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As I put on my hard hat to clamber round some of the most decrepit buildings I’ve ever seen – I was inspecting a project to restore the cathedral quarter of old Porto– I couldn’t help speculating that they might do things differently in Beijing. The Morro da Sé stands right at the historic centre of Portugal’s second city (declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1996); it is also spectacularly shabby and rundown. Surely the most practical thing would be to raze the whole rabbit warren and start again from scratch, rehousing residents (about 1,000 of them) in more salubrious and airy modern flats.

That is not at all what is happening. Being a Unesco World Heritage Site carries certain obligations. Beyond that, there are national and municipal planning laws, frameworks and policies. Even beyond those there is a European idea about preserving heritage, especially conserving the fabric of the ancient cities that are among the continent’s – and the world’s – chief glories. This idea has been trashed repeatedly in the past, not just by the massive destruction of wars (from which Porto has been spared) but also in the misguided planning schemes of the 1960s and 1970s, which did almost as much damage as bombs.

Keeping the structures of the past is an especially delicate challenge in this particular old city, one of Europe’s most fascinating, characterful and underrated in terms of beauty. Old Porto looks like nowhere else in Europe. The city I have visited that most resembles it is Salvador da Bahia in Brazil. Many houses are still decorated with the painted tiles called azulejos. Gothic churches rub shoulders with grand 18th-century palaces (one is a former prison); Baroque towers rise above a skyline unpolluted by modern skyscrapers. Vegetation runs riot in the humid, mild climate; the majestic river Douro runs through it, close to its meeting with the Atlantic.

The delicacy of the challenge lies in the sheer eccentricity of the built environment. Tall narrow houses crowd and lean against each other like crooked teeth. Some are unbelievably narrow – too narrow for any contemporary housing standards, so here two houses must be turned into one. The reason many are in such terrible condition lies in complicated ownership and tenancy arrangements, often involving fixed rents. Fixed rents sound good for tenants but eventually lead to a vicious circle in which landlords cannot pay for improvements.

What does heritage mean, exactly? The work being done here has social as well as cultural and aesthetic dimensions. The rebuilding projects include a residence for students and one for elderly people. There is intangible as well as tangible heritage. Heritage is not just, or even, some argue, primarily, buildings, but also people, ways of doing things, memories.

This project in Porto, partly funded with loans from the European Investment Bank, is a public-private partnership. Leaving things entirely to the market works only in certain areas and not in places such as Morro da Sé that are mired in decay and deprivation; and publicly funded projects need private expertise. The work is being done to remarkably high architectural and environmental standards. Great trouble was taken to try to preserve a beautiful spiral staircase, standing in a ruined house like a memory of grace. Unfortunately, it fell foul of fire regulations and could not be saved. Is all this worth the expense?

There are many good economic arguments for this kind of heritage restoration: giving back life to moribund parts of old cities and boosting tourism, which looks like being one of Europe’s few growth industries in the 21st century. Certainly, Chinese tourists are voting with their feet.

But the value goes beyond mere economics. These efforts to preserve not just the buildings but the living communities without which an old city becomes just a museum embody much of what is best about the currently tarnished European idea.

Europe from the beginning was about more than economics and markets. It has always had a social dimension; establishing peace after centuries of war, and then creating broad-based prosperity, not islands of plutocracy in seas of misery. It is a celebration of culture – a culture that for all its faults has had more worldwide impact than any other.

One example of that relates to my initial hard-hatted speculations. The wholesale destruction of old hutongs is not the only thing going on in Beijing. A few brave souls, including the actor Liu Harrison Li Nian and his wife, the Belgian artist Jehanne de Biolley, are trying to save the beautiful 16th-century Nianhua Si, or Picking Flowers temple, in the Drum Tower district. They are backed by the small not-for-profit organisation Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, but face a multitude of bureaucratic and other obstacles.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

More columns at ft.com/eyres

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