Last month we read about the first group of 398 old buildings registered as ‘historic buildings’ by Guangzhou government. According to the new preservation law property owners can apply for subsidies for renovating part of their building based on the legal restrictions, which means the overall style, structure, decoration or material should remain as the same. Such protection measures, coupled with incentives, has long been discussed and represents a pragmatic way to encourage maintenance and restoration.
The difficulties of identifying and protecting heritage buildings has been evidenced in Shenzhen’s Xin’an Ancient Town (also known as Nantou Ancient Town or Nantoucheng (南头城), "walled city of Nantou"), whose history can be traced back to 1394. Here you can still find the decorated archway of Xin’an Ancient Town, various Temples and a number of important civic buildings, some of which have been repaired in recent years; however most of the town structure has been replaced by poor quality, cheap accommodation for immigrant labour. When the Shenzhen government first started to identify the need to undertake preservation this resulted in the rapid demolition of heritage buildings by village owners, who were keen to ensure their future development rights were not restricted. Preservation led to destruction. How can land owners in China be convinced of the long term benefits of preservation and heritage conservation?
With these thoughts in mind I made a visit to Píngyáo in Shanxi province last week; a northern, heavy industrial powerhouse of China but rich in history and heritage. Píngyáo Ancient City was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1997 for its exceptional preservation of an intact, classic Han Chinese city from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). However, poverty, a lack of funding and alterations to the historic courtyard buildings made over the years have put this heritage at great risk. Since becoming Heritage Listed, the City has undergone enormous changes, with the development and economic pressure brought about by rapid growth of tourism and with over 40,000 low-income residents living within its ancient walls, Píngyáo is facing unprecedented pressures and rapid deterioration of its core historic Qing Dynasty district and last remaining historic religious, administrative, commercial and residential buildings.
To address these issues, Píngyáo County Government are undertaking comprehensive and systematic approaches as part of an integrated planning, conservation and development program. The Píngyáo Cultural Heritage Development Program aims to preserve the vernacular architecture, revitalize and stimulate the traditional arts and establish special historic areas. Under the direction of Shanghai Tongji University’s Urban Planning School, the Master Conservation Plan includes a comprehensive site conservation plan, budget, and milestones for the protection and restoration of Píngyáo Ancient City. The team has also completed a Management Plan that includes new legal and regulatory protection and private-public conservation and development based on Lijiang, Yunnan. The model aims to ensure innovative adaptive reuse of selected courtyards and help to prevent displacement of indigenous residents due to rising rent and maintenance costs.
So far so good; and I arrived in Píngyáo encouraged. As possibly the best-preserved ancient walled city in China, Píngyáo has a movie-set charm with red lanterns swaying against grey-brick walls; it’s the fact that the entire town is still unmodernised that really captivates the visitor and it remains very much a real living town. The locals are still hanging laundry in courtyards, dangerously careening down alleyways in motorised vehicles or sunning themselves in doorways. But venture to the heart of the town; that first phase of heritage protection identified in the Cultural Restoration Plan, and it comes as no surprise that the streets are mobbed with megaphone-wielding tour groups and lined by streetside vendors selling unnecessary plastic objects and mass produced cultural imitations in front of the newly restored buildings. It’s then that you remember that this is the heritage model adopted at Lijiang; heavily tourism based and there is an desire to urgently escape the superficiality of walking on these restored streets and get back to the surrounding soul of authentic street life. It would appear that the restoration has actually detracted from the value of the city due to the tourism focus. Where does the balance lie between restoration, regeneration and revitalisation?
Urban regeneration can be seen as seeking to bring back investment, employment, and consumption and to enhance the quality of life within urban areas. Urban revitalization implies growth, progress, and infusion of new economic activities into stagnant or declining cities that are no longer attractive to investors or middle-class households. Development of tourism often encourages conservation of monuments and revitalization of historic urban centres, however the degree to which the economic benefits of tourism are distributed across the population of the entire city will depend upon the manner in which the revitalization initiative is implemented.
Without a doubt there is a leading role to play in the tourism economy for Píngyáo, however this model currently appears to be the only economic proposed and relies on heavy investment, international funding and government led, targeted, restoration projects. The result may be fundamentally flawed in that the natural working beauty of the town appears to be replaced with a synthetic, period restoration and highly commercialised tourist outlets. Of the 40,000 residents currently living in the town, 20,000 are proposed to be moved out, leaving the other 20,000 to be converted to the tourism trade. No indication appears of the intent or opportunity to promote new industries to the town or to provide diverse occupational training. Will there be investment in new schools and higher education facilities, community services, entertainment and leisure or health facilities? What other attractions will there be to allow all generations to meet their diverse personal aspirations and invest their futures in the town?
Píngyáo has been evolving over the last 1700 years and should continue to evolve, sensitively of course, rather than become a museum piece of a particular restoration period. A balanced economy is required for any healthy town and this one is no different. Residents need to be trained with traditional labour skills whilst various new trade and complementary industries need to be introduced. These residents should become the main part of the preservation effort by being educated into the value of heritage conservation, of learning to take care of their environment and the unique cultural resources and in understanding the benefits of undertaking sympathetic improvements and modernisations. The town development cannot just stand still and become a tourist movie set. Maintenance, modernisation and improvement projects should be undertaken directly by the residents themselves, backed up by a stick and carrot approach of regulation, guidelines and financial incentives where Private Partnership Agreements will be paramount. Residents need to buy-in to the Programme by becoming stakeholders in the town’s future development by investing in the maintenance of their own buildings where they shall further develop a sense of empowerment and civic pride which comes from self action, involvement and self policing. Expensive government restoration projects for landmark buildings may help to trigger further private investment but can never fully address the entirety of the building stock as found in Píngyáo.
 Global Heritage Fund
 Urban Renewal – Theory and Practice; Chris Couch (1990)
 Revitalising Cities; Holcomb and Beauregard (1981)