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Asia’s urban heritage faces unique challenges. As you read this, the International Council on Monuments and Sites has recently finished a conference in Phuket Town, Thailand, tackling the subject of ‘Asian Urban Heritage’. During this conference the strong will to protect the history of Asian countries was discussed, as were three threats: natural disasters, differing concepts of heritage and pressure from urbanization.
Recent natural disasters have drawn attention to the way that heritage assets are managed during emergency periods. Tsunamis, hurricanes, mudslides and fires all have an impact on historic structures and landscapes, and can leave permanent damage. This is especially true in urban areas where emergency resources are directed towards essential services and rebuilding.
Current conservation practices in Western countries rely heavily on physical retention and restoration of built heritage, whereas, Eastern or Asian heritage preservation has a strong focus on the intangible heritage. Intangible Heritage as defined by the Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific is “intangible objects, especially expressions of a community’s culture such as language, religion, oral histories folk stories, song and dances, traditional crafts and building skills”. This type of heritage is correspondingly harder to protect, as its continuation lies with the population to continue cultural practices and to convey and actively participate in the spirit or “genius loci” of a place.
Urban areas in Asia are under enormous pressure to industrialize and maximize their economic potential. Cities are expanding to accommodate the emigration of people, causing a swell in the urban population. In the 1970s Asia had eight major cities of five million or more people, now there are more than thirty. Sudden urbanization requires the rapid building of infrastructure and services. However, since this urban development is fairly recent in many cases there are inadequate heritage guidelines. This means significant heritage places may be overlooked and compromised. Several city centers have been declared heritage areas to overcome this problem, including Georgetown in Penang, Malaysia which is now a World Heritage Site.