©John Wood 2023
(Emeritus Professor of Design, Goldsmiths University of London)
For me, like many other Brits living in a post-Brexit, post-coronation Britain the concept of Heritage (note the deferential capital ‘H’) is wearing thin. So I was surprised to find myself agreeing with some tourists who were eulogising about our local architecture. But why has the conservation culture remained so important to our self-identity? Maybe that peculiarly British brand of irony is the essential element, as there is something refreshingly surreal about a golden carriage sharing cobbled streets with electric scooters and Uber cabs. Seriously, though, in a world of homelessness and climate change, is ‘heritage conservation’ a luxury the future cannot afford?
As someone who lives in a ‘conservation area’ I sometimes wonder what planners think they are ‘conserving’. This is not a simple question. Planning decisions address aesthetic concerns so they cannot be reduced to tick-box criteria. Unfortunately, procrastination and a lack of vision at government levels have made planning even more arbitrary and controversial than it need be. But climate change and a cascade of extinctions make this an urgent issue. We cannot expect vested interests and their politicians to make way for a viable future. Communities need to make ‘future conservation’ their top priority.
Given the indecent speed at which developers will cheerfully replace the old with the new the UK practice of designating ‘historic conservation areas’ was a welcome innovation of the mid 1960s. Unfortunately, it has not stood the test of time, as it usually means ‘conserving the character or appearance’ of our urban milieu. In an era when scientists are discussing the possible extinction of our species, standing up for the conservation of a particular architectural trope can easily seem like a badge of denial. Of course, the basic principle of conservation is sound enough as it enables planners to oppose the wilful destruction of beautiful buildings or trees. But the aesthetics of form is only an outward sign of good health and we need to think more deeply.
Part of Britain’s malaise is caused by a growth-based economic mindset that is long past its sell-by date. In effect we have created a flatland of the mind made from unit-based money. For example, trees not only improve the mental wellbeing of a community but they also bring cost benefits that seldom show up on a spreadsheet. Just as a 21st century building design can preclude fuel bills, so a mature tree detoxifies our air and moderates our water without sending an invoice. As a nation Britain leads the world in celebrating the past but we rank near the bottom for conserving the biological diversity that keeps us alive. Within this paradigm it is ‘normal’ to surround stately homes with machine mown lawns comprising a single species of grass. Perhaps the Heritage industry has forgotten that the 16th century word ‘lawne’ referred to common pastures with a rich diversity of species and uses.
It is ironic that the British Conservative Party is reluctant to reclaim the word ‘conservation’. Of course, this would mean promoting conviviality for all, rather than blaming our incompetence on those forced to flee from the effects of climate destruction. Actually, the idea of architectural conservation has been around for at least 150 years. In 1877 William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings but this was because Victorian builders were plundering historic buildings to build new ones. In a sense, by conserving the ‘character and appearance’ of this era we are also sustaining painful memories of the building boom of the mid-nineteenth century. I admire many of the Victorian styles that I see around me but am puzzled by my neighbours who fight to preserve the infamous ‘butterfly roofs’ for their historic value. In their day these were cost-cutting features that builders carefully hid behind parapet walls. Unfortunately, protected by ‘conservation area’ planning decisions, they continue to squander energy and take up space that could otherwise be occupied by families.
The transition from a ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’ mindset to a more creative culture of ‘renewal’ and ‘regeneration’ is long overdue. Fortunately it is slowly dawning on us that conserving CO2 is immeasurably more important than conserving the stylistic conceits of an old, leaky building. In an ideal world politicians would be asking urban planners to prioritise the conservation of life itself. Re-languaging ‘conservation’ is important, but only if we see it as an opportunity to embrace a more fulsome grasp of biodiversity. As a species, our biggest risk is the loss of our future, rather than the erasure of our past. Heritage is only important as part of our legacy. At worst, ‘heritage conservation’ without ‘legacy conservation’ would ensure that our beautifully preserved historic buildings will languish beneath the rising tides of a climate disaster.
On the positive side, there is no technological reason why we cannot live in self-renewing cities designed to work for at least the half-life of the Sun. Indeed, we have at least a billion years of ample free sunshine left. What is missing is a framework for imagining how we want to live. Unfortunately, choice is always designed to outrank imagination. As consumers and citizens we are always called upon to choose but never invited to dream. This is the fatal fault line of our democratic system. Perhaps the idea of ‘legacy conservation’ will catalyse a transition to a creative democracy. First we need to imagine how we would like to live in the future. But this means asking ourselves who we are and why we are here. And this calls for a radically revised education system.
- Dewey, John (1976). Creative democracy: The task before us. In J. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925-1953, volume 14 (pp. 224-230). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published 1939)
- Illich, I., 1975, Tools for Conviviality, Fontana
- Jones, J., C., (1998), Creative democracy, with extended footnotes to the future, Futures, Volume 30, Number 5, 1 June 1998, pp. 475-479(5)
- Puchol-Salort, P., O’Keeffe, J., van Reeuwijk, M. and Mijic, A., 2021. An urban planning sustainability framework: Systems approach to blue green urban design. Sustainable Cities and Society, 66, p.102677
- Thomson, G. and Newman, P., 2020. Cities and the Anthropocene: Urban governance for the new era of regenerative cities. Urban Studies, 57(7), pp.1502-1519.
- Wahl, D. C., 2016, Designing Regenerative Cultures, Axminster, UK: Triarchy Press
- Wood, J. (ed), 2022, Metadesigning Designing in the Anthropocene, Routledge, London & New York, ISBN 9781032067520
- Wood, J. 2007, Designing for Micro-utopias; thinking beyond the possible, Ashgate, UK, ISBN 0-7546-4608-4