Rehabilitating traditional Mediterranean architecture. The Nicosia Rehabilitation Project: An Integrated Plan

Agni Petridou, architect - town planner Nicosia Master Plan, Cyprus
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The population of the Mediterranean Region lives predominantly in urban areas, while the historic centres of our cities contain a significant part of the finest examples of the world’s architectural heritage.

Despite their importance, many of these historic environments still experience spatial as well as social and economic deprivation derived from poor resources, political crises, or suburbanisation and in other cases from the rapid shift from industrial processes to service based economies and new technology which has affected many countries and reshaped the environment of urban areas.

Whatever the causes are, the characteristics of these deprivations include poor housing, deficiencies in public services, physical degradation, loss of population, progressive aging of the population, concentration of ethnic minorities, loss of economic activity, problems of marginalisation and unemployment.

The emerging need to deal with the complex problems, which the major cities have been facing, has led many European and Mediterranean countries to experiment with various interventions during the past decades.

Initial efforts in 1980s tended to combat urban problems of historic centres focusing only either on the physical or on the economic aspect. This policy was criticized in that it failed to reverse the process of decline as it was narrowly targeted in ad hoc projects without any overall strategic view. There was little consideration on the priorities of the local communities.

In the 1990s the interdependencies that exist between physical, economic, social and environmental aspects of deprivation have been recognized.

Planning For Change

Currently three main factors have emerged which are changing the way we think about cities:

• The information technology and the networks connecting people from the local to the global level.
• The awareness of the impact that the consumption of natural resources can have on the globe and the importance of sustainable development.
• The changing patterns of living reflecting increasing life expectancy and the development of new lifestyle choices.

These new powerful drivers of change are transforming our towns and everything depends on our ability to direct these drivers, which will affect the future of urban areas.

Currently, the issues that have emerged in terms of successful regeneration of historic cities include the following requirements:

Comprehensive approach
To acknowledge that historic centres form integral parts of the city as a whole. This implies that a comprehensive approach towards their regeneration must be seen within the framework of a strategic vision for the wider urban area and the region as a whole.

Integrated action
The need to tackle the interrelated aspects of deprivation in a holistic way, by adopting a comprehensive regeneration approach which includes not only physical and economic aspects but also the social issues of safety, employment, social services, health, training etc.

Promotion of compact urban form

The compact city of mixed uses, which favours walking, cycling and public transport, is the most sustainable urban form. This urban form highlights the value placed upon proximity to work, shops and basic social, educational and leisure uses. It also gives priority to the provision of public areas for people to meet and interact, to learn from one another and to join in the diversity of urban life.

Creation of economic strength

Cities need to develop clear economic identities, which promote specialized business in order to make them competitive within a global market place.

Innovative regeneration delivery mechanisms
There is a need to define the appropriate legal instruments, innovative implementation mechanisms, as well as appropriate institutional structures including various forms of partnerships. The establishment of partnerships between public, private, voluntary and community section leads to effective regeneration, since problems are tackled in an integrated way, and it secures co-operation between all the stakeholders and the coexistence of different skills and maximizes efficiency.

Investment in urban government - Regaining confidence and public support for local government
The local authorities must have the power to play a vital role in the regeneration process. They are the elected representatives of the local communities, they have knowledge of the particular circumstances of their areas and they offer the opportunity to act as catalysts and bring together other partners, including housing associations, community groups and the private sector.

Public participation
The involvement of the local community in regeneration initiatives either directly in partnerships or more generally in the different stages of projects development, promotes local democracy and leads to lasting benefits after the end of the targeted regeneration programs.

The case of Nicosia
Although there are commonly accepted best practices in dealing with regeneration issues for each specific case, before the implementation of any individual action it is necessary to identify the local factors causing deprivation, to understand the local needs and to define the broader options.

Developing a new approach towards successful regeneration of historic centres is a trial for professionals under normal circumstances. Tackling regeneration in a post conflict city that still faces physical partition such as Nicosia poses an even greater challenge.

This includes negotiation between competing parts in order to achieve technical cooperation, to rebuild physical infrastructure, to revitalise run-down areas, to direct local and external resources towards the real needs of all the citizens, to build commonly accepted institutions etc.

Nicosia: Planning for a divided city
In 1978 the representatives of the two communities agreed to prepare a common flexible master plan for the city, capable of addressing the planning problems relating to the existing situation and at the same time adaptable in the case that political circumstances would allow the development of the city as one entity.

The regeneration of the city centre, its future local and regional opportunities, and the potential role that this area can assume in the case of reunification, all these were placed within the metropolitan framework.

Particular attention was given to the walled city, which constitutes a common heritage to all the communities of Nicosia and therefore was considered by the team as the most precious part of the city.

The urbanisation initially and the division of Nicosia subsequently resulted in a downward spiral for the walled city, creating a decline in population, higher concentration of social problems, loss of commercial activities and employment, inappropriate uses and fluxes of migrants encouraged by the low rents, high number of vacant properties, absence of private investment and deterioration of its environmental quality.

These trends revealed the strong interrelationship between the environmental, social and economic aspects and led to the acknowledgment that the preservation and rehabilitation policy for the historic centre must be seen as a multi-dimensional process incorporating the following objectives:

a) Social objectives, relating to the rehabilitation of old residential neighbourhoods, community development and population increase.

b) Economic objectives, aiming to the revitalisation of the commercial core and increase of employment opportunities.

c) Architectural objectives, with regard to the restoration and reuse of individual monuments and of groups of buildings, with significant architectural and environmental qualities. This objective has multiple benefits as it preserves the cultural heritage of the city while raising the potential of the historic centre to attract contemporary functions.

d) Planning objectives, for the balanced distribution of mixed-use areas and the density of development, so that they will be in harmony with the scale and character of the historic centre. Improvement of traffic circulation based on pedestrianisation schemes and the one-way loops system in order to avoid through traffic.

The objectives elaborated by the Nikosia Master Plan (NMP) for the historic centre are implemented through a combination of actions: through the provisions of the Local Plan, through economic incentives given to private owners by the government, and through public investment projects.

During the last fifteen years a series of bi-communal projects have been implemented in selected areas on both sides of the historic centre. The United States Agency for International Development and the European Union provided the funds for these projects through UNDP.

In most of these projects emphasis is placed on housing rehabilitation as it is considered that rehabilitation can only be achieved as a long-term process only if it refers to social revitalization, involving as its basis the revitalization of population structure, which is the precondition of sustained physical conservation.

Of course, housing does not make a neighbourhood by itself.

Neighbourhoods need to comprise a mixture of activities, which work to strengthen social integration and civic life. To do this will mean concentrating a range of public facilities and commercial uses in neighbourhood and maximizing the re-use of existing traditional buildings. These are important assets and can be preserved and adapted to accommodate housing and other essential uses. Therefore, the first twin investment projects that have been implemented in Nicosia were Chrysaliniotissa and Arab Ahmed housing rehabilitation programmes, one on each side of the buffer zone.

The overall objective of these two projects was to increase the available housing units and the provision of community services in order to attract new residents.

Both areas were characterised by the outstanding architectural value and the neglected status of their buildings, the low proportion of owner-occupiers, the low-income position of both owners/occupiers and tenants, the lack of community facilities, the lack of economically active residents, and a high proportion of aged residents.

All the data indicated that there was no possibility for private initiative to lead to conservation and revitalization of this area.

As a result of that, in Chrysaliniotissa all the dilapidated abandoned buildings and empty building plots have been acquired by the public sector. After the restoration of 27 vacant traditional houses and the construction of 15 new houses on empty building plots, the new units have been allocated with long-term rent to young couples with children willing to live there permanently. Priority has been given to the families of the previous owners and to people related to the neighbourhood. The provision of community services, such as a kindergarten, artisans workshops, students hostel, and the enhancement of public open space further upgraded the residential environment.

The strong demonstration effect of the project has gradually stimulated private interest and investment in the restoration of many listed buildings of the area, which are occupied by the owners.

The pedestrianisation project of the commercial axis of the historic centre succeeded in the rehabilitation and the environmental improvement of the business area and allowed it to compete gradually with the new commercial centres of the modern city.

Other priority investment projects were focusing on the restoration and reuse of historic monuments, while others consisted of restoration of dilapidated facades of buildings, improvement of infrastructure, paving of public open spaces.

Through these interventions it is expected to restore the urban fabric, to enrich the historic environment, to attract new residents and economic activity and to stimulate the private initiative to invest in the old city.

These projects, apart from improving the living environment of Nicosia, preserve the potential of the historic centre and its importance in the future functional integration of the city.