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The Heritage of St John's: Who defines it?

Researcher:  Drs Chris Sharpe and J. Shawyer

In an urban context, the 'heritage' that is the object of protective legislation usually consists of buildings and other tangible artifacts inherited accidentally from the past. Municipal heritage legislation, following the lead of Federal and Provincial laws, is usually intended to protect older buildings, since age is almost universally considered the principal determinant of heritage value.

The story of heritage conservation in St John's is very much in this tradition. The Heritage Area designated in 1977 was one of the largest in the country, and has subsequently been expanded twice. Typically it encloses an area centred on the old downtown, with the aim of protecting what remains of the stock of late 19th century houses and commercial buildings, and, in particular, preservation of the material and stylistic conformity which are the hallmarks of St John's unique architecture.

This research project began as a study of the origin and effectiveness of heritage legislation in St John's and the visible impacts of the ineffective enforcement of ever-changing policy, a policy which, on the whole, was put in place by heritage "experts". This policy focussed on buildings and streetscapes. However, our work has recently been diverted into an attempt to understand what it is that the public (as opposed to the 'experts') thinks 'heritage' 'is'. Surveys of local residents carried out by several generations of undergraduate student assistants have decisively indicated that what the public values in the cultural landscape may be quite different from what the municipal heritage legislation is designed to protect. The public's perception of 'heritage' is more social and personal than the heritage defined by the current municipal legislation. Community values may have more to do with the mundane and the familiar than with age and architecture. In fact, the public's perception of heritage seems to admit intangible heritage (UNESCO Convention 2003) more readily than does the traditional definition. The disconnect between heritage as defined in the legislation and heritage in the public's perception, may help to explain the patterns of public response to proposed changes in their cultural landscape - patterns which sometimes confound the heritage experts.

We have learned that heritage is an evolving concept and that we must be prepared to relax our preoccupation with age and architecture if we are to understand what it is that people really value in their community. Escaping these shackles of orthodoxy will allow us to examine, as 'heritage', features which the public values: the landscape context of buildings, open spaces, viewplanes and other peculiar yet familiar aspects of the cultural landscape in which they live their daily lives.


Shawyer, A.J. and C.A. Sharpe (2003) "Heritage (and) Conservation of the Built Environment: the general public's view". Presented at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, St John's, NL., June 13.

Sharpe, C.A. (2003) "'The Devil's in the Details': Benign neglect and the erosion of heritage in St John's, Newfoundland". Newfoundland Studies,19:251-281.

Sharpe, C.A. and S. O'Dea (2005) "Area Conservation in the City of St John's: A re-assessment". In A.G. Macpherson (ed.) Four Centuries and the City: Essays in the Historical Geography of St John's. St John's: Department of Geography, Memorial University, 157-221.