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At a Juncture in Urban Development and Architectural Conservation
By Christiane Dabdoub-Nasser
The Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation (CCHP) was established in March 2001 with the mission to oversee the preservation of old neighbourhoods and buildings within the towns and villages of the Bethlehem District and enhance awareness of cultural heritage in the public consciousness. In order to achieve its mission, the CCHP is also involved in research related to both tangible and intangible heritage; training of its team; training of architects and craftsmen; and participation in regional and international conferences related to cultural heritage preservation and development.
The Bethlehem Area Conservation and Management Plan is funded by the Italian Cooperation, with the technical supervision of UNESCO. It is implemented by the local team at the Centre under the guidance of a team from Italy, which consists of architects, urban planners, GIS experts, landscape experts, an economist, and a sociologist. It is implemented with the full participation of the municipalities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour. A Joint Technical Committee was established in order to consolidate the link between the various partners and beneficiaries of the project and render more effective the partnership and participatory approach.
For almost seven years, the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation (CCHP) has been designing and implementing projects in urban rehabilitation and conservation of old buildings within the Bethlehem District. These projects have emerged within a context of difficult economic conditions, which are a result of the fragmentation of the Palestinian Territories into walled-in enclaves that are geographically, economically, and socially disconnected. The projects have therefore been elemental in providing much-needed jobs and activating a severely depressed local economy. Their long-term value, however, goes much beyond; in addition to the preservation of our heritage and the improvement of our spaces and way of life, there is the less-obvious fallout of fusing our present with our past as a way to diminish the impacts of the ruptures created by the Israeli occupation and exacerbated by the erection of the Separation Wall.
As an organization whose main objective is the preservation of cultural heritage resources in the Bethlehem District, the CCHP believes that its achievements in this field have been substantial and their impact within the community quite remarkable. But we also have to admit that there is still much to be done - and not just in terms of urban rehabilitation projects and the preservation of buildings, or improving housing conditions within the old cores, which similar organizations are engaged in.
At present the priority must be to improve and intensify research and community-participation activities, and we are pleased to have the opportunity to do both through our partnership in the elaboration of the Bethlehem Area Conservation and Management Plan (BACMP). In addition to the urban plan, which will be the main output, this project will also give us the opportunity to build an informational database on Bethlehem, create a handbook for conservation, and train a cohort of architects and planners who will become our future specialists in this field of study.
First, some background information on this project.
Bethlehem, as well as its sister towns, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, have witnessed extensive rehabilitation works - on both the building and urban scales - through the Bethlehem 2000 Project (1998-2001) and subsequently through the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation, its successor in the field of cultural heritage development. In the absence of a proper conservation and management plan, we consider that these achievements will come to naught, for reasons that are not part of this discussion but that still need to be mentioned for the sake of this argument. First, the absence of national legislation for the protection of cultural heritage resources, or any sort of by-laws at the level of governorates and municipalities; second, the absence of sound urban planning or even proper guidelines at the level of municipalities, which would ensure the sustainable development of the three cities and their environs. In addition to these lacunae, there is the reality of the absence of the rule of law and the rapid degradation of our cities, towns, and villages which, compounded with the perpetuation of the occupation and the bad economy, are hardly conducive to sound planning and development. In such a context the Bethlehem Area Conservation and Management Plan can be considered a vital project.
It is vital because it will address the issue of the urban development and management of the old cores of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour, based on a new understanding in terms of usage, care, and maintenance. It will contribute to filling the gap that relates to the shortage of local scientific and technical specialists in the fields of architectural conservation and urban planning which, combined with the limited resources of municipalities, the technical challenges they are facing constantly, and a general public who is largely unaware of its role and duties, represents one of the major constraints of urban management.
The BACMP will establish a scientific and methodological model that can be replicated in other parts of Palestine. It will build on previous experiences and will rely on a strategic participatory approach that would ensure effective coordination among the various stakeholders. The end result will be a powerful tool in the hands of the municipalities, which are the direct beneficiaries of this project.
For the team at the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation, this project is a real adventure in research, analysis, and planning and will produce a core team of local experts who can, in turn, apply their knowledge to the elaboration of urban plans within the District.
Christiane Dabdoub-Nasser is the director of the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation.
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