Incorporating urban and cultural heritage into new design

Stephanie Harder’s Master of Urban and Cultural Heritage led her to Sri Lanka and Nepal. We caught up with her to find out how her skills have helped her in working with the local communities.

Stephanie with colleagues
Image: Stephanie with colleagues in the Vyas Municipality, Nepal.

What made you decide to study the Master of Urban and Cultural Heritage (MUCH)?
I had been working as an urban planner and over time developed an interest in heritage places and cultural landscapes. The rural landscape was rapidly changing to an urban one and I became curious as to how to maintain heritage values whilst this transition was occurring so quickly. At the time I was with the Growth Areas Authority (now the Victorian Planning Authority) developing masterplans for new communities in Melbourne’s west. I began to develop ideas of how master planning could protect heritage places and creative ways to celebrate and interpret a landscape’s history in new design. It became a real passion, but I felt that I needed to be around likeminded people where I could discuss ideas and what better way to do that than by pursuing further study?

What was your favourite subject in the program? 
My favourite subject is a tie with Issues and Techniques in Global Heritage and my thesis. It was a real treat to have various guest speakers in the heritage industry present to the class. Their issues were real and current, and we heard how they were tackling them – innovatively and intelligently. Heritage is often a low priority for the development industry, and it was great to see how the heritage industry was responding to this setback and reaching outcomes of a high standard.

My thesis allowed me to travel and work professionally in Sri Lanka. I cherish that experience and value the opportunity of working with the heritage industry and local community abroad. Now I am in Nepal for 12 months doing something similar and that time in Sri Lanka certainly set me up for where I am now.

What are you currently working on in Nepal?
I am working as an urban planner for the municipality - however, the history and culture is extremely rich where I am and I find that I'm using more of my cultural heritage skills to engage the community and thinking about the future of their city and villages.

My task it to help develop a vision and action plan (integrated urban development plan) for the entire municipality. The area is predominantly Hindu and the use of space often reflects religious and cultural practice. I am finding myself in a special and exciting position where urban planning will be key in protecting religious and cultural practice into the future.

It’s a bit different to what I was doing in Sri Lanka but the similarity is being fully engaged with the community - and that's where you learn very unique social histories.

Can you tell us a little about your previous project in Sri Lanka?
My project in Sri Lanka was more about trying to understand why the local people did not engage with, and seemingly avoided, the historical Dutch/Portuguese fort that lays in ruin. The fort has gained a lot of attention by the national government to transform it into a tourist destination, however, the local people appear to have willingly left it abandoned. I was of the view that local people need to be involved in the benefits of tourism development, however, I needed to uncover why they did not visit or engage with the site - even the town's built form appears to turn its back to it.

Stephanie with colleagues in Sri Lanka
Image: Stephanie with colleagues in Sri Lanka at the hertiage site Mannar Fort, which they were assessing.

What are the most valuable skills that you have learnt?
It takes time to understand the heritage values of a place. There are often layers upon layers to identify and understand and it takes time. But it is truly understanding the significance of a place that leads to successful heritage conservation, preservation and interpretative outcomes.

Who has inspired you during your study here? How have they inspired you?
Definitely the MUCH students and staff. It was wonderful meeting, discussing and debating all sorts of heritage issues. Their passion was infectious, and it motivated me to be prepared for every class so I could keep up with the conversation.

What advice do you have for students thinking of studying MUCH?
Pursue a particular interest, for me it was volunteering in Sri Lanka on a heritage site. It was the time of my life and I was lucky to have this opportunity.

What is your dream project/something you'd really like to work on?
I am in Nepal, so I am already living my dream! But I always have new ideas popping into my head. Currently I am playing with the idea of becoming a heritage tour guide in Sri Lanka with my soon to be husband.

Stephanie in Nepal
Image: Stephanie at Bhaktapur, one of the ancient kingdoms in Nepal.


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