I’ve never been there, but according to a recent article in the New York Times (sorry if I am relying on this paper too much for inspiration), the city of Djenne, Mali, is a veritable museum of historic mud brick buildings. Among them is the Grand Mosque, the largest mud brick, or adobe, building in the world, originally built in the 13th century and replaced with the current building in 1907.
In addition to the mosque, there are hundreds of mud brick homes in current use that, according to the city’s World Heritage site designation, may not be updated. This apparently restricts owners from making improvements such as tiling floors, adding windows to rooms that have none, and installing showers or even screen doors. These restrictions have created quite a backlash, including a riot in 2006 following an initial restoration survey.
Tourist-driven urban planning?
In recent years, the city has developed serious sewage problems, as there is no central sanitary system. This, along with open trash dumps in the area, caused tourists to complain to UNESCO, who warned the city that it was at risk of losing its World Heritage site designation.
Apparently this designation is important to the tourism industry, which is a major source of income for the area. So, while in theory, the city welcomes the designation, the program prohibits many changes to buildings, including many interior renovations. One house is described as having a room that measures 6 feet by 3 feet, without any windows; under UNESCO regulations, the room cannot be changed from its grave-like current design. While I appreciate the efforts to avoid losing historic buildings, since when does tourism trump the right of people to improve their homes? Man, I’m starting to sound like a libertarian!
I feel their pain
I imagine that these residents hope to improve their living conditions through home improvements, which apparently they are restricted from doing. While I make no claims that my problems with the local historic commission compare to the challenges of the residents of this World Heritage site, there are some similarities.
They just want to make their homes comfortable, clean, and safe, but by doing so they run afoul of regulations. In my historic district, things I want to do that will create a higher-performance, more sustainable home are restricted, due mostly to pressure applied by a small but vocal minority in the neighborhood.
While I believe that effective laws and regulations help maintain a safe and comfortable living environment, many of those laws and regulations are out of date, are counterproductive, and often lead to poor solutions that benefit no one.
Is there a solution?
Obviously, having no regulations isn’t the answer, but neither is more regulation necessarily a suitable solution. Some neighborhoods have elected not to seek historic designations, leaving more options for homeowners choosing to build or renovate than those living in areas that have been designated historic. I haven’t seen that being in a historic district implies better or more appropriate design; rather, it tends to satisfy that vocal minority and its particular tastes.
Historic committees are made up of people who are fallible and, like most groups, tend to make decisions that comprise a range of compromises (not unlike our federal government). I’m not sure that there we will find solutions that will satisfy me and my local historic commission, or the citizens of Djenne and the administrators of the World Heritage designation. Maybe we can find a benevolent dictator to take over and judge with a fair hand. Any volunteers out there?