By the end of the decade, as many as 100 million Chinese people will migrate from rural areas to live in cities. According to China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, more than 900,000 villages have disappeared in the past 10 years as cities prepare for the influx, with high-rise buildings, huge street blocks, industrial parks, multi-lane highways and shopping malls dominating the cityscape of cities from Beijing to Shanghai and Chengdu.
These changing demographics come with a high cultural price. Since 1990, more than 1,000 acres of historic alleys, traditional quadrangle houses and street shops have been demolished in Beijing alone, accounting for 40 percent of the city’s central area. And it’s not just a Chinese problem: Our heritage is at risk of being wiped out in cities throughout the world, for a multitude of reasons and with far-reaching consequences beyond that simply of the physical loss of objects, art or buildings.
But let’s take a step back and ask ourselves first: Why aren’t we protecting our heritage? I believe that, the trouble is, heritage does not really have an owner. Our post-Second World War culture of subsidizing art, culture and architecture has created a negative situation in which, as civilians, we no longer feel responsible for maintaining our collective cultural heritage. This development is compounded by the shrinking civic budgets to support the arts and culture in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, particularly in Europe. For example, between 2012 and 2013, Dutch government funding for arts and cultural programs dropped 22 percent.
Through AkzoNobel’s Human Cities Initiative, we are trying to redress the balance, encourage citizens to be proud of and embrace their local heritage, and help preserve the places, spaces and objects that make our cities unique. For example, through the AkzoNobel Art Foundation — set up to create an outstanding contemporary art collection for tomorrow’s generation — we open our art spaces up to local communities in and around our sites and offices. It offers people a chance to engage with amazing works of art and inspires them in a way that only art can.
Heritage is not, of course, just about conserving the past; it is also very much about the present and the future. In a 24-hour, always-on digital world — in which people prefer to order their groceries online, rather than venture to their neighborhood stores (according to PwC, almost 6,000 U.K. stores closed in 2014) — local communities are being eroded and people are losing touch with those around them. Art, culture and heritage can bring people together once more, instilling in people a sense of pride and belonging.
More practically, heritage can also help pay the bills. In fact, making it to the UNESCO World Heritage list can increase per capita income by more than 10 percent in certain regions, according to data from the International Monetary Fund. In Amsterdam, where AkzoNobel recently helped with the restoration of the Rijksmuseum, tourist numbers have jumped to 2.45 million, making it the most visited museum in the Netherlands in 2014.
Heritage also attracts talent. Take a look at this year’s Monocle Quality of Life survey — which ranks the top 25 cities in the world that are considered to be the most attractive places to live — and you will see clear trends connecting the success of the winning cities, from Tokyo in first place, to Copenhagen, Vienna, Stockholm, Munich and Zurich among the rest. Yes these cities embrace innovation and enable citizens to reap the full benefits of 21st-century living, but they also put a lot of effort into preserving their historical assets, creating “real” but relevant places where people want to live, work, invest and raise a family.
So the next time a city or government thinks about cutting its culture budget, I would urge them to seriously consider the many additional benefits of having a strong physical and cultural heritage. They will certainly find the consequences go beyond the past and stretch far into the future.
Hester Alberdingk Thijm is the director at the AkzoNobel Art Foundation, the companies’ major art collection. In 1996 the AkzoNobel Art Foundation was established to build and manage a renowned collection of contemporary international art. Under Hester’s leadership the Foundation has become an integrated part of both the AkzoNobel work environment as well as the corporate identity.