Interrogating International Policies of Urban Heritage Conservation and Sustainable Development: Reflections from Tunis

30 minutes

My research focuses on narratives dedicated to historic cities of the southern Islamicate Mediterranean: a postcolonial sea, a place of knowledge circulation and epistemological fractures between East and West. To this point, the medina of Tunis offers a unique insight into four decades of urban heritage conservation politics: illustrating the evolution, and articulation, of local practices and ideologies with international aid narratives of sustainable development. The investigation is based on my professional experience with several international organizations (World Bank, EuropeAid, UNESCO, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture) and ad hoc multi-sited fieldwork.

This paper, presenting results from my PhD, poses a fundamental question: How do we go about understanding knowledge transfers across “international” and “local” expertise in a way that recognizes epistemological (dis)connections as well as different directions of transmission and appropriation? The aim is to trace how implicit epistemological tensions between modernity and its Oriental other materialize in the production of knowledge artifacts for sustainable urban heritage conservation (for instance, policy documents and development projects), which in turn frame possibilities of transformations in these old, multi-layered, cities. The adopted methodology draws insights from interpretive policy analysis, critical heritage studies, anthropology of development, and multi-sited ethnography.

I will describe how the case of Tunis has stimulated and significantly contributed to the international sustainable urban conservation discourse, providing exemplary projects circulated within policy networks. Rooting international policy narratives within a specific place and historical horizon (looking back to the French colonial period) enabled the research to unravel how experts articulate—both conceptually and operationally—local urban planning and governance processes with the logic of international organizations, which typically provide funding together with ad hoc normative frameworks.

The argument is twofold: firstly, it is crucial to understand how epistemological (dis)connections—between modern categories and other ways to infuse meaning of the historic built environment—impact both planning practices and spatial transformations. Secondly, in order to do so, we need complex methodologies (combining historical, discursive, and ethnographic approaches) that illustrate how multiple interpretations of policy categories articulate narratives and practices of sustainable urban conservation.

the Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London