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Conference abstract

General information

Urbanization is the defining phenomenon of 21st century. For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, an amount that is expected to rise to nearly 70 percent by 2050, with the highest percentage of growth occurring in Asia and Africa. Not only does this growth profoundly affect the physical environment, but it also reveals the rapidly shifting nature of urban populations. The density and diversity of urban encounters and interactions can generate incredible creativity as well as conflict. Within this multidimensional environment, urban heritage can be as dynamic as the city’s population.


This international conference, SHIFTING CITIES: Urban Heritage in the 21st Century, will look specifically at the phenomenon of shifting populations and its effect on urban heritage. Hosted by Rutgers’ Program in Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies (CHAPS), this conference will bring together leading scholars and practitioners from around the world to address the complex and interconnected challenges facing cities and their populations. The overarching goal is to identify new approaches towards working effectively with diverse and dynamic populations as part of current efforts to rethink the meaning and practice of heritage conservation within the “shifting cities” that define urbanism in the 21st century. 

Aim of the conference

According to the Getty Conservation Institute, conservation of historic cities is “currently one of the most universally urgent and challenging cultural heritage issues.” As populations grow and migrate and our world becomes increasingly urbanized, socio-economic change, environmental stresses, armed conflict, and the difficulties of continuing traditional forms of use threaten the sense of place and identities in urban communities. A critical rethinking of urban heritage conservation is called for at this time.


Contemporary approaches to cultural heritage have moved away from a “curatorial approach,” in which practitioners attempted to conserve heritage in a static condition, toward a holistic “ecological approach,” in which practitioners focus on managing change in dynamic heritage sites. This new approach has been recognized at the international level, notably with UNESCO’s 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape. Yet its influence remains largely within the confines of the heritage field. SHIFTING CITIES: Urban Heritage in the 21st Century, will bring heritage practitioners together with scholars and organizations engaged in what would not traditionally be considered “heritage” or “conservation” work, such as social services and public health. Examining this work will be crucial to pointing us forward to new directions and approaches towards the conservation of urban heritage. To accommodate the diverse disciplines of participants, the conference will be organized around three major layers of the urban environment: the physical, the historical, and the social. 



Urban environments are complex creations comprising the historic layering of physical and human environments with their associated tangible and intangible qualities. They are also living environments that must change and adapt to the evolving needs and aspirations of their inhabitants. Change and continuity are precariously balanced with the constant need for modernization, adaptation, and infrastructural change. Natural and environmental stresses, such as pollution, unsustainable resource consumption, and climate change, significantly impact the physical fabric of the city and often serve as the impetus for migrating populations. How can we effectively respond to these issues in a way that will both conserve the heritage of historic cities and, at the same time, provide for the contemporary needs of its inhabitants?



Today’s increasingly complex, shifting, and porous cityscapes challenge the boundaries between memory, identity, and history. How are the competing demands and cultural values of diverse urban populations negotiated and commemorated? What are the effects of terrorism, war, and religious and ethnic conflict on urban heritage? If we understand memory and identity as open systems with constantly shifting boundaries, then how does this translate to approaches towards conservation of historic cities?



The intersection of heritage work, activism, and community organizing is integral to engaging residents with their surroundings and with one another. How can activists and community organizers contribute to urban heritage conservation? What are the broader sociological implications of migrating populations? What can social service providers and healthcare professionals, among others, teach heritage practitioners about dealing with shifting populations?  

The two and one-half day conference will include session panels addressing each of the above themes. Within these sessions, case studies will explore tangible ways in which practitioners have been able to address the challenges of heritage conservation in the face of shifting populations. Two Roundtables, one focusing on the city of Camden, New Jersey and another focusing on armed conflict in the Middle East, will bring together diverse sets of professionals working in each city or region to share the particular techniques and approaches employed in their specific cultural and political context.  An associated educational initiative, Shifting Cities: Cultural Heritage and Community Organizing Workshop(Spring 2015), which was designed  to involve students in the more complex world of urban heritage conservation,  will be highlighted as well.

Department of Art History
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