When disasters hit, cultural heritage is often perceived as something passive, something hit by destruction. Dr Rohit Jigyasu argues for a different perception: one that acknowledges the decisive role urban cultural heritage can play both in the prevention and in the outcome of natural disaster, making it an active component of urban resilience.
Urban cultural heritage is defined through its distinct morphology, architecture, community structure, and boundaries. They have evolved through local communities’ sensitive understanding about their environment, in which they have co-existed harmoniously, sustaining various inter-relationships over generations.
However, urban cultural heritage is becoming increasingly vulnerable to natural as well as human-induced hazards. This is well exemplified by several instances of damage to urban heritage. For example, earthquakes destroyed cathedrals in Mexico City, historic settlements in Central Italy, and World Heritage Monument Zones of Kathmandu Valley 2017, 2016, and 2015 respectively. Fires were the cause of destruction in the World Heritage Town of Lijiang in China in 2013 and 2014, and in the Old Town of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom in 2002.
Climate change is further increasing the number of disasters. Due to high intensity rainfall, increased instances of urban flooding have been reported in recent decades. Examples include Chennai in India in 2015 and Thailand in 2011. Heavy rains in Thailand caused the World Heritage Site of Ayutthaya to remain submerged in water, causing insurmountable loss to the foundations of historic built structures. Unfortunately, both number and scale of weather-related disasters is likely to increase, thereby dramatically increasing their impact on urban heritage in the not too distant future.
Besides, urban heritage is becoming increasingly vulnerable to disasters due to several more factors: rapid population growth, unplanned urbanisation, and poverty, especially in the developing world. These factors can lead to the loss of the local ecology, which played an essential part in planning historic cities in harmony with their natural environment, thereafter often regulated through traditional beliefs and practices.
Disaster Prevention Through Traditional Knowledge Systems
Take for example the case of Bungamati in Kathmandu Valley, where ritual processions along the periphery of this traditional settlement determined the limits for new development. This ensured that traditional water systems, flora, and fauna could be judiciously utilised for sustaining the local population, providing them livelihoods and at the same time reduce disaster vulnerability and increase resilience.
However, gradually the traditional urban boundaries are breaking up due to urban sprawl, thereby disturbing delicate ecological relationships and exposing historic urban areas to increasing risks. Take, as another example, historic urban areas of Bangalore, Chennai, and Srinagar in India, where the filling-up of canals and lakes for new development have increased instances of drought and flooding.
These disasters need not have happened as they did, had there been prior recognition of the loss of traditional knowledge systems due to unplanned development and resulting vulnerabilities of urban heritage.
Traditional communities in historic cities often develop a variety of resilient features in the urban environment that – intentionally or unintentionally – contribute to prevention and mitigation, emergency response, and recovery. For example, many traditional buildings located in urban areas performed well during the earthquakes in Gujarat (2001), Kashmir (2005), Haiti (2010), and Nepal (2015), demonstrating traditional knowledge for earthquake mitigation that has been accrued over generations through successive trials and errors.
Traditional Sites in the Case of Catastrophe
There are several cases where historic urban fabric characterised by a series of interconnected courtyards has helped in emergency escape of residents from densely inhabited areas such as historic settlements in Kathmandu, which were recently struck by devastating earthquakes. Moreover, these traditional settlements have well established networks of rest places (locally called Paatis and Sattals) and water sources, wells, stone fountains (hitis), water tanks, and ponds that are strategically located at open squares and at street junctions and village entrances.
These serve as places for settlers and visitors to carry out daily activities. In the event of a disaster, these resting places can also be used for sheltering the injured, while water sources used for drinking can double as a local fire hydrant. These public places typically used for community gatherings, playing traditional music, or just chatting can also help maintain a rapport among local people when facing catastrophe. In this way, the tangible attributes carrying intangible/social values have the potential to enhance cooperation among residents during a crisis and may well serve as sites for disaster preparedness training.
As mentioned before, traditional urban planning based on local geography and available natural resources have also served to build the resilience of traditional urban communities. For example, the traditional planning of Ayutthaya, with networks of canals and check dams as well as houses built on stilts ensured that local communities have adapted their way of life to live with the risk of floods.
The Cultural Dimension of Post-Disaster Recovery
Last but not the least, traditional management systems also have tremendous potential in securing collective action among communities for post-disaster recovery. The rich expression of heritage is a powerful means to help victims recover from the psychological impact of the disaster. In such situations, people search desperately for identity and self-esteem. Traditional social and religious networks that provide mutual support and access to collective assets are often represented by urban heritage.
Thus, they are an extremely effective coping mechanism for community members. This was well demonstrated following the 2015 Nepal earthquake, when networks of traditional guthi (communal trusts) provided support to local communities in their transition from response to recovery phase.
Cultural dimension in general and heritage in particular also play an important role in sustainable recovery and rehabilitation of communities following a disaster. There are many examples to show that successful reconstruction projects have taken into consideration local building traditions and way of life through deeper engagement with communities.
One such example is the case of owner-driven reconstruction undertaken in Gujarat following the 2001 earthquake. Then, NGOs and the local government facilitated development of innovative design and technologies based on traditional ones, which seek to respect local social, cultural, and environmental context through sensitive use of local design, materials, and construction techniques. This approach was combined with the introduction of structural and non-structural measures to help reducing vulnerability and risks to disasters.
Activating Cultural Heritage
When praising the resilience potential of cultural heritage, we should not discount the fact that many cultural beliefs and practices result in fatalistic approach of interpreting disasters as ‘Gods will’ and undertaking no proactive measures to reduce disaster risks. These must be discarded while recognising and building on the strength and opportunities provided by urban heritage.
Rather than viewing urban heritage merely as a passive victim of disaster, we should appreciate the positive role heritage can play in reducing disaster risks, enabling sustainable recovery and building resilience.
Recovering traditional knowledge systems in urban planning and management and identifying their potential role in disaster risk reduction is an important challenge to be addressed for enhancing safety and resilience of historic urban areas.