“Cities are organisms, not objects in need of completion”: Lessons in living heritage, from Tokyo to Adelaide

Tokyo: grown, not planned. Image: Getty.

When you think about Japan, you probably think of cherry blossom, kimonos, sashimi, sumo, gardens, bathhouses, neon lights or space-age toilets. What you might not think about is the rich and complex layering in Japanese cities.But, for issues of heritage and conservation, Australia's architects, urban planners and policymakers could learn a lot from Japan.

Tokyo is a city that most visitors remember as being bustling, if not overwhelming, in every sense of the word. The pace is frenetic. People are packed together like sardines.

But, at the human scale, Tokyo has an incredibly rich layering of experiences. The towers of Shinjuku sit alongside the tightly packed informal streets that inspired the movie Bladerunner. Tourist meccas and shopping malls co-exist with open street markets and questionable boutiques. Pockets of traditional houses sit in a strange tension with the megastructures of the heaving metropolis.

The complexity of Tokyo has emerged organically; it could not have been designed. Master planning has a place, because a city needs structures and guidelines for development. But, like planting a seed instead of designing the flower, accepting that cities can evolve organically means that they won’t bow to the will of a single architect or reflect just one moment in time.

The constant state of flux denies the singular and encourages the pastiche. Working in flux requires a shift to thinking of cities as organisms rather than as objects in need of completion. This shift allows each generation to add their chapter to the story, rather than constantly trying to “finish” it.


Progress vs heritage

Adelaide is in many ways the opposite of an organic city. It was planned according to a regimented grid that permits little deviance. However, it has organically retained many heritage buildings and a range of architectural styles.

While we might like to think of this as deliberate: much of this preservation arguably happened as a result of South Australia’s comparatively slow economic growth.

The phenomenon of buildings being protected by economic rationalism rather than cultural idealism is amplified in Japan. Many of Japan’s most interesting urban areas are full of seemingly mismatched buildings, which combine to tell a complex story of their place.

While these areas are now celebrated for their diversity and historical significance, many remain because of cancelled construction projects (during the economic contraction of the 1990s) rather than a deliberate preservation agenda.

Economic growth is not necessarily bad for heritage, and Adelaide doesn’t need another State Bank collapse. But historically slow growth has left the city with a built environment of incredible cultural value.

Adelaide’s North Terrace strip is an obvious example of this. Yet, much like Melbourne in neighbouring Victoria, the South Australian capital is starting to see the value of some of its “less beautiful” parts. The transformation of unloved buildings into thriving small bars demonstrates how buildings of little economic value can have immense urban and cultural value.

While economic hardship largely explains why Adelaide’s North Terrace (pictured here circa 1940) has been well preserved, it is now treasured as the city’s living heritage. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Thinking in terms of living heritage

Instead of ascribing value to buildings simply because they are old or rundown, we need to develop a way of assessing and understanding value. “Living heritage” is a concept that encourages us to think more deeply about the value of buildings through the contribution they make to their surroundings.

Since Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery and called it art, we have understood that objects are defined by their surroundings as much as by their own design. In a living heritage evaluation, the role of a building in defining and anchoring its context can be as important as its stylistic details.

Buildings normally represent a single moment in time, but the urban environments around them continually evolve. If we understand the contribution a building is making to the story of its surroundings, we can make decisions that go beyond preserving historical facades to foster opportunities to protect, and add to, the stories and layers of the past.

To take this concept further, we could considering whether the ardent preservation of streetscapes as museum pieces is actually holding back the development of cultural identity. Perhaps rather than trying to freeze parts of our cities as examples of the past, we could look at supporting appropriately designed (and scaled) new developments. If done well, these interventions build on and enhance the cultural narrative of place.

Heritage will always be a complex issue, but our understanding needs to go beyond aesthetics to consider cultural (and environmental) dimensions. Contemporary architectural interventions are challenging for any urban area.

But if carefully crafted, good architecture can create an abstract continuity that adds a new layer to the story of a place without compromising its identity and integrity.The Conversation

Aaron Davis is doing a PhD in architecture at the University of South Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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