Moving forward with heritage conservation

The earliest brick structure in the City of Hamilton – the Book House, located in Ancaster – was recently lost to a suspected case of arson. (Photo: Sharon Vattay, City of Hamilton)

Photo: The earliest brick structure in the City of Hamilton – the Book House, located in Ancaster – was recently lost to a suspected case of arson. (Photo: Sharon Vattay, City of Hamilton)


David Cuming

Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date: Sep 08, 2005

Thirty years ago, when the Ontario Heritage Act was new, I was a young planner with about a year’s experience working in London, England and some specialization in heritage planning.

Since 1975, many of us have stayed the heritage course and served as volunteers, heritage consultants, provincial civil servants or municipal heritage staff – all with varying degrees of success in conserving and protecting heritage properties through advocacy, heritage reports to municipal councils, archaeological assessments or architectural proposals for re-use of old buildings. In some instances, the Act was critical in managing and conserving; in some others, it had little or no impact. Still, over the past three decades, more than 5,000 individual properties and 70 districts (containing approximately 12,000 properties) have been designated under the Act – quite an achievement for a challenging and flawed piece of legislation.

Recent amendments to the Act, therefore, are a welcome relief. Provisions relating to a new role for the Minister of Culture, stop orders and conservation standards, delegation of approvals to municipal staff and the potential protection of properties from demolition are long overdue. The demolition provisions for built heritage at last bring into play the promise, in theory, of a level playing field.

Although welcome, the new legislation raises a number of fundamental issues and questions. Heritage conservation under the Act is still a discretionary activity – municipalities are not actually compelled to initiate any meaningful, proactive heritage conservation activity. As part of “smart growth” and “sustainable development,” heritage conservation has become a prerequisite for successful community planning.

In most jurisdictions, too, conservation typically tends to be characterized by a “stick” (legislation) and “carrot” (financial incentives) approach. Along with our new “stick,” a concurrent announcement of a permanent system of provincial grants would have helped immeasurably. Many of us remember the Ministry’s successful 1980s BRIC program that had tremendous positive impact.

Undoubtedly, some municipalities and municipal heritage committees will fare well with this new legislation, while for others it may just be business as usual. It’s clear that challenges remain. For instance, after 30 years of designating properties, the City of Burlington appears to have become mired in property-owner discontent and disapproval in attempting to designate their first heritage conservation district.

In Ancaster, too, we just lost an early 19th-century brick farmhouse to a suspected case of arson. The building was vacant and boarded up with no immediate use in sight. Designation – which was in the works – would not have prevented the fire. But an actively occupied building with a viable and thriving economic use would have given it a fighting chance.

Clearly, the new Act offers an enhanced toolbox for all practitioners. Yet, legislation on its own seldom creates greater enlightenment. The argument for continuing education and creating a heightened awareness of how heritage makes vibrant communities remains the greatest challenge for all of us engaged in heritage conservation.