I spend my days as an urban historian teaching, researching and writing about the urban environment. My research concentrates on the values of the historic environment and how different actors – planners, architects, conservationists, developers and community groups – decide what future the past should have. Many questions arise: how do individuals and groups from the professional field of heritage, academics and the wider community work together to understand elusive terms like ‘value’ and ‘heritage’, and how does that influence the way they manage the legacy of the past. How does neighbourhood planning and a new planning policy framework ‘contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the past’ and does it really capture evidence consistent with ‘conserving heritage assets in a manner appropriate to their significance’? (NPPF, 2012). So the conundrum remains: what is significant, to whom it is significant, and how should a resource be managed? Increasingly my research is revealing the significant emotional attachments that people have with historic places. However, the urban regeneration schemes that I have researched in Britain, France and Italy have tended to focus on attracting people rather than exploring the existing communal value of areas. I am thus interested in the ways in which people’s experience of place and their emotional attachments to heritage can be incorporated in the planning process, and I see that my monologues about this to Richard, my Leicester colleague (see ‘sociologist’s view below) have even seeped into his blog!
Had I written this blog five years ago I would have had a different perspective. Back then I examined decisions to conserve or demolish historic buildings as part of 20thC urban policies to regenerate British and French cities (Madgin 2009 and 2010). Based on in-depth archival research and numerous interviews with the key actors I concluded that value rested with the inherent malleability of the historic environment. Just as the buildings could be re-used for luxury apartments, offices and bars I concluded that what represented valuable heritage was conditioned by prevailing urban agendas. Heritage could not be divorced from agency: QUANGOs, local and national authorities, and private developers were dominant and heritage was a tool to attract investment, and developers, to the depressed inner cities. The transformation of the physical and mental landscape took place to meet contemporary needs.
However, the archives and the interviews revealed latent but powerful values: emotional and experiential. In each of the urban regeneration schemes researched I uncovered a powerful attachment to historic place held by communities and local historical societies. Sometimes campaigns to retain the buildings were successful; and other times they weren’t but whatever the outcome there was no denying that an attachment to historic place existed and that the processes that formed this attachment deserved yet more research.
So, the emotional value of the urban past has gradually been forming as my research has proceeded over the past three years and this is slowly coalescing into a book. Rather than focus on the instrumental benefits of re-using heritage i.e. urban regeneration I have focused on the reasons why people desire the past, which has been methodologically challenging! I’ve used historical examples stretching back into the nineteenth century, where the love of, and respect for, the past motivated action, and applied these to contemporary urban planning initiatives to question the place for emotional value in the planning process.
I believe, therefore, that this AHRC project lies at the heart of the current debates about the management of heritage. The pluralistic turn to embrace the values held by a range of actors (Pendlebury 2008) has moved heritage away from its previously deferential stance regarding expert opinions. What we replace it with could be based on an understanding of the ways in which people develop values and attachments to historic places, and how this relates to urban policy and decision-making.