Heritage in the Dynamic City: The Politics and Practice of Urban Conservation on the Swahili Coast


This study presents a series of everyday spaces in Swahili cities in order to problematize current urban heritage practices and to call for a more critical approach to conservation. Efforts to save elements of the Swahili built environment are hampered by colonial legacies that frame conservation in terms of pure archetypes, static taxonomies, and racially distinct building cultures. Conservationists draw on these legacies in defining particular architectural and landscape forms as ‘traditional’, and therefore worthy of protection. Ironically, these ‘traditional’ forms emerged within the crucible of an ever‐changing urban condition where the ‘tradition’ was innovation. The question thus arises as to the ultimate object of conservation practice: select buildings or the cultural processes that produced them? Through a careful reading of the Swahili built environment, this article examines key locations where urban spaces are formed, contested, and remade. The study concludes that to reflect the dynamic, multifaceted and cosmopolitan character of Swahili cities, conservationists must pay close attention to the ill‐fitting spaces where landscape innovations arise. Not only will this approach augur a more socially just organization of urban cultural resources, it will more accurately reflect the lived realities of Swahili cities in a global age.