Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Putting a 'value' on Built Heritage

Heritage is ‘priceless’ therefore, theoretically, trying to do a valuation of it is futile. Unfortunately it is not always treated like it is priceless. Once made redundant in terms of direct use, the artefacts of heritage, tangible or intangible, are frequently lost. If the value of heritage is defined as the amount of welfare that it can generate for society, lost with it are all the potential benefits that heritage may bring to humanity in future. 
 Underground cistern at Rani Roopmati's Pavilion in Mandu, India
Cultural heritage exists in many forms, here as the traditional knowledge systems for managing water (image source: author)

Now the values attributed to heritage can be typically divided into ‘use’ and ‘non-use’ values. Use values are derived from the direct or indirect use of a cultural resource and can include financial benefits, aesthetic qualities, community use and the opportunity to use the resource for residential, commercial, tourism, recreation, social etc. purposes.

Non-use values are the intangible benefits associated with the site and include 

existence value - people value the existence of something even though they may not use or consume it directly

option value - people wish to preserve the option that they or others might consume the asset’s services at some future time

bequest value - people may wish to bequeath the asset to future generations

However, unlike use values, non-use values are not observable in market transactions since no market exists on which the rights to them can be exchanged. Heritage is a Public Good and like other public goods - environmental resources, bio-diversity etc. – heritage is a ‘Market Failure’. There is no market in which heritage or biodiversity can be traded and anyway, since they are commonly acknowledged as belonging to the general public, they are not privately trade-able.

To ‘correct’ this ‘Market Failure’, the attempt can and has been made to monetise the ‘use’ and ‘non-use’ values of such resources. However it is very difficult to quantify such values especially since many of the benefits they bring are intangible. Another approach to valuing these aspects is to calculate the changes that would occur if that particular resource no longer existed i.e. estimating the ‘Damage’ or ‘Loss’ cost on the assumption that “Including the damage cost will render the cost benefit ratio of detrimental activities less attractive.”

Thus to understand the ‘Loss’ value of a particular heritage resource would require first a mapping of the different ways in which notions of value are being constructed vis-à-vis that particular resource.

Let us now focus on built heritage. For cultural heritage that exists as tangible structures, buildings, settlements etc., the ‘built’ aspect is extremely important for assigning value. Valuating built heritage requires an understanding of the spatial implications of its existence and its loss. This is because much of the value attributed and the pressures acting upon built heritage (especially urban built heritage) is spatial in nature – directly related to the land it occupies, its geographical location, its connections to physical networks etc.

As Henri Lefebvre describes in his book, The Production of Space, “Space in its entirety enters the modernized capitalist mode of production, there to be used for the generation of surplus value…The urban fabric, with its multiple networks of communication and exchange, is likewise part of the means of production.” Thus, as Lefebvre describes, the calculation of the value of space, especially space with the qualities of centrality like urban cores, becomes subject to the capitalist system wherein “Quantification…is technical in appearance, financial in reality, and moral in essence.”

In attributing value and especially ‘use’ value of space, one thus starts going into the notions of commercial inter-changeability of a given space and whether the importance of space, historic or not, is then subject to the primacy of the trade in space hence its exchange and exchange values. In this context of increasingly important exchange values and as use values change, existing built heritage may find its uses undergoing what Lefebvre calls ‘diversion’ or ‘detournement’ over a period of time.

This happens when existing space outlives its original utility and the reasons for which it was built with a particular form and for a particular function. When this purpose becomes obsolete, the space is subject to being re-appropriated, its use ‘diverted’ to something more relevant thus maintaining or increasing its ‘use’ value. Also, this diversion in use may lead to changes in form that then affects various ontological constructs of urban space viz. its importance as visual attribute (‘The Image of the City’), its meaning and interpretations, and the whole spatial entity as an architectural artefact that affects the morphology of that part of the city.

However the possibilities of changing use is dependant on other spatial qualities. The ability for a ‘historic’ core, for example, to remain at the ‘spatial’ core of a city is vital. The movement or splitting up of the spatial core is subject to many factors, not the least of which are the political factors that establish the centres of decision-making. Another important factor that affects centrality is the ability of the space to stay connected to the economic and infrastructural networks it requires to remain relevant.

Of course, the importance of a space then directly promotes what Lefebvre calls the ‘scarcity of space’. One of the most significant pressures on built heritage is when the value of the land it occupies overtakes the value of the built artefact due to a shortage of space. As Lefebvre says “The fact is that the shortage of space is a distinctly socio-economic phenomenon, one which can only be observed, and which only occurs in quite specific areas, namely in or near urban centres. These may have grown up from historically established centres, from the old cities, or they may have evolved out of new towns.” 

It is clear that the value of a place is blurred by the logic of growth. The traditionally temporal (time-bound) nature of planning ignores both the rapid-growth rates and the complex patterns generated by change – thus not engaging in a dialectic understanding of the historic place as process. And it is in this very ontological construct of  historical place as ‘process’ where much of the value of built heritage lies, not as a product but as a process.
Place as process: Old Delhi (in red) and New Delhi today
source: author

Thus when it comes to historic centres in old cities, contradictions and conflicts evolve when heritage values generated by the historicity compete with all the other values attributed to the area as part of the urban eco-system, especially those values attributed due to its centrality, its part in the capitalist mode of production of space and the ‘scarcity’ values. Lefebvre describes how these contradictions and conflicts in space are ‘derived from time’ and how “only by means of a dialectical analysis can the precise relationships between contradictions in space and contradictions of space be unravelled, and a determination made as to which are becoming attenuated, which accentuated.” 

Author: Shahana Dastidar
Note: For references, please write to author at urbanruralfabric(at)gmail.com

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