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How Do You Measure the Value of a Historic Site?

Debates over historic preservation often run into a problem: There’s plenty of data to support economic arguments, and much less to address questions of cultural value. A research team in Singapore wants to change that.
Can a machine know what this site means to people?
Can a machine know what this site means to people?Dennis Owen/Reuters

To get a glimpse of Singapore’s past, take a stroll down Tiong Bahru, the nation’s oldest housing estate. Built in the 1930s, it’s still home to both Singapore’s first wet market and last remaining World War II air raid shelter. Today, it’s one of the few neighborhoods where high-rises haven’t completely taken over the skyline, though the signs of gentrification—posh cafes, Western-themed restaurants, and trendy boutiques—have disrupted the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

Tiong Bahru is an example of the tension between historic preservation and economic development on the small island of 5 million people. Today, Singapore is the epitome of modernity: the gleaming towers, the multi-color lights illuminating the night sky, and the radical architecture that other cities can only dream of. And the landscape is constantly changing to meet new demands, so much so that there’s barely room for the older buildings.