Urban Conservation through Urban Planning

Unprecedented demographic and spatial growth of the last four decades, accompanied by growing strains on civic services has led to loss of identity among the residents of the cities. A lot of infrastructure in response to economic activity has led to development of ugly structures that change the character of the city. Since World War 2 urban conservation has concerned the whole architectural fabric of towns and cities involving all buildings and areas which display interesting characteristics. It is also concerned with people and their lifestyles.

Definition of urban conservation

According to the national trust of Australia, NSW : Urban conservation seeks to retain that part of urban environment whose character is important to the national or local heritage. It also seeks to enhance that environmental character by ensuring that the siting, the size and design of any development is complementary to it.

Thus the national trust of Australia stresses ‘the basic function of any conservation programme is to identify and to retain those essential features contributing to the character of any area, and to ensure that any new development of redevelopment is in sympathy with, and contributes to, the character of that area.

Related: What is Urban Growth

What is built heritage?

The architectural heritage consists not only of our most important monuments but also lesser buildings. It has come to realization that simply protecting monuments is not enough, there needs to be conservation and beautification of surrounding areas. With this also comes the realization that just an area of buildings can hold character hence conservation need not be only for outstanding structures and their areas.

Urban Conservation - Heritage

Human dimensions of scale are also important to town planners to bring to urban life. By retaining socio-economic character of traditional areas people can go on living even though they may be renovated. Conservation is therefore putting people first and that not just old buildings for preservation and renewal. Hence it is the aim of conservation to preserve the best of the past and to provide a framework for the new.

Why conservation at all?

Many feel that change is inevitable. There are, however, good reasons why we should focus on urban conservation to preserve our better buildings and urban areas side by side with modern developments:

  • The first is based on the profound psychological need of human beings for permanence
  • The second would be the realization that old buildings often do their jobs better than new ones.
  • The third would be that we cannot afford to demolish buildings which still have plenty of life in them. Older buildings generally are more efficient in energy conservation than new ones due to dependence on natural light and ventilation
  • The fourth reason would be the rehabilitation or conversion old building is also labor intensive.
  • Fifthly, many older buildings are superior in materials, craftsmanship and aesthetic form to a great number of contemporary buildings.

Related: City Branding

Urban Conservation by means of master plan and other policy documents

The master plan or any concerned development plan for a city must be reviewed to assess its effect on the conservation needs of the city. It must reflect and respect the form of old cities and must explicitly recognize the social needs of communities in old quarters.

An important constituent of all master plans is a proposed Land use map, according to which all future development must take place. The starting point for urban conservation is that this map must recognize the existence of buildings and areas to be protected. These must be clearly delineated on the map.

Once a special reservation is made on the statutory land-use map by locating the historic building, it will imply that the permission granting agency will be bound to take note of the fact that the particular building is different from other buildings. Usually owners want to demolish old buildings for redevelopment of the site. Such developments would not be processed in the routine course once a special reservation has been made.

Urban Conservation - Built Structure

Special reservation on the statutory land-use map entails no liability on the part of the government. How the building can be saved is a separate issue that can be dealt with a specific law for reserved buildings. So far in Hyderabad, the one place in India where special reservations have been in operation for some years, the experience has been reasonable satisfactory and many case involving demolition of buildings for the construction of new complexes had to be referred to higher levels in the government and delayed and sometimes given up.

Related: Concept, Basic Characteristics & Preparation of Master Plan

Land use proposals for Urban Conservation

The next task is to formula land use policies to create a situation that will make retaining historic buildings advantageous, or, in other words, will make new constructions on the sites vacated, due to the removal of historic, less and less profitable.

The land-use proposals for urban conservation and historical areas must seek to retain the mixture of various land uses which may be contributing to the basic character and vitality of that area. Small workshops dealing with various traditional trades, facilities for repair and maintenance, little shops of narrow façade with their typical merchandise, local markets providing cheap food, specialized eating houses and sweet shops-all put together create the ‘old city’ some flexibility in permitted mixes of land use is therefore required.

Urban Conservation - Monuments

Related: Land Use Planning

Reservation of buildings and declaration of areas will mean that the owners of private buildings maybe subjected to conditions that may affect their interest in the property. While compensation and compulsory acquisition will be an action of the last resort under detailed legislation, it is important that land-use control and zoning provide some facilities and incentives to the owners to make things easier for them.

The historic buildings, already marked as special reservations, must enjoy a special status with reference to permissible use. If the owner is willing to retain the building instead of pressing for demolition or redevelopment he may be allowed to utilize it for a more profitable use which may be offices of other commercial use. Such concessions do not defeat the very purpose of conservation.

Floor area ratio and Density

Major changes in land use and floor area ratio can radically alter the character of these parts of the city. The construction of high-rise buildings in historic central areas is the surest way to destroy or undermine their urban form. Even though every master plan in the 60’s and 70’s spoke of decongesting the centre, the density stipulations on the proposed land-use map in effect achieved just the opposite goal by fixing a higher FAR and density for central core areas and a lower FAR for areas from the centre. This policy needs to be reversed as it is in conflict with all the stated master plan objectives.

Conservation requires that planning policies be directed to fixing limits to development in specified areas. In a conservation area or an area in the proximity of major monuments, rather than impose arbitrary or piecemeal restrictions or individual owners. It makes better sense to reduce the FAR and height limits uniformly, so that no individual owner is put at disadvantage in realizing the value of his property. The designation of conservation areas with a low FAR would create a sense of stability that would encourage property owners to invest in repair and upkeep, which they are inhibited from doing if there is hope of a future when speculative redevelopment would prove to be more profitable.

Urban Conservation - Environment

Coupled with reserved building legislation, a reduction in FAR for the area and appropriate height restriction would thus make it possible to maintain the character of an area, without discrimination against the owner of a reserved building and thus achieving the overall targets set for urban conservation. This approach is no different from normal planning activity which creates restrictions at some sites and encourages a higher FAR commercial development in other areas. No compensation is payable for such restrictions.

Traffic & road widening

Old cities were not designed for automobile traffic. A choice therefore has to be made whether to manage traffic to suit the traditional road pattern or restructure the old city to suit the needs of traffic. In most one-walled cities the city walls have already disappeared in order to make room for ‘free flow of traffic’. Further damage was caused to the traditional fabric of historic towns by massive road widening and beautification schemes. Land uses that are likely to generate heavy traffic should be reserved for areas other than historic areas or old quarters. For this reason, the penetration of heavy traffic generating activities into heritage areas should be restricted by firm enforcement of the development plan.

The environmental impact of the construction of new roads or widening of roads needs very careful assessment, especially in respect of the surroundings, before they are undertaken. Apart from destroying tree-cover and damaging the streetscape with which people identify closely, road widening is generally achieved by acquiring the frontage of private properties in return for additional FAR on the same plot. This is utilized for increasing the build-up area on the plot, which generates more traffic. The cumulative effect is to defeat the purpose of road-widening and gravely undermine the quality of life in quarters which were originally adapted to lower traffic flows.

Street lines and setbacks

Present codes do not vouch for courtyard-type houses abutting the street line, nor do they permit houses in a row, adjoining one another. The desirability of setbacks is not questioned. The road widening only causes the increase of traffic in these historic. The setback of 5 meters is aesthetically deficient and is a disaster for the tight urban character of old quarters. Setback regulations should therefore be revoked at the earliest in all three categories of heritage areas:

  • Controlled areas: The area within a 100 m radius of protected archaeological monuments and listed local monuments can be declared as control area
  • Conservation areas: Areas which may contain a number of listed buildings, useful housing stock and a townscape worthy of preservation shall be declared conservation areas
  • Design zones: Areas where the overall character, scale and quality need to be maintained, but where a large degree of new developed may take place maybe notified as design zones.


Regulation of traffic-whether of private or public vehicles, should take into account the requirements of conservation. Pedestrianization schemes in shopping areas have been immensely popular world-wide. They require particular attention in creating an atmosphere satisfying to pedestrians through the provision of street furniture, pavement cafes, public telephones, drinking water fountains, display cases and the like.

Development control rules and design control

Since the demands of repair and maintenance will involve proposals for altering the appearance of buildings, the exercise of judgment on design control is a corollary to designating reserved buildings and conservation areas. The requirements of development control (DC) rules in all categories of heritage areas will have to be studied and reviewed introducing rigidity or flexibility as dictating the urban conservation requirements .e.g. – FAR may have to be uniformly reduced in an already existing inner city area, on the other hand setback regulations may have to be waived to permit a reserved building under reconstruction.

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