There is a lesson or two for Indian cities in the United Nations Development Programme’s initiative to conserve the Rimac neighbourhood, a World Heritage site, of Lima in Peru. This is perhaps the first time a conservation project is attempting to improve, in a major way, the “precarious conditions” of the poor who inhabit a historical area. Continuous neglect has turned the two-century-old core of Lima, known as the ‘City of Kings,’ into a blighted area. The challenge was to preserve the historical character without displacing the poor migrant residents. Consistent pro-poor efforts have paid off and legislation was recently adopted to confer property rights on the residents of Rimac. This UNDP initiative has the potential to change entrenched opinion that views heritage as an elite preserve and approaches conservation as a way of gentrifying a place. Conservation is problematic when the sole and obsessive concern is to keep the buildings in museum conditions and ‘beautify’ the area. It turns worse when the poor are either directly evicted or the value of the site is so enhanced that the rentals and property prices increase manifold, forcing the residents to leave. Rimac, which demonstrates that conservation can be made inclusive, is a worthy development alternative.
Much like Rimac, old cities in India suffer from crumbling infrastructure, poor housing conditions, and inadequate investment. Delhi’s Shahjahanabad, the ‘Walled City,’ is a case in point. Most parts of this once-celebrated Mughal city are now notified slums and about 570,000 (2001) people live in appalling conditions. The focus must be on improving the living conditions of the inhabitants and helping them make the place their own. As efforts at places such as Rimac and Luang Prabang (in Laos) show, this can be achieved by conferring property rights on long-term poor residents, providing targeted credit with affordable interest rates, and extending free technical services to restore houses. Where needed, limited modification of structures can be permitted to accommodate small commercial enterprises, since heritage areas cannot be isolated from employment-generating activities and opportunities to improve income levels. Ferrare in Italy, which has about 140,000 inhabitants and 100,000 bicycles, demonstrates that a conscious attempt to develop non-motorised transport infrastructure within historical cores can be successful. When such measures are supported by an equitable transport policy, the connectivity with the rest of the city improves and heritage cities become better places to live in.