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Preserving Paramaribo’s historical center– A challenge the Notre Dame fire just reminded us of.
Since the 17thcentury, the white wooden heritage buildings have come to define Suriname’s capital city, Paramaribo. Its historic center, like others around the world, has lost population, suffered from fire outbreaksand experienced physical decay. Over the last couple of years, the IDB has worked with the Government of Suriname to preserve and rehabilitate the city’s World Heritage Site.
The growth of Paramaribo
Paramaribo, developed during the 17thand 18thcenturies along the Suriname River on the northern coast of South America, is a former colonial town that once had a vibrant historical city center. In the nineteenth century, the first view of visitors coming by boat was of the Waterfront -the oldest street in the city- and its white wooden colonial mansions. Sites include the Fortress Zeelandia (1667), the Palm Garden (1685), the Governor’s Palace (1730), and the Tower of Finance (1841), all of which were surrounded by lush plantations on both sides of the river. This breathtaking view, combining architectural and natural jewels, made Paramaribo famous as one of the most beautiful cities of the Caribbean.
Overtime, the Waterfront grew to host important economic sites, including the main port and administrative buildings to handle plantation products, as well as the Central Market, numerous stores, and even a gold field train. The diversity of activities along the Waterfront reflected the city’s rich cultural diversity (which include African, European, Indian, and Indonesian heritage).
Paramaribo’s World Heritage Site
Unfortunately, Paramaribo’s Waterfront and its central area has had to endure various disasters, especially fires. The biggest one, in 1821, destroyed over 400 houses. Yet, Paramaribo’s historic center still maintains its remarkable fusion of European architecture with traditional local construction techniques with indigenous South American materials and crafts. Its original street plan that remains. As evidence of this rich heritage, in 2002 the historical center of Paramaribo was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site (WHS) —Paramaribo Case, a 30 hectare site that includes the original urban pattern and 291 listed monuments.
Today, the historic district faces new challenges. It has lost most of its commercial and residential vocation. While it is now home to multiple government offices and public services, these close at 3PM, after which the center is empty and leads to nighttime insecurity. The majority of the publicly-owned heritage buildings need urgent maintenance. In addition, as Paramaribo has grown, the WHS now experiences regular traffic jams along the Waterfront and other streets, and lacks proper sidewalks and public spaces. Finally, like many cities in the Caribbean, much of the Heritage Site and the city at large is at risk from the impacts of climate change, particularly flooding. The area has been undergoing physical, social and economic deterioration, which places high risk on the continuity of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
Despite these challenges, the historic district can play a key role in the city’s sustainable development. The rehabilitation and repurposing of heritage buildings with new functions that focus on culture, tourism, innovation, and creativity, can bring new life while promoting local economic development. The enhancement of public spaces and urban mobility can lead to a virtuous cycle of development. Proper rehabilitation of historic centers—which maximize local assets and jointly develop strategies with local communities—can enable social inclusiveness. Bringing in a climate perspective into rehabilitation strategies can similarly increase the city’s future resilience.
Following these principles and in close partnership with the Government of Suriname, in January 2017 the IDB approved the Paramaribo Urban Rehabilitation Program (PURP). This Program has been designed together with the WHS Management Authority of Paramaribo and the Suriname Built Heritage Foundation (SBHF), who is also in charge of the PURP’s implementation.
Key components of our joint works include strategic urban interventions, such as the rehabilitation of emblematic and strategically-located buildings, as well as the development of innovative financing solutions to incentivize private sector investment in the historic center. A key intervention focuses on the redevelopment of the city’s major public space, the Waterfront, which seeks to return its dynamism while maximizing the city’s relationship to the Suriname River. Associated investments near the Waterfront include improved mobility infrastructure, including solutions that encourage non-motorized transport (walking, cycling), new traffic design patters to reduce congestion nodes in the center, and overall inclusive and accessible public space network. To improve the WHS management, the Program includes institutional capacity activities for the WHS Management Authority, such as an updated WHS management plan and implementing community engagement plans.
The Program has already brought new energy to Paramaribo’s WHS. In recent months, the Employment in the Creative Industries project (an IDB LAB project that seeks to promote innovative ways to improve skills for youth to foster employment in the cultural and creative sector in Suriname), moved its physical offices to the historic center, a bold move that has since triggered the rehabilitation of three neighboring (heritage) buildings. Historic revitalization interventions such as the presented Program have proven to generate significant economic benefits, together with cultural heritage preservation and social benefits for the local population. We cannot wait to experience Paramaribo’s transformation over the next few years.
Editor: Patricio Zambrano-Barragán