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Public interest: key to conserving urban heritage

Taking a broader view on heritage resources.

Gone are the days when museums and monuments were the most common representation of cultural and historic significance, say architects and teaching academics.

Heritage belongs to all the people. As a result, increased public participation through interaction between local authorities, private landowners as taxpayers, and residents’ associations across all levels of property development, is necessary.

It’s been fourteen years since the implementation of the new National Heritage Resources Act of 1999. Up to 1969, the focus on heritage value of properties all but reflected the diverse cultural environment of the country.

Professor Steve Townsend from the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Architecture says: “The replacement of the old Act has enabled a new approach toward growing the value of cultural heritage in the built environment on a much broader scale than before.” He says the new Act constitutes a multi-disciplinary function of the authorities concerned. It provides a tool with which heritage of all the people, across their cultural lands, urban landscapes and townscapes within the natural environment, can be considered.

Conservation now takes place within a legal structure that allows individual industry bodies, all who are concerned with heritage, to determine final outcomes based on the different degrees of significance.

Another significant development has taken place in tertiary education of architecture and the built environment, where programmes have been upgraded to reflect the new approach, says Townsend. Students within a wide range of disciplines are able to look at the country’s overall heritage resources as part of the greater environment, as opposed to only specific areas.

This impacts on the manner in which government bodies, heritage authorities, councils as well as the legal fraternity and administrators view the heritage value across the fields of culture, politics, art, and the greater environment. Townsend says this approach will reduce isolated heritage focus such as in KwaZulu-Natal, where traditionally, park areas were prioritised above the overall built environment of the entire region.

Active communities

Although limited capacity exists within community circles to interact with the authorities, greater recognition should be given where authorities have acted in the interest of active communities. As seen at the Overberg Municipality where cooperation between heritage bodies and communities such as in Paarl, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Wellington, reflect a passionate preservation for future generations. “However, what is also of utmost importance is that authorities should welcome criticism where it is due,” says Townsend.

Different provincial heritage bodies are making inroads into improved administrative processes to aid public participation while following the law. When structures are older than 60 years, public consultation on all but very minor alterations to buildings is required. Ros Devereux, Head at the Built Environment Section at Amafa Heritage KZN, says most of the towns in the province were surveyed in the 1980s. This process facilitated the identification of buildings of most significant heritage.  

“However, the surveys are outdated and Amafa is trying to resurvey the entire province, but funding and staffing are limited, so we rely on the public and heritage organisations to identify the heritage resources in their areas,” she says. Once permanently protected, the buildings may not be demolished and only minor alterations required for the sustainability of a building, are allowed.

Another new development has seen Amafa joining the South African Heritage Resources Authority’s online database and permit application system, Sahris.  This system allows members of the public and heritage bodies to comment on applications while Amafa ensures a consultation process with all stakeholders which could take up to 90 days to complete.  

Devereux says this lead time is an important factor when buying a property under the special condition of obtaining heritage approval for alterations or demolition prior to the sale being finalised.

Individual efforts in municipal areas within provinces are increasingly seeing recognition by local authorities. The most recent example earlier this year saw the City of Cape Town becoming the first local authority in the Western Cape to have its competency assessed in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act. The competency that was approved is for all assigned local authority functions relating to heritage management, including the administering of heritage areas, identifying and mapping heritage places, and the issuing of provisional protection orders for sites under threat.

While recognition of the city’s latest efforts are welcomed it also highlights the stark realities of ‘Imperial Cape Town’ as delivered in ‘Building Apartheid’ by author Nicholas Coetzer. Long-term consequences of the exclusion of broad cultural societies in the built environment, the role of aesthetics and order in town planning, tourism, ‘slums’ and building materials against the backdrop of historic white segregation and ‘control of the city as a ‘White space’, are food for thought.

*Anna-Marie Smith’s work as a freelance property writer since 2006 followed a career in the corporate service industry after studying Communications at Unisa. She changed direction from financial communications to writing for property publications, with an interest in sustainable residential and commercial development. She writes for Business Day HomeFront, Property Professional Magazine, PrivateProperty.co.za and Earthworks Magazine.

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