Embedded within the walls of a 19th-century mansion in an ancient harbour town on the east African island of Zanzibar are bricks bearing an unlikely stamp: “Made in Glasgow.” The bricks – once ballast in an empty ship returning from a trading voyage – reveal the long-standing global connections of the world’s great Islamic cities, many of which have fallen into disrepair.
Rebuilding the vibrancy of some of these cities is the mission of an initiative called the “Historic Cities Programme”. But while the programme falls under the auspices of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the cultural agency of the Aga Khan Development Network, its work extends far beyond architectural restoration.
“If you are just dealing with individual monuments, you may not be affecting the lives of the people living around them,” says Luis Monreal, director-general of the trust. “And in Islamic cities, the highest monument concentration is always in the poorest areas.”
The trust – which believes restoring historic monuments provides a catalyst for social and economic development – is not alone in putting architectural heritage at the heart of urban regeneration.
“Each city has its own personality, its strengths and weaknesses, failures and successes,” says Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency for human settlements. “The city’s ‘soul’ is exhibited through its cultural heritage, its social fabric, its intellectual and creative assets, its vibrancy and its distinct identity.”
Conservation of ancient districts preserves this individualism in the face of modernisation, argues Tibaijuka. “The emphasis on new things, clean lines and modern design is intense,” she says. “The problem with this one-size-fits-all approach to urban design is that many cities are starting to look alike, which makes them less interesting.”
Morgan argues heritage conservation also sparks the creation of small businesses and jobs, often through tourism, and encourages human-scale development, with pedestrian areas and districts of lower density.
Like the Aga Khan trust, the Global Heritage Fund focuses narrowly before engaging in broader restoration work. “In general, we start with a single district or class of society – very poor – where our intervention can set a model for the rest of the historic city,” Morgan explains. “By training the teams and providing vision and a plan, we can kick off a longer-term major transformation.”
In Zanzibar, the trust chose the Old Dispensary for this purpose. Originally commissioned by Tharia Topan, a prominent Indian trader, the building was well known to locals. However, for many years, it lay in ruins, beams rotting, roofs leaking, balconies tipping at alarming angles and plaster walls crumbling to reveal the bricks beneath, with their Glaswegian stamps.
In Delhi, the urban renewal project is being run as a public-private partnership with three government agencies. And the buy-in of local leaders is essential, says the Global Heritage Fund’s Morgan, to establish historic districts, seek funding and develop a plan and creative incentives for locals to undertake preservation work. “In most cases, it’s a question of leadership and will, not monies,” he says.
When it comes to the broader regeneration elements of its work, the Historic Cities Programme can also tap into the resources of the Aga Khan Development Network, an umbrella organisation for agencies working in everything from health and education to rural development and disaster relief.