Historic neighbourhoods and cities have an impact on the formation of identity and place-specific values of local cultures. Living historic cities are important witnesses to the achievements and aspirations of the ancestors and the reservoir of traditions and experiences inherited from the past that continue to be present today. Historic cities constitute social, cultural and economic wealth, the loss of which will have detrimental impact on socio-cultural values of societies. These must therefore be preserved and sustained as assets that communities use and maintain their identity and culture in times of exceeding globalization.
Historic neighbourhoods and cities in the Arab region are experiencing a rapid shift from a traditional to contemporary lifestyle that has resulted in increasing, unprecedented pressures on the integrity of the built environment. These pressures range from rapid urban growth, which in many cases has almost overwhelmed historic cities, to a population explosion that has increased pressure on infrastructure, sometimes beyond exhaustion. The phenomenon of rural-urban migration has also had a negative impact on historic cities. In recent years, in addition to the traditional challenges that cities generally face, new challenges have emerged, including the commodification and exploitation of heritage. However, global warming and pollution are considered to be the most serious risks at present and in the foreseen future. In fact, according to recent studies by UN-Habitat, global warming will result in increased severity and frequency of disasters around the world and has consequently increased social and economic pressures that will negatively affect the efforts to conserve and protect historic cities and the quality of life they have to offer. On top of all these challenges, the devastating impact of armed conflicts are evident in many parts of the Arab region.
Cities are dynamic, and continued city life implies development and evolution to meet up-to-date requirements and needs of local communities. Historic city management is expected to delicately balance the preservation of heritage and traditions on the one hand, while growth and development must keep pace with modernity on the other. Achieving this balance is also quite challenging, but it becomes even more so considering the development of the notion of historic cities. While urban heritage management focused in the past on individual architectural monuments, today it has expanded to include the surrounding natural or built environments of neighbourhoods and historic cities, intangible heritage and social and cultural associations that represent an important aspect of the identity and vitality of a historic city. However, cultural policies, particularly in the Arab region, do not reflect this paradigm shift. Devising policies cannot be enough if not paired with updated practical implementation, monitoring and follow-up mechanisms that reflect the specificity and vitality of historic cities. The discrepancy between the goals that such policies aim to achieve and the actual outcomes on the ground is one of the main challenges which need to be addressed to succeed in managing urban heritage within its context.
For these reasons, ICCROM, through its Regional office in Sharjah is devising a new initiative titled “MEDINA” which addresses the protection of historic cities and aims at supporting the enhancement of urban heritage management in the Arab region and valorising the role of cultural heritage in sustainable development.
The broad aims of MEDINA initiative include:
1- Capacity building: One of the goals of the project is to build the capacity of institutions working with communities at the local/municipal level in order to respond to various challenges faced by historic cities in the Arab region.
2- Documentation of local knowledge: Traditional knowledge will be documented and geo-referenced using Geographic Information System (GIS). This will provide partner universities with a powerful tool to further their research in vital areas such as the use of traditional knowledge essential to devise climate change strategies, as well as other relevant research fields.
3- Partnerships building: The programme will seek partnerships with local stakeholders whose mandates are in line with the project goals, such as municipalities, universities, NGOs and other stakeholder groups. This could include artistic initiatives such as galleries, music concerts in historic cities, street art, etc., which would support creativity and livelihoods for community benefits.
To mark the launch of MEDINA initiative, ICCROM-Sharjah has organised an exhibition on historic cities during the last session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting held at Baku. The exhibition included posters representing historic cities in different Member States from the Arab region, which are either on the World Heritage List or on the tentative list. It focused on the need to safeguard the rich tangible and intangible heritage values of these cities and to address the main risks threatening them due to various natural and human induced hazards.
As first stage of this initiative, ICCROM-Sharjah is organising expert meeting webinars primarily to encourage international, regional and national actors working in urban heritage conservation to participate in the development of objectives, planning and implementation of the future MEDINA initiative.