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Does culture matter for restoring old towns?

(People's Daily Online)

13:27, November 26, 2012

Demolition and imitation of the historic buildings are becoming a landscape in China’s process of urbanization. At present, China has no less than 30 cities planning to invest a large amount of money in reconstruction of historic buildings, but all the payers are generations of local people.

Ancient cities or city walls are always an extremely important part in human history of urban civilization. They are the cultural symbols indexing the context of urban development and cultural resources helping the development of cities. Sometimes, an ancient city or city wall is enough to demonstrate the city’s cultural background and characteristics, and Lijiang and Piyao ancient cities are the best examples. In the context of rapid urbanization, it has significant historical and aesthetic value to properly protect and repair these precious historical sites.

People expect the reconstruction of historic towns to save civilizations, and consider it as a shortcut to the historical memory of modern cities. However, in the eyes of many local governments, reconstruction of historic towns is nothing but restoration of some old buildings and reconstruction of a few historic streets and blocks. More worryingly, certain local governments appear interested in rebuilding historic towns in the name of protecting historical and cultural heritage and creating new cultural landmarks, but their real purpose is to pursue economic interests.

As the leaders of historic town reconstruction projects, many local governments attach greater importance to the economic interests and personal benefits brought about by these projects than to the historical and cultural values of historic towns. Large investment in these projects can directly translate into considerable gross domestic product (GDP) growth, and allow local governments to benefit from the tourism economy. Furthermore, the reconstruction of historic towns can easily drive up land prices, which is exactly what local governments and real estate developers expect.

Local governments’ large-scale investment in rebuilding historic towns can easily remind people of the theme park fever more than 10 years ago. At the time, more than 2,500 theme parks that cost a total of over 150 billion yuan were built in over 600 Chinese cities. According to media reports, about 70 percent of these parks are operating at a loss, and only 10 percent are still making profits. Local governments may make the same mistake again while blindly investing in the reconstruction of historic towns.

Stimulated by potential economic and political interests, many local governments have impulsively and blindly launched historic town reconstruction projects without conducting scientific planning and risk assessment or seeking public advice. These projects could have benefited the people, but have often affected local stability and development in practice.

What domestic cultural circles worry about the most is that the large-scale reconstruction of historic towns in pursuit of economic interests may produce nothing but forgeries of little cultural significance. After all, originality and integrity are vital lifelines for cultural relics. Many experts and scholars believe that blind investment in restoring historic towns or rebuilding them in other places may destroy rather than protect these non-renewable cultural resources.

Source:China Youth Daily, author: Tang Jiachen

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