Historical Community Conservation

aprodiciolaquianMy name is Prod Laquian. I’m a retired professor of Community Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. I first came to Vancouver in 1976. I had been at the first United Nations Conference of Human Settlements and was invited by Arthur Erickson who was running an international competition on ‘How do you design a community plan for a slum and squatter community in Metro Manila?’

I happen to have grown up in that slum community and written a book about how to improve the lives of people so I agreed to come as an advisor to the international competition committee. But I now have a doctorate from MIT and I’m divorced from people in Manila so I suggested we bring the leaders of the squatters and slum dwellers in Metro Manila so they could advise us on how we could design a community plan for ten thousand people in a slum community.

And so we brought the leaders. All four of them were women. They were all the leaders in the community and the first thing they asked was if we could take them to a slum area in Vancouver. So I took them to the Downtown Eastside. Now here are people living on less than a dollar a day and they said, ‘My god. How can a city as rich as Vancouver allow a situation to be like this?’

And in 1991 when I was asked by the University of British Columbia to become the Director for the Centre for Human Settlements I readily said yes, because when I saw Vancouver in 1976 I said if the fates are good to me one day I’m going to live in this city. And I did.

Since then I’ve looked at the Downtown Eastside. I’ve looked at what’s happening there. My students of planning have done their lab work there. So I think I know a little bit about the Downtown Eastside.

How do we solve the problems of inner cities that become the oldest part of the city, the degraded part of the city with narrow streets, with dilapidated housing, and so on?

Before coming to Vancouver I worked for maybe a hundred countries around the world and my field is inner city redevelopment. And in terms of historical conservation I sometimes say thank God for poverty, because it is the poor conditions in the inner cities that make it possible to retain all of these heritage buildings because there’s no money to repair them, – so they just stay there.

So when people decide they want to have heritage buildings, what do they do? They go to a place like the Downtown Eastside that has the remaining cultural heritage buildings, – and maybe they get the political will and maybe they go into historical conservation, – and maybe they don’t.

So the first lesson I have learned is that the biggest danger for historical conservation is a desire to be a global city. I get really angry when I see ‘The Best Place on Earth’ and Vancouver’s aspirations to become a global city. When cities want to become a global city what happens is they bulldoze the inner city areas and get rid of them so they can set up beautiful new buildings.

I just wrote a book on the fourteen largest mega cities in Asia and how do we plan and govern them. And my lesson number one is, – if we want good historical conservation we need to get rid of this whole notion of a global city.

Demolishing inner city areas and buildings for modern buildings and other structures is a very bad policy. Unfortunately this is what most authorities are doing all over Asia and it is my main complaint about Seoul, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, and about my own city of Manila because they don’t respect any of these heritage homes just want to bulldoze the old and build the new.

The second lesson I have learned is that heritage conservation should focus on whole communities and neighborhoods and not just structures and individual buildings.

The example I have is the centre of Hanoi where I’ve been working in thirty-six ancient streets in the Hoan Kiem Lake area. After the war Vietnam became a very good tourist destination. In Hanoi, the centre of the city is formed around a man made lake. In their wisdom the Vietnamese authorities said we will not have any high rise buildings in this centre of the city. We will preserve the lake, the beautiful trees, the jogging path where people do Thai Chi in the morning and so on. We will have no modern enterprises and buildings right in the centre of Hanoi.

To me that is one of the most successful urban heritage conservation projects I have ever seen because they were not just concerned about this building or that structure, but were concerned about the whole community, – and not just human beings, – but houses, trees, plants, gardens and all of these things. To me that is true historical conservation.

I agree absolutely on this. It is really the people and the community that really needs historical conservation. Buildings, structures, and all of those things we can keep. But if we destroy the way of life, the fabric of the society in our inner city, then we have failed in historical conservation.

The Future of Old Vancouver
Aprodicio Laquian
March 19, 2009

Transcribed and edited by
Shaheeda Shariff, Abilities that Work