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| Keeping historic cities alive

It is vital, but not always easy, to preserve the historic culture of European cities. City authorities must maintain important buildings, landscapes, and contemporary as well as historic culture in the context of ongoing economic development. This is a difficult balancing act which often generates conflict. The SUIT project has produced a set of guidelines to help local authorities make more effective use of Environmental Impact Assessment procedures. Already an established part of European law, these offer a means to assess the effects of programmes, policies or projects on urban heritage values.
One of the best-loved views of Liège’s market place, according to people surveyed in the street. © School of Architecture, Queens University Belfast
One of the best-loved views of Liège’s market place, according to people surveyed in the street.
© School of Architecture, Queens University Belfast
Many of Europe’s cities are cultural icons, incorporating buildings, landscapes and other features of huge cultural significance. Keeping these both intact and alive is a major challenge, because it involves integrating conservation of the old in the development of the new. If historic areas are simply preserved, city centres can become open-air museums - attractive for tourists but unused by local residents. On the other hand, insensitive development can ruin the historic or cultural heritage.

Particularly in eastern Europe, cities face intense economic pressure to develop, and many local authorities are struggling to deal with this area of potential conflict. Even defining the cultural heritage is difficult. How should the value of ancient monuments be compared with that of new designs, or of today’s popular public spaces? And what about the city skyline?


The SUIT project (Sustainable development of Urban historical areas through an active Integration within Towns) recognised a great opportunity to protect urban cultural heritage using the procedures of environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental assessment. Coordinated by Belgium’s University of Liege, the three-year project involved six universities and a Belgian regional authority. It has produced detailed guidance for carrying out impact assessments on urban plans and projects that affect cultural heritage.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was first enshrined in European Law in 1985. It requires preliminary assessment of the possible effects of certain public and private projects on the environment, including cultural heritage. It is widely applied to polluting activities such as power station or motorway construction.

The Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive is relatively new, adopted in 2001. It addresses higher levels of decision-making, from strategic programmes to operational plans such as those used for town planning. It recommends a tiered approach with "assessments carried out at different levels of a hierarchy of plans and programmes". While EIA highlights the impacts of individual planned projects, SEA helps to ensure the overall sustainability of planning processes.

Public debate

To see how these procedures could be applied to the protection of urban heritage, SUIT researchers undertook 11 detailed case studies of urban development projects impacting on cultural heritage.

They asked how the projects were managed, what approaches were successful and what mistakes were made. The cases included refurbishment of historic buildings, major new construction projects, and renovation of entire areas. Though few used systematic impact assessment, all had some form of preliminary study, and they illustrated a range of situations where conflict can arise.

The planned opera house on the harbour in Copenhagen, for example, was considered to create no significant environmental impacts. But when the public was consulted, it turned out that some citizens were concerned about changes to the historic Amalienborg place. The conversion of Victoria Square in Belfast, Northern Ireland, from derelict relic to modernised retail zone caused a lengthy, polarised debate in which regeneration eventually triumphed over heritage. But the decision-making process kept supporters and opposers apart, so creative compromise solutions were not developed. On the basis of such experiences, SUIT devised specific guidelines for using EIA and SEA to address issues of cultural heritage.

Methods of participation

Involving the public from the outset is one key to success. The public should be consulted when decisions are still reversible, so that they can genuinely influence the outcome. The lives of a city’s inhabitants are directly affected by development in many ways, but city planners can easily overlook important aspects of culture. "People feel very strongly about their city," says Albert Dupagne of the University of Liege.

A 1960s project to refurbish the centre of his own city, Liege, was so hampered by obstructive demonstrations that it was eventually abandoned. But engaging people is a challenge. "People are busy, so you must avoid repetition and involve them only at crucial stages," he explains. Innovative participation methods should be simple and quick, like using photographs to assess how people value different features.

SUIT advocates proactive conservation of cultural heritage, and the development of valuable features within their economic and social context. "The opening of a grand new opera house or high-speed train station can have positive impacts on an entire neighbourhood, and these must be accounted for," says Dupagne. The SUIT guidelines are to be published soon and will be distributed to local authorities and environmental consultants around Europe. "We hope our work will lead to a less aggressive way of developing cities, in which all kinds of cultural heritage can be respected."


European projects

Further information

Albert Dupagne, University of Liege
+32 4366 9394

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