On tenth anniversary, Aga Khan symposium calls for dialogue between development and conservation

In the spirit of creating new forms of collaboration to address contemporary design issues, on March 7 the Aga Khan Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design celebrated its tenth anniversary by joining with academics and experts from MIT’s Aga Khan Program, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to explore The Space Between Development and Conservation in the Muslim world. During a day of provocative discussion, the symposium gathered leading experts in Islamic Art and Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning to articulate a comprehensive approach to conserving the region’s historic cities and natural landscapes as living, vibrant spaces. The Aga Khan Program’s focus on the Islamic world provides an illuminating lens through which to examine the challenges of creating coherence between universal themes of development, urbanism, environmental concerns and land use for urban designers, policymakers and planners across the globe.

Popular uprisings in Istanbul, Cairo, and Beirut, which have centered on these cities’ iconic squares, have vividly illustrated the cultural and historical importance of public spaces in the Muslim world. Violent protests last year in Gezi Square, Istanbul over the government’s proposed destruction of the park to build a shopping mall highlighted the critical importance of engaging citizens in public space planning and development. Ongoing political upheaval in Egypt has played out largely in public squares, including Cairo’s Tahrir Square, while unrest in Beirut spreads through the country’s capital city. For a region where the fabric of urban life is intertwined with rich architectural and artistic traditions, the changes unfolding in these ancient cities have profound implications for their residents and the world beyond.

The GSD Aga Khan Program’s diverse approach to land use and design includes a focus on preserving historic Islamic cities as authentic places that are simultaneously functional for today’s urban residents, while retaining their historical and architectural integrity. Yet rather than freezing these places in time as tourist artifacts, the conservation strategy is framed around the cities’ inhabitants and their need for working urban centers that evolve and adapt with time. Over the past two decades, the debate over how to achieve a balance of environmental, cultural and architectural protection in the midst of unprecedented urban development has intensified dramatically. This debate has been exacerbated by the upheaval in the wake of the Arab Spring, creating greater urgency for a comprehensive approach to conserving historic cities. Yet it also has invited critical perspectives on the importance of the natural landscape and ecosystems, archaeological sites, parks and gardens as spaces equally deserving of protection in the rich fabric of these societies.

In many cases, the lack of public policies to protect the natural and built environment has caused vulnerable landmark buildings and landscapes to be destroyed or seized for municipal development, or left without adequate infrastructure services. Panelists focused on the critical need to balance the inherent cultural value of the historical urban landscape against the pressures of housing and commerce, and the importance of enabling residents’ access to what has been an increasingly inaccessible public sphere. Open space and architectural restoration projects across South Asia, the Middle East and Africa showcase a preservation strategy that embraces the past while integrating residents’ contemporary needs. The restoration of Humayun’s Tomb and Garden in Delhi, the rebuilding of Baghe Babur in Kabul, the revitalization of Forodhani Park in Stone Town, Zanizbar and the Darb al-Ahmar and Al-Azhark Park restoration projects in Cairo exemplify the spirit of diversity and collaboration that characterizes the GSD Aga Khan Program’s approach to historical preservation. These cities’ long histories provide invaluable lessons in migration and population growth that, in the absence of thoughtfully designed urban development, have resulted in decay at the centers around which public life revolves. But these examples also illustrate the wealth of opportunities for recapturing the spirit and vitality of the public spaces and structures that define the world’s historic cities.

Mediating the tension between development and conservation will require designers, policymakers and conservationists to study larger scale landscapes, including deserts, territories and parks, and the role that the historical landscape could play in mediating modern development. In Jordan’s Shobak Arid Region, designers, landscape architects and ecologists are collaborating on an approach to preserving the Shobak’s critical ecosystems, while fostering ecotourism and sustainable economic development. This innovative strategy for landscape preservation reflects both an increasing awareness of the cultural and historical importance of the region’s natural treasures, and the need to engage citizens in the protection and enjoyment of these public spaces. As the political and societal landscape continues to evolve across the Islamic region, approaches that emphasize convergence between conservation and development will be critical for ensuring that the world’s great historic cities and public spaces preserve their cultural and artistic legacies, while functioning and thriving in the 21st century.

Explore other programs in critical conservation at the GSD.