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Peninah Mutonga: Lamu Architecture and Urban Development; alternative forms of incorporation

Recent scholarship has focused attention on the challenges of heritage conservation in the twentyfirst century; urging the field to come to terms with globalisation and rapid urbanisation. A global dispute to include social values, cultural practices, economic pressures and intangible elements has culminated in the approval in 2011 of the UNESCO Recommendation on Historic Urban Landscapes. Following such recommendations, there is a call to complement and update the existing structures in Historic Swahili urban landscapes. Swahili spaces “reveal tensions between dynamic urbanism and the conservatory project”, both of which are intense political processes (Heathcott 2013). Various factors, including “historical-geographical roots and social relations with the state”, have significant influence on people’s capacity to conserve their heritage as well as make new statements with urban places or alternatives that might be replicated (Myers 2010). This research is focused on Lamu, the oldest living historic city in Kenya, with over 500 years of history. Given that it is the oldest and best preserved Swahili settlement along the East African coast, Lamu Old Town World Heritage property and its surrounding setting in the Lamu archipelago contributes to its ‘Outstanding Universal Value’.

Following the launch of Kenya’s ‘high modernist’ vision 2030 to open up marginal areas to global trade and economic growth, Lamu is scheduled to host the epicentre of perhaps the largest and most complex infrastructural project since the country’s independence – LAPSSET1. Due to a combination of modernist ideologies and the conservation agenda, defining spatial hybrids and urban development has become problematic. Combining theoretical and philosophical frameworks with first-hand data collected through field activities, I examine the internal heterogeneity of heritage conservation and dynamic urbanism, and the influence this has had on the built environment. The study reveals that both are based on a common philosophical commitment to public welfare.

However, heritage conservation is underpinned by static connotations while the ‘modernist vision’ is rooted in the ‘unrealistic and exclusive’, calling for meaningful collaboration in theory and practice.