When thinking about regeneration of a city, aspects of local heritage can provide grand design ideas, if not ideals. Yet they can also be presented as a hurdle to overcome. This need not be the case. Rather than buying into the entrenched dichotomy of ‘conservation vs development’, heritage assets can provide unique competitive advantages in the shaping of beautiful and thriving places.
The legacy of the UK’s prowess after the Industrial revolution can still be seen, for example in the structuring transport links between towns and cities. London’s dominance in trade, commerce and finance traces back to a time when it was the first city with a truly global impact. UK cities are now dealing with the artefacts of this period in their historic buildings and also in their, less tangible, heritage.
Our current work with Heritage Lottery Fund is based on our aspiration that the UK become a world leader in linking heritage, identity and place. Rather than heritage being a barrier to change, it can become one of our biggest assets for our future. Such development brings together expertise which goes beyond restoration – it is about community, place–shaping. When we talk about belonging, we all need to ultimately ‘belong’ to the contemporary challenge of achieving a broad set of economic and social outcomes. In an era where many new buildings could slot into ‘anywhere’ to an ‘everywhere’ global culture, we’ve got to make the most of the fact we’ve still got the first river tunnel and first iron bridge – all still in use.
We’ve started our journey by looking at how heritage is being put to good use in other parts of the world. In mainland Europe there have been several partnerships that have brought together organisations, communities and local governments across many different cities, to share practice, events, skills and experience in heritage led place regeneration. One such programme is the INHERIT – a partnership of heritage led regenerationin Belfast, Newcastle, Göteborg, Ubeda, Verona and Gdańsk.
Gdańsk is a port city, lying on the Baltic Sea, in the Pomorskie Region of Poland. It is a castle town with significant built heritage and rich history from the Hanseatic Era, when it was known as Danzig. Yet Gdańsk also celebrates a more contemporary past. The 1970 riots at the Lenin shipyards, and subsequent militia suppression, led to successful strikes in 1980, now recognised as a significant achievement in the anti-communist movement that became Solidarity.
In 2003 the Polish government passed an act that helped to define and protect heritage sites and in 2004 a thorough appraisal of all the city was undertaken. The EU and city council funded the regeneration of 13 different sites in the city. The challenge for the city was to combine a heritage that encompassed both its historic past and its important, more recent, history – whilst engaging the local community to bring vitality back into the area. Specifically, they wanted the site to be well used not only by tourists visiting the heritage, but by the local people. Locations were chosen that helped to indicate a diverse heritage, rather than one based on a single idea or image. Importantly, these sites were not chosen based on criteria that were focused on attracting private funding, but instead the areas of revitalisation were highlighted through iterative stakeholder engagement from the beginning. Alongside, a working group of architects, the local council and national departments, community groups and individuals were incorporated in discussions from an early start. Community groups and local champions promoted the projects, helping to spread engagement. Seeking agreement from the diverse sets of community groups proved a challenge: diverse groups will usually attract diverse opinions and priorities, but handled well such diversity can bring real dividends. The projects in Gdańsk put the process of community engagement at the top of the agenda and by doing so helped to forge links between local people, local councils, and public agencies providing all concerned with a sense of ownership of the projects. This is not only important for progression, but to build in local identity, driven by local people who have a part to play in the programme.
Three key developments in this project were: The regeneration of the Grodzisko Fort – the Hevelianum project; the regeneration of the Lower Town (Dolne Miasto); and finally the construction of the European Solidarity Centre (ESC). Since the plans were started, the Hevelianum has become a popular Science Museum attracting international visitors. Whilst in 2008 the lack of regeneration of Dolne Miasto was condemned by academics, just a few years later community engagement work, specifically, is shown to be the key reason for signs of place attachment by local people who feel that Dolne Miasto is now a ‘a cool place to live’ - a shining example of a successful community-led regeneration. Further, working with communities drives the feeling of ownership both in the project, but in the very places that are regenerated. Such activities can lead to positive place attachment and therefore a stronger sense of identity. Ultimately, integrated programmes lead to more integrated and therefore more resilient, communities and places.
In 2011, as the cornerstone of the ESC was laid, Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, had this to say of the project:
“We remember our concern that other important events became the icons of Europe’s transformations. We want Polish Solidarity to be the symbol of changes for the better and of the end of the totalitarian system. We need to share our pride here in Gdańsk,”
The ESC was approximately half funded by the EU and has become an icon for the community, for the regeneration project, for Poland and importantly for the city – Today it helps communicate Gdańsk as the ‘City of Freedom’.
The regeneration and place shaping of Gdansk clearly shows how ‘bottom-up’ programmes that highlight unique history and identity can help guide the redevelopment of a city and its public brand. This is an example of success but it is also a stark reminder that a focus on heritage alone does not bring socio-economic benefits. As Sophie Labadi has said elsewhere, “Social cohesion, inclusion and the empowerment of local communities do not happen automatically when urban historic areas are regenerated or when people visit cultural places or participate in events”. It is not the regeneration that produces a successful sense of place; heritage provides the vehicle to engage local communities in owning the direction that regeneration takes.