How to Balance Preservation of Past with Needs of Present, Future?

in Cultural + Heritage by

I recently came across a few months old New York Times feature story on the city of Djenné, Mali, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since this impressive recognition of the ancient city’s historical and cultural significance, one of the challenges for city residents has been to balance the strict requirements of UNESCO with their present and future activities and needs as citizens existing in this space.

The Great Mosque (c) UNESCO.


The city of Djenné was occupied as a settlement dating as far back as 250 BC. The city is most noted for its mud-brick buildings, such as the Great Mosque and individual residences. It is these particular structures that have earned the city its World Heritage status, and that UNESCO seeks to protect and conserve. However, residents struggle involves UNESCO’s need to conserve these structures with their own needs to adapt the structures and buildings they live in to their modern-day needs: enlarging rooms to accommodate for furniture, changing the interior design to make the rooms more comfortable, etc:

The problem, said N’Diaye Bah, Mali’s tourism minister, is modernizing the town without wrecking its ambiance. “If you destroy the heritage which people come to see, if you destroy 2,000 years of history, then the town loses its soul,” he said.

Djenné residents take pride in their heritage and recognize that the Unesco list helped make their city famous. Yet they wonder aloud about the point of staying on it, given the lack of tangible gains, if they are forced to live literally in mud.

Many homeowners want to keep the distinctive facades, but alter the interiors. Unesco guidelines prohibit the sweeping alterations they would like, however.

“There is a kind of tension, a difficulty that has to be resolved by not locking people into the traditional and authentic architecture,” said Samuel Sidibé, the director of Mali’s National Museum in Bamako, the capital. “We have to find a way to evolve this architecture, to provide the basic necessities the community needs to live, and to do it in such a way that doesn’t compromise the quality of the mud-brick architecture, the characteristic at the heart of the city’s identity.”

The planning question central to the city residents’ plight is central: Djenné for whom? Does the preservation of the city aim to serve the global audience/international tourism/etc, or does/should the city serve its residents, whose needs may change over time, and so too must their living circumstances/spaces with such changes?