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Look to the past to rebuild cities after war

Look to the past to rebuild cities after war

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a human catastrophe on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. Civilians have been targeted by the Russian military, which has deliberately demolished Ukrainian cities and displaced large numbers of people. At the time of writing, it is not clear how long the fighting will continue, but what is certain is that the Ukrainian government and city mayors are already planning to rebuild their cities in 2023. The key to these reconstruction projects lies in prioritizing the restoration and preservation of cultural heritage.

Successful examples of cities around the world that have had to rebuild their physical fabric after war show why this will be the case. For example, in 1995 the people of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina chose to start their reconstruction by rebuilding an iconic 16th-century bridge that connected communities with different cultural heritages and identities. They chose the bridge in front of their own houses as a sign of reconciliation. The restoration process was long and laborious, requiring the use of divers to retrieve the original stones from the riverbed. The bridge finally opened in 2004, almost nine years after the end of the war, and it remains an international symbol of reconciliation to this day.

In 2012, a devastating conflict ravaged Timbuktu, Mali. Reconstruction efforts a year later focused on rebuilding the destroyed mausoleums and restoring damaged manuscripts, both symbols of the city’s ancient culture and keys to its identity. Local communities have been involved in the decision-making process and staff have been trained in artisan building techniques to preserve traditional knowledge.

Medellin, the capital of Colombia and once known as the most dangerous city in the world, was also going through a process of renewal. These included building libraries, cultural facilities, and safe public and cultural open spaces in poor, marginalized neighborhoods, as well as investing in public arts such as sculpture and murals, and improving access to transportation. In 2013, the non-profit Urban Land Institute recognized it as the world’s most innovative city based on criteria such as human capital, technology, culture and land use.

Also in 2023, cities like Sana’a and Aden in Yemen and Mosul in Iraq will be rebuilt after years of protracted conflict. Restoration projects are already underway, focusing on the reconstruction of historical sites central to the identity of the various religious communities. In Mosul, for example, early reconstruction efforts under the UNESCO-led Revive the Spirit of Mosul initiative prioritized rebuilding the Al-Nuri Mosque and its famous Al-Hadba minaret, followed by the rebuilding of Al Tahera and Al Saa’a churches . Although these projects involve international organizations and architectural competitions, they also focus on community engagement, as reflected in the winning design for the Al Hadba Minaret, titled Courtyards Dialogue, which restored a series of open public courtyards into its will integrate historical architecture.

It sounds counterintuitive to prioritize the restoration of heritage sites over housing and urban infrastructure, but putting culture, identity and community engagement at the heart of recovery planning is essential to revitalizing communities marred by prolonged war and conflict. In 2023, Ukrainian cities and towns will develop plans to do just that.

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