“First we shape our cities… then our cities shape us.”  Jan Gehl (The Human Scale)

In 1900, there were only 1.6 billion people on our planet. During the twentieth century, the population has exploded to more than 6 billion and today the earth counts 7.6 billion inhabitants, half of which reside in cities and this number is set to reach 80% by 2050.

The Impact of Urbanization on Cities with Historical and Architectural Value - Sheet1
The city of Valparaiso in Chile © Goats on the road website.

Nowadays, urban life has become a very practical way of life in a world where the city is the center of many emerging activities. It is very clear that urbanization is a major phenomenon in the world; transforming agricultural economies into thriving manufacturing hubs and creating countless service jobs in emerging markets which will eventually engender a radical change on those developing small cities and on their urban and architectural layout. This problem is already occurring in many developing countries and has already caused mutations in the urban and architectural styles of ancient villages through processes of building transformation and even demolition of certain architectural monuments which their historical value is not carefully recognized and are not well preserved by local communities. Just by observing the genesis process of some recent cities like Shenzhen in China, emerging very fast from a very small countryside village into one of the largest metropolises in the world, can only confirm the fact that urbanization is developing so fast that it even became possible for the same generation to witness different stages of the city’s development and life. This same generation of people, who’s their living environment is continuously evolving and changing, will participate in the change of the city’s parameters, adapting them in a way that meets their new evolving « Urban » lifestyle.

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Left: Green fields surrounding Shenzhen in 1992 © Ian Berry & Magnum | Right: Shenzhen, a megacity of 12 million people © Dowell/Getty Images.

“When Leo Houng (a retired cello player with the Hong Kong Philharmonic) arrived in Shenzhen in 1974, it was an unremarkable Chinese settlement that ‘smelled of countryside’. Since then, he has witnessed the city rise up at a bewildering rate with little regard for the families caught in its path”, Story of cities #39: (Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd) These changes made by the residents of the city themselves will reverberate progressively on the urban configuration and typology of the city and then eventually on its architectural language leading to a disfigurement in its architectural styles and even sometimes into an unwanted metamorphosis of its components. The metamorphosis of the architectural vocabulary of some buildings is generally related to the change of vocation or function of the building since people are occupying not only the outer land but also old buildings inside the city, transforming them formally and functionally to meet their new needs resulting in a disfigurement in the appearance of the façade in order to meet the new activities of the users.

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Old French Colonial style building in the City of Bizerte in Tunisia| the façade of the building is disfigured by the new added volume extension on the top without any respect of the existing architectural style © Courtesy of Waddah Dridi.

By looking at the city of Bizerte in Tunisia for example, an ever evolving city that went through many civilizations since Carthage & Rome then passing by the Ottomans up till the French protectorate and started to develop rapidly after the independence of Tunisia in 1956, we can clearly see then the succession of many different civilizations on the city of Bizerte has really contributed in the variety of architectural styles and construction techniques, things that present a large part of the city’s heritage but on the other hand very difficult to preserve because of the absence of strict regulations and laws organizing interventions on existing buildings regarding their specific architectural style and construction technique.

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Left: Bizerte, Tunisia 1964 © delcampe.com | Right: Bizerte, Tunisia 2013© Jebari Amina.

At the end all we can say is that, since urbanization is a phenomenon that cannot be prevented nowadays and also since it has some significant disadvantages, especially regarding buildings with historical and architectural heritage, we need to start changing the way we tackle cities and towns in a way that we can insure that the fast process of urbanization will not negatively affect the existing urban and architectural heritage but rather protect, valorize and emphasize its presence in the city.


Waddah Dridi is a Tunisian architecture student in the National School of Architecture & Urbanism of Tunis (ENAU). Driven by curiosity and passionate about the multitude of scales in architecture, his approach is to freely experiment with the design possibilities in order to figure the perfect correlation involving all the parameters.

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