June 11, 2017
As Ottawa played host to the 2017 Ontario Heritage Conference last weekend, I have been reflecting on the key questions of heritage conservation.
How is the public interest served by promoting and protecting heritage buildings? How do we balance the public benefit with the rights of property owners? What constitutes heritage and who gets to define it – the broader community, elected officials, heritage planners and experts?
These are questions I need to ask and re-ask often. I pose them because heritage promotion requires rigour and the constant demonstration of public value in order to gain the broad support that is critical to remain a relevant and successful enterprise. I would suggest that one of the ways to do that is to situate heritage within the concept of placemaking: the idea that individual physical spots in our cities – from a street corner to a small park to a main street – are not just utilitarian but have value in promoting health, happiness and well-being.
Placemaking, while not a new idea, has gained in importance in part as a response to a critique of urban growth in our cities that is concerned with car-dependency: residential communities that require residents to drive to buy a bag of milk; commercial areas dominated by parking lots, hard to reach by transit or unfriendly to pedestrians; wide arterial roads that encourage speeding and make walking and cycling unsafe.
Placemaking is in many ways an antidote to that kind of growth by focusing on the way people interact with their built physical environment at a local, human-scale. The practice of placemaking seeks to connect citizens and neighbourhoods to their public spaces with a strong emphasis on design, social capital and beauty. The heritage community has long been practicing placemaking – evidenced most obviously by the ubiquity of heritage walking tours and the corresponding lack of heritage driving tours.
The story of heritage as placemaking can be told in three parts.