact of increased cruise ship tourism in Charleston, South Carolina. Venturing abroad, one quickly learns that this story is not unique. From the Oligny Islands of Scotland to Cinque Terra, Italy, to Dubrovnik, Croatia—newly famed for the “Game of Thrones” series—cruises are causing both direct and indirect harm to sensitive heritage sites around the world. CNN’s 2018 list of destinations “to avoid” makes multiple references to this issue. 

But in some places the advent of cruise ship traffic can be an opportunity. Three researchers from the University of Granada demonstrated that certain cities have been able to manage cruise ship traffic effectively while leveraging the economic advantages they offer to spur urban regeneration, improve public spaces, and rehabilitate industrial and maritime heritage. The prospect of luring visitors to historic ports such as Almeria and Málaga on Spain’s Costa del Sol, for instance, has led to substantial investments in heritage assets and an improved visitor experience.


Slobodan Dan Paich  from the United States, left, and Awais Aqdus from Pakistan share stories during a coffee break at the 2018 heritage conference. | Credit: Brian Turner

Contemporary Additions to Old Buildings in Egypt

Egyptian researcher Asmaa Medhat offered a unique perspective on human behavior in the context of contemporary rehabilitations on El-Moez Street in Old Cairo. After scoping out the street and informally interviewing visitors, she learned that contextual contemporary additions, while controversial among the city’s “old guard,” add important functionality for tourists and enhance livability. She argues that the status quo must bend to embrace more adaptive reuse projects, particularly important for ensuring the street’s continued role as a host for intangible traditions—including parades and festivals.

Whether through the vernacular or through great icons, the attendees in Granada all shared a passion for telling our shared human story, and their collaboration was exhilarating to behold.

Brian Turner is senior field officer and public lands attorney at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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