The meanings of Historic Urban Landscape

The meanings of Historic Urban Landscape


Gabor Sonkoly

date de sortie





The notion of Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) is a fairly new term, which has gained a considerable significance in the discussions of international organizations of urban heritage protection. Similarly to other terms of the cultural heritage paradigm, it does not stem from academia, but it will certainly effect academic debates on the urban phenomenon, since it concerns the fields of interest of several human and social sciences. Two of its initiators define this term as the contemporary notion to grasp the utopia of urban conservation in their most recent book.1 By introducing the notion of utopia, they wish to empathize the “plurality of meanings”2 of the conservation of the built environment as well as to place this term in the history of urban planning. Their definition shows clearly the ultimate complexity of contemporary conservation of urban historic areas, which necessitates not only the expertise of urban planners, architects and economists, but, that of historians, sociologists, social geographers and anthropologists. These latters, however, were much less involved in the shaping of the concept of HUL, which is uniting loaded terms, which connote different, even contradictory meanings in different social sciences.


As an urban historian, I propose a lecture of this term in the following three phases: the birth of the notion of HUL and its importance; a swift conceptual analysis of HUL as opposed to Historic Area based on the difference of the twin-notions of space and territory; bridging the birth of the concept of (Historic) Urban Centre to that of the notion of HUL.


The importance of the birth of HUL


The General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Recommendation on the HUL in November 2011,3 what proves that this seven-year-old term has undisputedly gained a major importance in debates concerning the urban centres all over the world. In the Draft of the Recommendation, the necessity of this high level definition of the term is partially explained by the large number of the cities concerned: “Today, historic cities constitute the largest heritage “category” on the World Heritage List, with over 250 inscribed sites out of more than 900”.4


Urbanization and the changing character of city centres went parallel with this extensive scope of the international heritage protection, so it is no wonder that the first clashes between the two took place in the most recent decade. In certain cities like Cologne, Dresden or Vienna, this conflict got international attention, in others, as in Budapest, it remained on the UNESCO-Member State level, but the inherent discrepancy between the various social actors called for a general solution, or, at least a general framework of problem solving.


Finally, it was the city of Vienna, recognised as a world heritage site in 2001 and soon after threatened to be classified as a site in danger because of the planned construction of high towers near the city centre, which hosted the first conference on HUL in 2005 and gave place to the definition of the Vienna Memorandum,5 which was the first official tentative to describe the HUL.


The Vienna Memorandum and the notion of HUL should be understood in the conceptual evolution of the term of cultural heritage, since all the important international documents on urban conservation6 are centred around this term shaping it as well as codifying complex social, cultural, and economic developments related to the changing character of our perception of the past. Although the elements of urban area protection could be traced back to the 1933 Athens Charter, it was the 1964 Venice Charter, which determined the frames of city protection and the 1972 World Heritage Convention placed it to the general context of heritage protection based on sites.


It did not happen by chance that the UNESCO codified and institutionalized the cultural heritage in the early 1970’s. The shaping of the notion of cultural heritage went in hands with several social and cultural changes, out of which I only list those ones, which are relevant to our topic:

- the future oriented modernist approach was gradually replaced/paired by the postmodern presentism;

- the term of cultural heritage gradually incorporated almost every traces of the past (first objects and monuments, then cities, landscapes, species and even human communities);

- great theories (ideologies) explaining social development were fundamentally questioned;

- accordingly, humanities as well as social sciences (including economics and urban studies) undertook a set of paradigm shifts commonly labelled by the term of “turn”;

- linguistic or/and cultural turns in the above mentioned fields suited perfectly the multiplication of identities;

- the multiplication of identities and the strengthening of local voices lead to a wider scope of democratization and the academic recognition of these social changes;

- By the beginning of the 1980’s, urban planning could not avoid these developments: the expansion of the cultural heritage paradigm brought new aspects into the shaping of the city centres;
- ambitious modernizing plans were disfavoured to urban habilitation in the city centres;
- the surroundings of the historic monuments gained more and more attention from the point of view of protection, what valorised old buildings with less monumental/architectural interest;
- a sort of urban hermeneutics developed gradually in urban planning of historic city centres, in which not just the author’s (city planner’s, architect’s, etc.) will, but the receptor’s (inhabitant’s, stakeholder’s etc.) perception was also taken into consideration;
- the widening scope of stakeholders lead to the legislative process of participation in several Western countries.


The social and cultural background of the 1972 World Heritage Convention had been considerably changing in the last decades of the 20th century: the expansion of the notion of cultural heritage lead to the continuous redefinition of the urban heritage. The protected city centres were no longer considered as merely aesthetically attractive and/or historically significant ensembles of buildings and monuments, but as social habitats, which should be preserved in harmony with their natural settings and through mobilizing their residing communities. Though the World Heritage List includes a few protected urban views (for example Budapest /1987/ and Paris /1991/), but the vast majority of protected urban sites refer to built monuments or a built area of historic interest.


The HUL between space and territory


Numerous UNESCO Conventions and Recommendations show the conceptual evaluation of the notion of the urban centre as a site of protection from the mid-1970’s up to the 2011 Recommendation. In the beginning, the historic was used to describe the city centre. Later, the historic was considered more accurate till the 2005 Vienna Memorandum, when the historic urban came to use. These conceptual shifts seem to follow the social and cultural changes listed previously. Since the three terms refer to spatial entities and seem to reveal a coherent development in time, their analysis by the methods of social history can be easily justified.


In line with the traditions of French history writing, Daniel Nordman suggests that space becomes territory through the process of identity building and through the marking of places of memories in a given territory.7 The appropriation of space and the creation of a comprehensible territory takes place through denomination and delimitation. Accordingly, the level of territoriality of spatial entities can be measured by the character of their appropriation, denomination and delimitation of the given society or community. Certain terms belong totally to the spatial inventory (plain, for example, is not appropriated, has no special denomination and has vague limits), while others are totally territorial (country, for example, is appropriated by a nation, has a significant name and has borders). Each appropriation has its own history. There are certain periods, which prefer the elaboration of certain terms: 19th century European nation-building was really keen on the definition of country and fatherland, for example. In certain cases (in France, for instance), both became clearly territorialised, i.e. appropriated, while in others (in several Central and Eastern European cases, for instance), there are still difficulties to delimitate countries or fatherlands, not mentioning the process of superimposing the two.


The terms of the UNESCO reveal an evolution.8 Both area and landscape are appropriated and designated, especially with the “historic” attribute. The difference of the level of territorialisation, i.e. appropriation of phenomena defined by these terms can be, however, judged by their delimitation. While the area should be clearly delimitated by border(line)s, the landscape has no limits, or its limits are ambulant: they follow the gaze of the observer. On one hand, landscape seems to define a lower level of appropriation, on the other hand, this appropriation is more individual and more flexible than that of area. If the replacement of area proved to be necessary in the documents protecting the city centres, one can ask why it was not changed to the more urban specific notion of townscape. This term also includes the gaze of the observer, so less territorialised than area, but it belongs to the inventory of architects, urbanists, and alike, so the appropriation is more specific than that of landscape. Accordingly, urban landscape was chosen to become the appropriate term to describe and to incorporate all the complex changes which have been happening to the city centres since the 1970’s.


There are several common characteristics of the protection of urban sites, which are present from the very first documents: the demand for conservation, the special attention given to local urban practice, the survey approach, the recommendation for programming and planning, the involvement of the locals in the decision-making processes, and the educative value of the historic settings. Thus these elements did not justify the choice of a new term. Among other causes, the most recent documents emphasize the importance of the appearance of the intangible cultural heritage in the UNESCO’s cultural heritage management. The implementation of the new term of landscape seems to be explained by this expansion of the notion of cultural heritage. Whereas townscape refers to the totality of the material/tangible cultural heritage sites and objects of an urban settlement, landscape is supposed to depict the immaterial/intangible aspects of the urban cultural heritage. Theoretically, the landscape could unite the levels of local practices by the inclusion of the individual (through his or her view), the community (through its value-bound definition) and the society (by taking the genius loci into account). According to the will of the heritage preservers, landscape expresses the “layering of the significances”,9 i.e. the protection of different levels of traditional urban practices through preserved tangible frames and through the documentation of these practices.


Consequently, the lower level of territorialisation of landscape, allows to incorporate a broader scope of stakeholders. Whereas area or even townscape are determined by an external hand or view (by the voyeur10), landscape adds to this the view of the walker. In this sense, the academic, who can be a monument protector, an architect or a historian, is expected to change the scales of his/her view alternating his role of a voyeur to that of a mediator. The rising awareness of the locals is not just reflected by the legislation of the participative principles, but by the frames of monument protection as well as by the changing fields and characters of scholarship.


HUL takes into account the complexity of present-day (historic) city centres: they cannot be described through their unique functions (traditional urban activities), by simply opposing to other parts of the city (sociologically, geographically, from the point of view of urban planning, etc.), or by their mere aesthetical value (monument protection). They are considered as a bearer of a local identity, which is expressed by specific - intangible cultural - practices. The definition of the city centre by its identity needs a new academic toolbox, which supposes a new (post-turns) set-up of the elements of traditional disciplines. In return, the concerned disciplines themselves are due to change by this assemblage.


The (Historic) Urban Centre and the HUL


In the European context, most of the protected urban settings, i.e. the notion of the urban (historic) centre came into existence, when the privileged cities lost their territorial intactness through the territorialisation of the modern state, what made their city-walls disappear and made their territory integrate the suburbs. The previously closed cities must have opened themselves, both physically and socially, to the surrounding areas. The formerly intact closed cities/towns, became open city centres and the objects of the waves of the modernizing or historicizing urban planning. The evolving concern for urban conservation often (re)separated the protected areas from the rest of the city.


By the last decades of the 20th century, however, the urban planning gradually became less confident concerning its aims and tools. Following the characteristics of the cultural heritage paradigm, from its modernist (future-based) approach it was sliding slowly to a more presentist one, in which conservation gained a primary importance. Accumulating dissatisfaction expressed by successive generations of urban planners concerning the ideas and deeds of their forefathers as well as the gradual discredit of great modern social theories mitigated the original vigour of amending social problems and inequalities by urban planning. Since the built environment failed to reflect the aimed ideal society, moreover, this ideal society was harder and harder to envision, pragmatism and protection of the existing environment became the norm. In other words, urban planning has experienced its cultural turn, as ideologies were gradually replaced by identities.


Considering all these social and cultural developments, HUL seems to be the proper term to describe the contents of the contemporary historic urban centres and the doubts related to its definition. It also aims the reintegration of the historic (protected) area to the rest of the city. The lower level of territorialisation expressed by the choice of landscape allows a larger scope of social actors to identify themselves with this territorial entity, but its inherent reference to the intangible cultural heritage leads to the questions of utility of this quite recently defined notion in an ever changing urban setting. The interrelatedness of place, local community, local practices and local identities through legislation and use of urban cultural heritage protection has presented itself as a new exciting field of study for the social sciences.



1.       Franceso Bandarin & Ron Van Oers, The Historic Urban Landscape. Managing Heritage in an Urban Century, Wiley/Blackwell, 2012, p. 9-10.

2.       Bandarin & Van Oers (2012), p. 10.

3.       Bandarin & Van Oers (2012), p. 12.

4.       Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape. A New International Instrument, UNESCO, 2010, p. 2.

5.       World Heritage and Contemporary Architecture, Managing the Historic Urban Landscape,International Conference, Vienna, 12-14.5.2005. Report. City of Vienna – UNESCO.

6.       Bandarin & Van Oers (2012) p. 59-88.

7.       Daniel Nordman offers an excellent synthesis in his introduction to his book about the borders of France: Daniel Nordman, Les frontièresde France. De l’espace au territoire, xvie- xixesiècles, Paris, Gallimard, 1999.

8.       Ron Van Oers, DRAFT elements of a Future International Standard-Setting Instrument on the Conservation of Historic Urban Landscape,UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2008, p. 3.

9.      The distinction between the voyeur and the walker is used by Michel De Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, 1.Arts de faire; 2. Habiter, cuisiner, éd. établie et présentée par Luce Giard, Gallimard, Paris, 1990.


Gábor Sonkoly est docteur en histoire, diplômé de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) de Paris. Il est directeur d’études à l’université Eötvös Loránd de Budapest (Hongrie), chef de département de l’Atelier-Centre franco-hongrois en sciences sociales, Budapest (Hongrie), et coordinateur général du programme Erasmus Mundus « Territoires européens : Identité et développement », subventionné par la Commission Européenne. Ses recherches portent sur l’histoire urbaine, l’histoire du territoire, l’histoire du patrimoine culturel et la construction nationale (xviiie et xxe siècles).


01/10/2010 - 30/06/2013