Shifting Cities Conference – Urban Heritage in the 21st Century

Professional Associations


Screen_Shot_2015-07-10_at_12.21.55_amIn the preamble to the upcoming conference entitled ‘SHIFTING CITIES: Urban Heritage in the 21st Century’ at the New Brunswick university campus in Canada in November this year, it states that “Urbanisation is the defining phenomenon of 21st century” and that “for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, an amount that is expected to rise to nearly 70 percent by 2050, with the highest percentage of growth occurring in Asia and Africa. Not only does this growth profoundly affect the physical environment, but it also reveals the rapidly shifting nature of urban populations. The density and diversity of urban encounters and interactions can generate incredible creativity as well as conflict. Within this multidimensional environment, urban heritage can be as dynamic as the city’s population”.

The international conference, SHIFTING CITIES: Urban Heritage in the 21st Century will look specifically “at the phenomenon of shifting populations and its effect on urban heritage. Hosted by Rutgers’ Program in Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies (CHAPS), the conference will bring together leading scholars and practitioners from around the world to address the complex and interconnected challenges facing cities and their populations. The overarching goal is to identify new approaches towards working effectively with diverse and dynamic populations as part of current efforts to rethink the meaning and practice of heritage conservation within the “shifting cities” that define urbanism in the 21st century”.

According to the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), ‘conservation of historic cities is “currently one of the most universally urgent and challenging cultural heritage issues.” As populations grow and migrate and our world becomes increasingly urbanized, socio-economic change, environmental stresses, armed conflict, and the difficulties of continuing traditional forms of use threaten the sense of place and identities in urban communities. GCI believes that ‘a critical rethinking of urban heritage conservation is called for at this time’.

In the preamble to the conference it states interestingly that ‘contemporary approaches to cultural heritage have moved away from a “curatorial approach in which practitioners attempted to conserve heritage in a static condition, toward a holistic ecological approach in which practitioners focus on managing change in dynamic heritage sites. This new approach has been recognised at the international level, notably with UNESCO’s 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape. Yet its influence remains largely within the confines of the heritage field.

SHIFTING CITIES: Urban Heritage in the 21st Century intends to ‘bring heritage practitioners together with scholars and organisations engaged in what would not traditionally be considered “heritage” or “conservation” work, such as social services and public health. Examining this work will be crucial to pointing us forward to new directions and approaches towards the conservation of urban heritage. To accommodate the diverse disciplines of participants, the conference will be organised around three major layers of the urban environment: the physical, the historical, and the social’.


Urban environments are complex creations comprising the historic layering of physical and human environments with their associated tangible and intangible qualities. They are also living environments that must change and adapt to the evolving needs and aspirations of their inhabitants. Change and continuity are precariously balanced with the constant need for modernisation, adaptation, and infrastructural change. Natural and environmental stresses, such as pollution, unsustainable resource consumption, and climate change, significantly impact the physical fabric of the city and often serve as the impetus for migrating populations. How can we effectively respond to these issues in a way that will both conserve the heritage of historic cities and, at the same time, provide for the contemporary needs of its inhabitants?


Today’s increasingly complex, shifting, and porous cityscapes challenge the boundaries between memory, identity, and history. How are the competing demands and cultural values of diverse urban populations negotiated and commemorated? What are the effects of terrorism, war, and religious and ethnic conflict on urban heritage? If we understand memory and identity as open systems with constantly shifting boundaries, then how does this translate to approaches towards conservation of historic cities?


The intersection of heritage work, activism, and community organising is integral to engaging residents with their surroundings and with one another. How can activists and community organizers contribute to urban heritage conservation? What are the broader sociological implications of migrating populations? What can social service providers and healthcare professionals, among others, teach heritage practitioners about dealing with shifting populations?

The two and one-half day conference will address the challenges of heritage conservation in the face of shifting populations. The conference seeks to tackle complex issues such as ‘urban development: managing competing claims; environment in the city; urban memories and competing histories; urban cultural identities; social services; education, employment and public health and; technology and new media.

As can be seen, the influences affecting cultural built heritage are numerous and far reaching. Creating a strategy by means of a set of policies or principles appears to be what the conference is driving at. The global millennium approach to the conference illustrates how ubiquitous and worldwide the problem is. There are obvious benefits to such an approach because cities will be able to learn from each other i.e. how to avoid failed approaches in the future and less developed cities would be able to learn from examples experienced in Europe, USA, the UK and Australia/ New Zealand.

Personally, I would like to attend the conference but am not sure if I will have the time. If I do, I will submit an abstract and focus on the social aspects of cultural built heritage i.e. the attitudes and expectations of the public interest in the subject and differing views of various participants and players in the making, forming and conception of heritage for the 21st century.

Paul Rappoport – Heritage 21 – 10 July 2017


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