Transition towards urban sustainability through socially integrative cities in the EU and in China


1. Purpose(s)

Historical districts are the manifesto of past with the rich information of the history. However, with outdated infrastructure and living space of pre-modern society the historical districts cannot meet the standards of daily life nowadays. Furthermore, they are hard to take more load of functions of a modern city. Hence historical districts are inevitably to be marked as the targets of urban regeneration.

Sometimes the regeneration activities at the historical districts are initiated by the local community which is a self-organized activity and can bring the small modifications to the neighbourhood. (McDonald, et al. V. 2009. P49-59) Due to the lack of control self-organized urban regeneration sometime can cause the damage of history values. Sometimes the municipality makes plan to the urban regeneration in historical districts which usually will be large upgrades to the neighbourhoods in order to let the old areas of the city connect into the modern urban infrastructure and services. Government-dominated upgrades in historical districts can increasing the quality of liveability which enable the local neighbourhoods in those areas can share the results of the urban development and narrow the gap of the living standards between old and new modern neighbourhoods. (Carter, 2000) In the meantime, this type of urban regenerations can balance the historical values protection and the modernization of the neighbourhoods. Which somehow also bring new activities, improve the building environment quality in historic districts and keep the district competitive and attentiveness in the fabric of urban areas. However, sometime the top-down urban regeneration to historical districts only pay attention on the upgrades of the physical building environment with less attention on the local community who is the carriers of social memory of this place and the intangible heritage in the neighbourhood. In some cases, after the government-orientated urban regeneration plan the original residents of the neighbourhoods in this area are forced to be replaced by the new higher-income residents. Or in some extreme case the habitation is eliminated after the urban regeneration and replaced by profitable commercial activities. Which will eventually decrease the heritage values of the historical districts.

People-centred conservation and regeneration approach is trying to avoid the shortage of above two methods for the urban regeneration in the historical neighbourhoods. The key of this approach is the involvement and designated roles to the original community, local authority, real estate developers and conservationists into the process of urban regeneration.

 In the operation phase, the policy should ensure the multiscale stakeholders can be involved and play an important role in all the process of conservation and regeneration projects in the historical districts. And the methods for an effective teamwork of multiple stakeholders in this process should be in position and a team of specialists who can be the icebreakers and teamwork facilitator should be assembled. Furthermore, the monitoring the project performance and post project evaluation also need the feedbacks of all stakeholders.

Key Words: people-centered, urban regeneration in historic district, balance between heritage conservation and living

2. Relevance and Impact

People-Centred Urban Regeneration in Historic District is the fruit of TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA task 1.3 Social Economic Values through Heritage Preservation. In which a group of upgrading projects in historical districts in Europe and China have been compared. The results of comparation study have generated this tool. The tool of People-Centred Urban Regeneration in Historic District contributed the methodological approaches on collaborative urban planning and design in socially integrative cities.

People-centred urban regeneration can show a sustainable pathway in the transition of the historic district. In the previous cases, we learn that both self-organized and top-down government-dominated the projects of urban regeneration in historic districts can damage the heritage values. Large projects of urban regeneration might neglect the demands of local community in the historic neighbourhood and build a loving space in favour of higher-incomes group. In that approach, the upgrades created a damage to the original residents and also break the authentic relationship between community and living environment. Which somehow is as important as the physical historic buildings. People-centred upgrades approach, however, describes a new pathway of urban transition which respects and values the opinion of the local community. (Appleyard, 1977, P 19-26)   

People-centred upgrades approach benefits the local residents via improving their living standard. Comparing with the big urban regeneration projects with the idea of top-down planning and exclusion of the local community. That will upgrade the living environment but also increasing the cost of daily life. Which will force the low-income original inhabitants to move out their houses. That let them cannot share the fruit of urban regeneration but on the contrary let them make the sacrifice to the urban development. People-centred upgrades approach will ensure the rights of living of local inhabitants via exploring a win-win plan to make a harmony coexistence of heritage conservation and high-quality habitation. 

People-centred upgrades approach also brings the neighbourhood new opportunities for an open innovation with local authorities, developers and conservation experts. Providing a solution which can balance the demands of all stakeholders and create maximum profits is a challenge. Which can be only achieved in an open innovation system where can created a powerful and effective cooperation mechanism. People-centred upgrades approach needs open innovation and involvement of the end-users: local communities which will minimize the negative impacts of urban regeneration. (Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee, 2004)

3. Strenghts

People-centred conservation and regeneration in historical districts provides an approach to keep the dual identities of heritage site and living environment. Coexistence of habitation and physical historic living environment ensure the living historic districts. A good urban regeneration in historical district is to create a better relationship between habitants’ living and heritage conservation. Which will avoid to ‘kill’ a form of living in historic districts and also provides powerful ‘backup’ to support this living form to the historic neighbourhoods.   

This approach can create a harmony of protecting the heritage value and a better living space. It is the local residents’ basic rights to improve their living condition in historic districts. However, the heritage conservation managers will not allow the behaviour of vandalism to the historic buildings during the self-upgrading in their houses. Which sometimes has created conflicts between heritage conservation management people and local community in upgrading the historic district. That directly increase the level of difficulty to preserve the historic buildings in the neighbourhood due to the direct users-local residents refused to cooperate with local authority. (Wise ed. el. 2020) This approach invites the local community into the decision-making process in urban regeneration of their own neighbourhood which can build a trust between local inhabitants, heritage conservation practitioners and local authority via working together on the projects of upgrades in historic districts. That will form a solid concrete foundation for a harmony coexistence of heritage conservation and high-quality habitation.

The people-centred approach elevates the bond the community in the upgraded historic district where becomes a friendly neighbourhood. Urban regeneration will release its impacts on every household in the neighbourhood. The involvement of local community in the projects of urban regeneration can unite the members of the community and let them know each other better and give a space to practice teamwork in the community. That will improve the relationships between neighbours and create a friendly local community.

4. Weaknesses

The challenges to make a balance of regenerating the quality of living and safeguarding the value of the heritage is substantial. As a living space, ancient residential building provides limited functions and also mismatch the comfortability to modern lifestyle. Which is the one of the reasons to upgrade the historical neighbourhood. Whereas the authenticity as principle of heritage conservation demands the urban regeneration in historical districts to have the minimum interfere to the historical buildings in order to maintain the historical information. The suggestion to overcome the challenges is to host a series of debates and workshops between experts (conservationists) and local inhabitants for identifying the scope of the projects which can balance the conservation to the heritage’s value and fulfilling the requirements for upgrading the living condition.   

The movement of regeneration in the historical district might make harm to the original inhabitants and force them to move out their houses. With the people-centred approach can make sure the original local community involvement to the process of urban regeneration. However, it still has the risk of letting local community to choose to move out their neighbourhoods. The upgraded infrastructure and improved living quality after the urban regeneration has increased the cost of living which some original residents especially low-income families moved out their neighbourhood. The urban regeneration also increased the values of land and buildings as real estate products which let residents to sell their house when the upgrades are finished in order to improve the living condition. In order to avoid this situation happens, a cost-benefit analysis can be taken place which will give a predication to the local inhabitants of what the consequences of regeneration process in their neighbourhood especially to the economy perspective. (Azadeh, 2019) Based on the analysis, a regeneration plan in historical neighbourhood should make a plan to support the low-income inhabitants which in a way the regeneration plan in a sense is not only to liberate the historical physical living environment but also to the local inhabitants who as the intangible heritage enablers to remain at their own neighbourhood.      

The past living culture and prevailing lifestyle might be disconnected. With the less supports of modern urban infrastructure, for instance lack of tap water supply, gas pipe and district heating etc., the local community remains traditional daily activities, for example getting water from well and cook and getting heat from stove, which generated living culture and custom. And those traditional daily activities will be disrupted when the large modern infrastructure upgraded in the neighbourhoods. And living culture and custom will be generally vague joint social memory. In order to avoid the situation, the detailed documentation to those activities are required and also the proper demonstration and presentation of those activities after the regeneration will help to keep the social memory.              

The cultural heritage showcases in the regenerated area and heritage-based commercial behaviour might interfered and conflict the high-quality of living environment. The privacy of living will be interrupted by the tourism in historical districts as well as the joint social life in the community. The feeling of intimacy from joint community activities will be decreased if those community activities to be a showcase to the tourists.

While the people-centered urban regeneration approach can certainly overcome the weaknesses associated with the traditional historic district regeneration described above, the challenges of implementing this approach are significant. Successfully implementing a people-centered urban regeneration requires seamless communication and collaboration within the team to build consensus and collaborate with local residents and interested local groups to develop a tailor-made win-win regeneration plan. It requires the support from regulatory and policy decision makers, collaboration and communication within the team, breaking down barriers between disciplines, and professional staff to act as a conduit for consultation with residents and local groups. These challenges have made the implementation of the project more difficult than a typical renovation project. This is especially challenging in a rapidly urbanizing China where time efficiency and the patience of the local community with the renovation process will challenge project implementation.

5. Good practice examples

Urban regeneration plan of historic street in Trondheim, Norway 

In the 1960s the district was threatened with remediation. A new route through Trondheim (map) was planned, and it was decided the settlement on Bakklandet had to be removed. In the 70’s people started to react and mobilize against the municipality’s plans. The conservationists were often residents, associations, and enthusiasts. The first organized initiative to take care of the district came from the "Environmental Group on Bakklandet" in 1971. Their goal was to preserve Bakklandet as a residential area. Many in the area lived in quite dilapidated houses, but the cost of living was affordable. Students also took part in the conservation idea, although they lived there only for limited periods. The resident’s association took the initiative to move people into the empty houses to prevent further decay. Architects from the University made an alternative masterplan proposing a zoning plan that would preserve Bakklandet as a residential area. In addition, relentless action of squatting, petitioning, theme concerts, and “walk-slowly” civil disobedience actions where arranged. In the end protesters won through, and the plans have not been enforced. Property that had been expropriated or bought from the locals were sold to private people. Today, Bakklandet appears as an idyllic district and with good living conditions. It has become one of the city's most important tourist attractions and is known far beyond the country's borders. Trondheim tree houses are now considered one of Europe's most important. The goal of the activists was reached, but with one drawback; Today, Bakklandet is so attractive that housing prices have shot up, thus excluding many from living there. A large part of the original population moved out to new suburbs, and people with high education and income moved in. Bakklandet has experienced a long process of discussion with different stakeholders which disapprove the original plan from municipality, in the end the result of the project saved the built environment, remained the everyday life and created new culture (Figure 1).

The regeneration planning in Drum Tower District Xi’an, China

Located in the centre of Xi’an’s City (map) Wall Area, Drum Tower Muslim district (DTMD) is said to have a very long history, right from the Tang dynasty. The unique setting of the district – the HUI people and their exclusive lifestyle and food business, has been an attraction both to the current residents and the tourists visiting Xi’an. The area encompassing 54 hectares of land, houses more than 30,000 Muslim residents. The 1990’s saw DTMD characterized by self-construction activities of local residents aimed at increasing living spaces. The traditional courtyards were deteriorating and physical space and the growing population was turning to be a huge conflict. Identifying the potential of the district, the Lianhu local government, have proposed urban regeneration projects within the area since the 1990’s. The regeneration plan of 2005, showcases the blatant disregard for the culture and heritage preservation of DTMD and only aimed to construct new generic identities, displacing the local community to the peripheries. Recognizing the negative socio-economic and cultural implications of the plan on the historical identity of the district, the regeneration plan never came into fruition. However, in the absence of an effective local historic district conservation policy, DTMD has developed vertically, damaging its tangible heritage value. Such self-construction activities have caused in numerous issues, starting with infringement of spaces, lack of physical infrastructure provisions, waste of space, poor lighting and ventilation and even the space for entry of emergency services. It is an ongoing process of urban regeneration at DTMD, the experiences can be drawn from this case is that: in the fast process if urbanization the top-down approach has its nature of neglecting the different voices especially from the “bottom” i.e. the requirements of local community. The fact that the DTMD is still in the process of renewal, where plans from previous government-organized regeneration projects have been put on hold shows the power of the residents' behavior to provide lessons for the subsequent renovation of the historic district, as well as some useful references for policy makers. In this case the power of local community can force the product of top-down approach have been modified, which give a vivid example to the similar cases in China and provide a lesson to learn that a sustainable regeneration development in historical districts in China should adapt a new approach of people-centred conservation and regeneration, which will lead to a win-win and best practice.

6. References

McDonald, S., Malys, N. and Maliene, V. 2009. “Urban Regeneration for Sustainable Communities: A Case Study, Technological and Economic Development of Economy.” Baltic Journal on Sustainability, 15 (1): 49-59.

Carter, A. 2000. “Strategy and Partnership in Urban Regeneration.” In Roberts, P. and Sykes, H. (ed.) Urban regeneration: A Handbook, London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

Appleyard, D. 1977. Urban Conservation in Europe and America: Planning, Conflict, and Participation in the Inner City. European Regional of Fullbright Commissions. Rome.

ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee. 2004. The role of historical buildings in urban regeneration, The Stationery Office Limited (London) available online:

Wise, Nicholas, Jimura, Takamitsu (Eds.). 2020. Tourism, Cultural Heritage and Urban Regeneration: Changing Spaces in Historical Places.  Springer imprint. Cham

Azadeh Lak, Mahdi Gheitasi & Dallen J. Timothy. 2019. “Urban regeneration through heritage tourism: cultural policies and strategic management.” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, DOI: 10.1080/14766825.2019.1668002 available 

7. Author(s) of the article

Lisbet Sauarlia (NTNU), Wang YU (NTNU)