With cultural heritage as a lens

He uses cultural heritage as the starting point in research on sustainable cities and societies. Cultural conservator Feras Hammami examines various city projects both abroad and in Sweden.
“I’m interested in understanding how urban transformations and especially new development projects may either include or marginalise groups,” he says.

One of the many urban development projects Feras Hammami has delved into is the ongoing urban transformation of Gamlestaden in eastern Gothenburg. The plan calls for linking Gamelstaden with the city centre. Three thousand new flats will be built, and the SKF factory buildings will be converted into residential housing and a shopping centre.
“An important issue in my research project is how inclusive the urban development project in Gamlestaden is,” says Feras Hammami, senior lecturer at the Department of Conservation. “If we are interested in building a sustainable district, we must include everyone who lives there.”

Gamlestaden emerged as a working-class district around SKF and Gamlestaden’s factories. Labour force immigration and refugees have contributed to the presence of many nationalities in the district. Rents in the area have been relatively low.
“I’m interested in understanding how cultural heritage is involved in the transformation process and how cultural heritage will affect the local community,” says Feras.
The current location of Gamlestaden was once the medieval town of Nya Lödöse. Consequently, a major urban archaeological investigation of the area is currently under way. Feras believes that archaeological work focuses too much on only the late Middle Ages.
“Cultural heritage is not only about things that are old. It lives with us and is part of our identity and our memory. Residents, shopkeepers, visitors and associations in Gamlestaden must have a voice. Not to understand their perspective and interpretation of the official cultural heritage, but because we want to understand the cultural heritage that constitutes Gamlestaden today.”

Gamlestaden is also home to a skate park that will disappear. It’s also unclear what is going to happen to Bellevue Market and the informal economy that has grown up around the market. Feras Hammami already sees that a gentrification process is under way in the district and that a new social class will shortly take over Gamlestaden despite many grassroots protests, just like what happened in the districts of Haga and Gårda in the past.
“Cultural heritage is pluralistic,” Feras says. “We therefore need to take into account all the time layers, not just SKF’s history and the hundred-plus years between 1473 and 1624, when Nya Lödöse was located on the site. I realize, of course, that it’s a big challenge to include all time periods and all people in an urban transformation process. But it is still more problematic to exclude groups such as all the cultures, traditions and social groups that have shaped Gamlestaden in modern times.”

Ferras Hammami

Ferras Hammami

He points out that a sustainable city is a city in balance. The city includes social, economic, historical and cultural resources necessary for development. And he regrets that the 19th century nationalist view of history and of cultural heritage continues to live on to some extent.
“Sweden is an inclusive country. But we need to be careful that a single image does not dominate our cultural heritage. That is dangerous from a democratic point of view.”
The University of Gothenburg now has a new Centre for Critical Heritage Studies. “We explore alternative perspectives on cultural heritage and challenge the older cultural heritage studies that largely focused on material cultural heritage or had a traditional Western view of cultural heritage.”

Feras argues that just studying ancient monuments and historical buildings will not do. “For example, that would mean that certain parts of the societies in Africa would not have any cultural heritage at all and that impressions on geography, language and culture are not counted.”

Cities have constantly been repurposed, but today globalisation – with migration, new mobility, new technologies and changing economies – places new demands on nations and their governments.
“Planning and the administration of cultural heritage in particular are not keeping up, and social conflicts can be generated in urban environments. New people in the city, with new stories and new place memories, create new cultural heritage. This is created every day and is something that is a big challenge to understand and become involved in.”
Feras is a Palestinian, and his interest in cultural heritage began in his hometown of Nablus, the third largest city on the West Bank.
“My interest in cultural heritage was awakened when the Israeli military bombed the old districts in my hometown and tried to eradicate the fact that Palestinians lived and made an impression in Nablus,” he says.

Cultural heritage can be used politically by people to strengthen their own identity at the expense of other social and ethnic groups.
Feras Hammami’s experiences of cultural heritage and politics in Palestine have become his own cultural heritage, both on a personal and professional level. Consequently, a central element in his research is how cultural heritage is ensnared in social conflicts among groups and how political resistance is expressed in cities.
“In the old town of Nablus, there is a politically charged square, Qaryon square. Palestinians gather there to create resistance and to help each other when Israeli troops have invaded the city.”

In connection with the 1991 peace process between Israel and the PLO, a French artist painted a giant mural on the walls of buildings by the square. The artist had done research about the city and talked with Palestinian women, who described how dangerous it was to go out and hang laundry to dry.
“It was a beautiful mural with a woman who was hanging clothes on a clothesline against a clear blue sky, where a dove of peace flew. Some of the residents liked the painting, and some felt that it did not represent their square. But the painting remained and no one protested.”

This changed in 2002, however, when the Israeli military began bombing Nablus again and most of the buildings around the square were destroyed. The wall with the mural remained, which the Palestinians then covered with martyr images of those who were killed by the Israelis. In addition, they painted a bloody hand.
“As if to say: ‘We took over the square ourselves!’ In other words, this was not an empty square. There was a context here, a long history,” Feras Hammami says. “And the repurposed painting testified to a conflict between the artist and the people who stayed and lived there.”

Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

goal 11Cities are hubs for ideas, commerce, culture, science, productivity, social development and much more. At their best, cities have enabled people to advance socially and economically. The challenges cities face can be overcome in ways that allow them to continue to thrive and grow, while improving resource use and reducing pollution and poverty. The future we want includes cities of opportunities for all, with access to basic services, energy, housing, transportation and more.

On 25 September 2015, UN member countries adopted Agenda 2030, a universal agenda that encompasses the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global goals and Agenda 2030 are the most ambitious agreement for sustainable development that world leaders have ever adopted. The SDGs consist of 17 goals, and in this issue we have chosen to focus on three of them
and our research and education connected with them.