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Infrastructure and Heritage Conservation: Opportunities for Urban Revitilization and Economic Development

by Katrinka Ebbe
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World Bank projects have supported revitalization of St. Petersburg's urban landscape, which is one of the city's major cultural assets and powerful resource for branding.Cultural endowments such as traditional architecture, unique streetscapes, and historic sites are increasingly recognized as important economic resources in both developed and developing countries. Cities are often an important focal point for development based on these resources because they provide concentrations of heritage assets, infrastructure services, private sector activity, and human resources. Improving the conservation and management of urban heritage is not only important for preserving its historic significance, but also for its potential to increase income-earning opportunities, city livability, and competitiveness.

World Bank-financed projects have found that heritage conservation has increased city livability by preserving streets and neighborhoods built at a human scale, public areas that support positive community interaction, and green spaces that offer recreational activities. By preserving their heritage, cities can create a unique sense of place and singular urban landscapes, developing strong branding and conditions to attract investors. This is especially true for investors in tourism, which is one of the largest industries in the world today and has a track record of creating significant levels of employment for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. In addition, improving a city’s self-image and identity through recognition of heritage assets has been shown to increase civic pride and energize communities to actively address a wide range of development and livelihood issues.

Today’s rapidly-urbanizing cities, with uncontrolled growth and informal expansion, pose a significant risk for irreplaceable cultural and natural resources. For example, developers exert pressure to demolish low-rise traditional buildings and eliminate parks in favor of high-density developments, and municipalities install needed infrastructure in a manner that has unnecessarily negative impacts on traditional cityscapes. As urban populations rapidly expand, local resources tend to be scarce and most municipalities struggle to provide basic infrastructure services, making investment in heritage conservation a low priority. Therefore, it is increasingly important for World Bank-financed projects to include well-thought-out interventions that include heritage conservation elements because of their potential contributions to economic development and urban revitalization.

The conservation of cultural heritage supports urban revitalization by preserving city livability, increasing competitiveness, and creating a wide range of income-earning opportunities.

The Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Tourism Thematic Group (CHST) was established in 2004 as a network of practitioners to mainstream support for heritage conservation into infrastructure, private sector, and social development projects. The thematic group reflects the multi-disciplinary characteristics of the CHST family, highlighting the wealth of information and experience available among more than one hundred Bank professionals. In the urban sector, it is clear that infrastructure projects can provide an entry point for effective interventions in heritage conservation and development. Conversely, many task team leaders find that discussions of lending that recognize the value of local heritage provide a positive starting point for dialogue on downstream lending operations addressing broader-based infrastructure investment needs. This note focuses on the rationale for World Bank-financed infrastructure projects that include or focus on conservation of cultural heritage assets either for their own value or as a component of infrastructure and economic development strategies.

Urban Revitalization, Heritage, and Tourism

World Bank experience with the connections between urban revitalization, heritage, and tourism includes the urban upgrading and rehabilitation of historic buildings undertaken by the Georgia Cultural Heritage Project, which is credited with playing a critical role in stimulating the revitalization of Tbilisi’s Old Town. It led private investors to renovate their own buildings in the area; to the opening of hotels, restaurants, shops and galleries; to an influx of residents, offices, and tourists; and to a significant increase in property values. In the Bosnia-Herzegovina Pilot Cultural Heritage Project, the reconstruction of the iconic Mostar Bridge and other municipal infrastructure investments made a significant contribution to revitalization of the city center, reconciliation among residents, and the reestablishment of the local tourism industry (officials found that tourism arrivals in 2004 stood at 220,000, up from only 50,000 the preceding year).

One of the most highly-visible and dynamic links between heritage conservation and local economic development lies in the potential for cultural and natural assets to attract tourism investment and spending.

While global tourism has grown steadily at 7% per year over the last 5 years, recent growth has been limited by the financial crisis. The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reports that it "expects 2009 international tourism [growth] to be in the range of 0 percent to a 2 percent decline."3 However, the UNWTO also reports that the niche markets of adventure and cultural tourism are two of the strongest segments of the tourism industry and that culture has become a component in almost 40% of all international trips4.

The economic slowdown is an opportunity for developing nations to improve their strategies, infrastructure, and tourism products in order to establish a strong base for future sustainable tourism. The investments in infrastructure and heritage conservation that are advantageous for tourism development are also key elements of creating livable cities-in other words, improvements that support
tourism also enhance residents’ economic opportunities and standard of living. Moreover, if short-term crisis actions can be aligned with the longer-term poverty and climate needs, the overall industry structure may actually be strengthened.

When the industry revives, cities in developing countries with a strong basis for tourism development will be better poised to attract private sector and foreign investors who see opportunities in developing hotels and other tourist-related activities. Employment opportunities for local workers will increase through the development of the service industry and increased demand for local food production, handicraft manufacturing, and other cultural industries. The number of small and medium enterprises will grow as economic opportunities become apparent.

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Cultural Heritage in Transportation Projects 

Many World Bank transport projects have included pro-active components to support conservation and management of cultural heritage assets. For example, the Xian Sustainable Urban Transport Project in China will develop 44 kilometers of bicycle paths in the urban core to link the city’s key urban heritage sites and reduce traffic congestion. The project will also build an access road to a newly-excavated archaeological park. The Cambodia Road Rehabilitation Project restored 10 ancient bridges on National Road 6 connecting Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and the World Heritage site of Angkor. The bridges were part of the Angkor Dynasty’s “royal route” and some of the most highly significant examples of civilian architecture in the country.

Typical transport sector goals such as reducing traffic emissions, noise, and vibration to improve residents’ quality of life also have positive impacts on heritage areas. Pollution damages traditional surfaces and traffic vibration undermines ancient structural elements, while traffic noise detracts from the sense of history and quiet contemplation that many heritage sites offer. Projects that support transport focal points such as container ports and railroad terminals have long recognized that these facilities depend on their surrounding regions and cities for access to skilled labor, efficient services and integrated transportation links. As demonstrated in the City-Port of Limon project profile, support for cultural heritage assets has been used as part of strategies to revitalize lagging cities and regions that are hampering trade growth and competitiveness.

Infrastructure Upgrading in an Historic Context

With attention to appropriate design and materials, infrastructure projects can achieve their goals while conserving traditional streetscapes and the urban fabric. General guidelines for installing services include:

• fixtures and connections compatible with historic designs and materials;

• minimal destruction of historic structures and streetscapes;

• access for service maintenance and renewal that does not require disruption of historic materials or structures; and

• reversible processes that allow for further restoration of sites when future technology or research findings become available.

To create effective policies for conservation in an urban setting, it is vital that active consultation be established between all local agencies that have responsibility for the built environment and local communities. Protecting cultural property must be supported with coordinated policies and action at the local level.

Cultural Heritage in Water and Environmental Management Projects

In China, several water and sanitation projects have supported the conservation of valuable heritage assets. In the Yunnan Earthquake Reconstruction Program, a portion of the credit was set aside, based on local government requests, to repair and rehabilitate heritage assets that had sustained severe earthquake damage. Among the assets repaired were water and drainage systems compatible with the traditional network of streams and channels that provide fresh water to every part of the World Heritage City of Lijiang. In the Zhejiang Urban Environment Project, a component for the municipality of Shaoxing included renovation of traditional housing and conservation in five historic neighborhoods that are laid out along an extensive canal system and represent a fast-disappearing traditional waterside lifestyle. In addition to sewer connections, the project rehabilitated the canal system through dredging, embankment repair, and reinstatement of a closed canal section to improve water circulation and create tour boat circuits.

Incorporating heritage conservation into urban projects has supported the overall goal of revitalization, significantly increased client satisfaction, and led to a robust new business line for the World Bank in China.

The development of large-scale water, sanitation, and environmental management projects in China has also led to investments in heritage conservation that are not directly related the infrastructure improvements. Local officials have begun requesting heritage conservation components to address the loss of their historic buildings and traditional streetscapes, due to the extremely rapid urbanization that is occurring in the country. Consequently, the issues of environmental quality and urban revitalization in China’s World Bank projects have been connected to assisting cities in conserving their traditional urban fabric.

Project Profiles

Jordan Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Development Project (P081823)

City-Port of Limon Project (P085539)

Chongqing Urban Environment Project (P049436)


Many of the World Bank’s client countries have been successful in supporting cultural heritage activities within some large infrastructure projects. These projects have used heritage as an entry point for opening up opportunities for local economic development. The Bank’s focus on sustainable development and poverty reduction means that it must aim to support heritage conservation and tourism development that can improve standards of living, increase income-earning opportunities, and generate wealth for the poor. Combining the conservation of heritage assets and improving infrastructure services provides more livable and dynamic environments that directly impact the ability of poor communities to take advantage of the opportunities for a better life, while at the same time supporting city competitiveness.

The Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Tourism Thematic Group (CHST), hosted at the Urban Anchor, has become the focal point for heritage and sustainable tourism work, and has been able to provide support to regional teams implementing operations that affect cultural and natural patrimony in client countries. CHST is helping to ensure coordination, disseminate knowledge and learning, and facilitate collaboration with partnership institutions including UNESCO and UNWTO.


The World Bank benefits from both the support of the Italian Government in providing funding for the preparation of projects including heritage components and the continuous cooperation and fruitful partnership with UNESCO and UNWTO in sharing of knowledge and data. Thanks to these valuable partnerships, the World Bank has initiated good practices and is now ready to share them with partners and move forward with its own financing and support of external donors and partners, including stakeholders from the public and private sectors.

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