The University of Vermont


University of Vermont and Preservation Trust of Vermont collaborate on historic preservation research trip to Cuba

Historic preservation has become a key strategy for the revitalization and sustainable development of distressed urban neighborhoods and rural areas in Cuba. This was the finding of a group of historic preservation graduate students and faculty from the University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program and professional preservationists with the Preservation Trust of Vermont who collaborated on a weeklong research trip in Cuba in March 2002. The UVM Office of International Educational Services and Music Contact International of Burlington, Vermont, provided organizational arrangements and support for the study tour that was specially licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. Funding assistance for this research trip was provided by the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

The severe economic consequences of the past four decades of political differences between the governments of Cuba and the United States and the resulting U.S. trade embargo provide disturbing views as one travels throughout Cuba. But amidst crumbling urban neighborhoods in downtown Havana and isolated rural areas in outlying provinces, historic preservation is being used as an innovative tool for economic development. These examples provide models for the revitalization and sustainable development of urban and rural areas in other economically challenged areas of the world, including the United States.

Historic preservation in Havana

Historic preservation has become the leading player for the revitalization of the local economy and urban neighborhoods in Cuba's capital city, Havana. Here, the Office of the City Historian (Oficina del Historiador de la Cuidad de la Habana) has developed a comprehensive strategy to manage the safeguarding the old city and adjacent areas.

Rather than accepting just a watchdog role, documenting heritage resources and encouraging the preservation of key threatened historic landmarks through advocacy and regulation (a common model for governmental preservation offices and nonprofit groups in the United States), the Office of the City Historian in Havana has moved through additional stages of organizational development and public influence since its founding in 1938.

After documenting important heritage sites and saving several of city's most endangered landmarks, in the early 1980s the Office of the City Historian commenced a fifteen year project to restore the 1778-1835 government house and palace, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. This building now serves as a museum, educational center and the organization's headquarters.

In 1981, the Cuban government provided the Office of the City Historian with start-up funding to invest in the historic center of Havana. Through a series of five-year plans, key historic monuments, fortifications and several city squares have been restored following international preservation standards. Forty buildings were rehabilitated in the first ten years.

Many of these projects now generate revenues that are reinvested in new rehabilitation projects. Through several agreements with Cuba's Council of Ministers, the Office of the City Historian was granted special legal powers to promote sustainable development within a priority zone for preservation in Havana by developing relations with national and foreign entities, entering into economic partnerships, and charging taxes on productive companies to fund rehabilitation.

This, coupled with the declaration of the Historic Center of the City of Havana as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1982 and the severe economic consequences of the fall of the European socialist block, helped to propel the Office of the City Historian into taking a leading role in the rehabilitation and sustainable development of the city.

Many neighborhoods are extremely crowded and even basic services like running water are lacking due to the severely deteriorated public infrastructure. The rehabilitation work has not been limited to the redevelopment of old buildings, but has also supported the social needs of inhabitants of Old Havana and the surrounding areas of the city.

The Office of the City Historian also supports schooling, social, cultural and recreational services with a staff of trained educators, psychologists and health care workers. Their top priorities include satisfying the needs of the most vulnerable social groups and to improve the quality of housing as well as provide cultural and recreational services for the neighborhood residents. Their preservation projects in Old Havana include the rehabilitation of historic churches into concert halls, the establishment of a public library and a music conservatory, and an old persons residence and senior citizens hotel. Grandparents clubs have been organized by hospitals in the area to help provide senior citizens with daily attention and activities. A maternal-infant center and a care facility for children with degenerative illnesses such as Down's syndrome have been established in rehabilitated older buildings. The Office of the City Historian also provides cultural programming for children and teens in the arts, dance, theatre, patrimony, literature and ecology.

To avoid negative impacts of gentrification, neighborhood residents are involved in the process of planning and working on projects. A central goal is to minimize the displacement of residents from the neighborhoods. The city historian's office runs a workshop school for young people between 18 and 21 years of age, training several hundred of them over the past ten years to become qualified for work as masons, carpenters, painters, plasters, plumbers, electricians, gardeners involved in the preservation and restoration of historic buildings. On graduation from this restoration trades school, students have the opportunity to work for one of the two construction companies established by the Office of the City Historian. Of the five thousand workers engaged in preservation projects of city historian's office in 1998, nearly half (49.2%) resided in Old Havana or Havana Center city.

The evidence of the level of investment in preservation is obvious as one walks through Old Havana and the adjacent neighborhoods. Many of the key landmark buildings surrounding the main squares have been rehabilitated to provide housing, offices, tourist facilities and social services. Current work involves rehabilitating buildings for housing and businesses and installing new water lines and street lighting across Old Havana and in the San Isidro and Malecon neighborhoods.

Havana, Parque Central with Capitolio, Theatre Nacional, Hotel Telegrafo

View over Parque Centrale in Havana with the Capitolio and the Gran Teatro at the left and the recently rehabilitated Hotel Telegrafo at the right

Courtyard of restored Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, museum and headquarters of the Office of the City Historian

Office of the City Historian sign announcing one of their many of planned rehabilitation projects in Old Havana

A team of painters at work on a rehabilitated building facing the Old Square of Havana

Ecological urban and regional planning

The Vermont preservationists also meet with planners at the Group for the Integral Development of the Capitol (El Grupo) who are have been developing innovative planning techniques for the entire Havana region since 1988. With offices, workshops and a public display facility located in the Havana suburb of Miramar, the centerpiece of El Grupo's efforts has been the creation of a large 1:1000 scale model of the Havana area that is used for regional planning and public education

This one hundred forty-four square meter model, constructed in two meter by two meter sections, features scale replicas of all buildings, streets, and natural features in three dimensions. To help illustrate the historical evolution of the region, the buildings are color-coded by age: brown for those constructed between 1500 and 1900; yellow for those built between 1900 and 1959; beige for those made after 1959; and white for monuments and those buildings under construction. Three, two meter by two meter sections constructed by El Grupo technicians are at added to the model each year.

According to Elio Guevara Romero of El Grupo, "The main goal of the model is for Cubans to be educated about urban culture and to understand the place where they live." Groups of school children and members of various clubs visit the model daily. Architecture and planning students also make use of the model. It is also used to assist with urban planning decisions.

Much of El Grupo's work involves the participation of neighborhood residents in the planning process through ecological urbanization workshops. The goals of these workshops for neighborhood transformation are to help residents re-establish a sense of neighborhood identity and to encourage local participation in planning community revitalization projects. Professional planners, architects and sociologists work with local residents to develop projects that improve housing, provide employment opportunities, including the involvement of women in construction and the production of construction materials. In some neighborhoods an important goal has been to help residents rescue some of their African cultural traditions. The group has also helped neighborhoods establish urban gardens in blighted spaces between high rise apartment buildings.


School children gather behind the 1:1000 scale model of the Havana area produced by Group for the Integral Development of the Capitol

Elio Guevara Romero of El Grupo discusses urban and regional planning challenges with Vermont preservationists and UVM graduate students

Sustainable rural development, scientific research and eco-tourism at biosphere reserve

In Cuba's western province of Pinar del Rio, the University of Vermont historic preservation graduate students and the professional preservationists with the Preservation Trust of Vermont group met with scientists at the UNESCO designated Sierra del Rosario biosphere reserve. Here they learned about an innovative project that combines eco-tourism with research and preservation of both fragile ecological areas and heritage sites to foster the sustainable economic and social development of the surrounding rural area. At that core of this reserve, researchers are studying how endemic and non-endemic species of plants and animals react to climatic changes with support from the World Wildlife Foundation and other international organizations.

In the buffer and rural transitional zones surrounding the protected mountainous area, the Las Terrasas project is helping to support a community of two thousand inhabitants through eco-tourism and historic preservation. Revenues generated by tourists attracted to the reserve by its natural features, ecological diversity, heritage resources and lakeside resort facilities help sustain local employment, housing, graphic arts, music, education, recreation and social services, as well as sustainable agriculture and forestry projects. The Las Terrasas project has also preserved of the ruins of an 1802 coffee plantation complex, a portion of which was reconstructed between 1995 and 1997 to serve as a interpretive heritage site, meeting place and dining facility for visitors.


 Las Terrassas coffee plantation, 1802

Restored 1802 coffee plantation house at Las Terrasas in the Sierra del Rosario biosphere reserve

Text and images by Prof. Thomas Visser, University of Vermont, 2002