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Tuesday, April 7, 2020
Their View / Opinion

Protection of heritage buildings, sites doesn’t just happen

The old city centres and architectural gems are the mainstay of tourism in Europe. Likewise, neighbourhoods with meticulously kept old homes are always in demand by homebuyers. But that didn’t happen by accident, nor was the preservation of such areas a foregone conclusion.

Today we take it almost as self-evident that heritage buildings should be protected, that aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship trump the standard fare now offered up by architects and builders. Our take on the conservation of the built environment didn’t just appear, however,  but evolved over years and decades and even centuries.

Just how we arrived at the current state will be explored in a lecture next week (November 21) by Dr. Robert Shipley, a retired professor in the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning. A “History of the Built Heritage Conservation Movement” is presented by the North Waterloo Region branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

The ideas that guide today’s practices have deep theoretical roots that have evolved and changed over time, he argues.

People weren’t always conscious of or conscientious about protecting historic sites, he notes, pointing to Stonehenge as an example. Perhaps the most famous prehistoric monument in Europe, Stonehenge is now a World Heritage Site, but as recently as the late-19th century, people were still pillaging pieces as souvenirs. That’s unimaginable today, but it wasn’t until concerned citizens pushed for protections that the site was spared from such activities.

Likewise, there’s a concerted effort to protect and restore heritage buildings, a practice that’s particularly prevalent in Europe. (This week’s marking of Remembrance Day brings to mind the destruction on a massive scale that occurred in Europe during the Second World War, after which there was a concerted effort to rebuild and recreate much of what was wiped out, pieces of history also victims of the senselessness of war.)

On this side of the pond, there’s been an increase in awareness of heritage matters, Shipley notes.

Ontario, for instance, has plenty of intact main streets that date back to the mid-19th century. The buildings may not be as old as those found in Europe, but they could someday take on more significance. That is, of course, if we take steps to preserve and maintain them.

That’s always a big if, though we’re getting better. In this region alone, there are numerous examples of lovely old building knocked down due to neglect and ignorance. To be sure, some of the buildings that disappeared needed to go. Others weren’t anything special. But all too often progress for progress sake saw old, character-filled structures fall to make way for ugly, soulless buildings (think about Kitchener’s old city hall making way for a failed urban shopping mall). Or, perhaps even more insultingly, for a vacant, weed-filled lot.

That history is especially problematic in Kitchener and Waterloo, where the built environment is generally ugly or, at best, neutral. There are a few nice older buildings that have survived overzealous demolition – the Walper Hotel and the CIBC bank across the road in Kitchener, for instance, examples we can agree on – but there’s no real brilliant architecture, no grand mansions or other notable specimens that can be found in other places. Instead, they’re working-class cities that relied on industry. What K-W did have was lots of factories, though many of those were knocked down before we realized what those elsewhere figured out long ago: people like old buildings, and the factories of yore make great conversions into funky offices and lofts (Shipley, for instance, makes his home in one such converted space).

That kind of reuse of old buildings – factories turned lofts, old rowhouses becoming trendy restaurants – is destined to become, well, a thing of the past given the ugly, poorly built structures that have been the norm for most of the postwar period.

Like so many things today, architecture is disposable. Look around at the newer buildings: do you really think they’ll be here in a century? As is the case with electronics, clothing and cars, for instance, the buildings are typically made on the cheap, intended to be discarded as they quickly wear out or suffer the fickleness of fashion and trendiness.

“Sixty years from now, there will be an organization for the preservation of old Walmart stores,” Shipley laughs. He acknowledges buildings that do manage to stick around long enough do take on some significance, though steel-clad boxes may be something of a stretch.

Many of the new buildings don’t lend themselves to longevity, let alone sticking around to be repurposed, he adds.

While we don’t match the level of classically beautiful streets as in Europe,  we can do our part here to help ensure existing buildings are around for future generations to make their own assessments about.

“A lot of people are wistful about Europe … but we have our own history, even if it’s not as old,” says Shipley. “It’s up to us to look after our places. First of all, we have to recognize they’re our places.”

There are better provisions for that under the Heritage Act, with municipalities taking stock of what’s worthy of protection.

“We can start by identifying the properties of potential cultural interest.”

Shipley is certainly familiar with that process through his work with the Heritage Resource Centre at UW, from which he undertook the exercise that would become the cultural heritage landscape (CHL) designation of the West Montrose covered bridge and surrounding area.

That process became the basis for a heightened consciousness of local heritage landscapes, including the likes of Maryhill and the Winterbourne valley. Woolwich and Wellesley townships are working to identify heritage sites and buildings.

The West Montrose CHL is in fact a case study in an international academic compendium: The Routledge Companion to Rural Planning, a weighty tome that draws on examples from around the world, includes a chapter on the local example.

Each success in protecting the built environment helps to raise awareness and change the mindset that led to past demolitions. It also erodes past resistance some property owners felt heritage designations, which they argued would impose constraints on their use of the property. But people now recognize there are more benefits, including the emergence of in-demand heritage neighbourhoods where property values take off.

All property owners face restrictions, from zoning bylaws and other planning constraints to issues such as property standards, so heritage designations are just in that vein, with the added benefit of typically being advantageous in the end, says Shipley.

He adds that those people who value heritage buildings benefit when the neighbouring properties are afforded protections.

“It’s not about restricting the people who are aware of the value and want to protect it, but to constrain the people who are going to do bad things.”

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