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A free course exploring cultural heritage as a lens to critically question conventional approaches on adaptation

Month: June 2022

Final take-home messages and recommendations for research, practice and policy.

 Our final messages

This section is taken from the CRITICAL project policy brief. The team collaborated over 18 months to raise the voice of the most vulnerable and marginalised, we used heritage as our tool for dialogue around climate change adaptation and we learnt so much about heritage and the opportunities that can be found at a local level to overcome the climate crisis. We hope that you leave this course we a positive renewed energy to tackle climate change using your heritage toolkit. Engage, discuss and share your cultural heritage for the good of our society. The short video below provides some key take-home messages whilst you can read our summary and recommendations for policy makers, researchers and practitioners below.

Heritage is much more than the preservation of old buildings and sites. What we eat, how we dance, how we mourn the dead, what we sing and how we love, are practices that can sustain all sorts of onslaughts. How this is represented and who represents becomes key in any conversation after catastrophe.”

-Dominque Niemand, Research Associate, University of Pretoria, South Africa.


There can be no sustainable development without Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) including Climate Change Adaptation (CCA). Yet these rely on a foundation of understanding risk in all its complexity. Heritage is a missing component of conventional risk approaches, despite its ability to shape our identity, deliver capacities, and expose vulnerabilities. The CRITCAL project aimed to better understand the role of heritage within risk assessment through the investigation of three case study sites and developing a community of practice across three Low-Middle Income Countries (LMICs). The case study sites identified were across three scales: the small-scale settlement of Elandskloof in South Africa; the city region of Yogyakarta, Indonesia and a national approach across Sri Lanka. Exploring these three scales we were able to capture a narrative-based risk assessment for heritage and found that heritage opens avenues for dialogue on livelihoods, gender, local level capacity and vulnerability.

Our case studies

At a national scale, Dr Karunarthna carried out multiple interviews and facilitated two workshops in rural settlements across Sri Lanka. Furthermore, her work included a review of historical literature exploring the role of women in traditional rural practices. At a city-scale, Dr Retnowati and Ms Anantasari carried out a series of interviews with key stakeholders along the River Code in Yogyakarta region. In South Africa, Prof O’Connell and Ms Niemand led two workshops, a household survey and a series of interviews in Elandskloof. In addition, a review of climate data for each site and a systematic synthesis of literature related to heritage, risk and value was undertaken (Crowley et al 2022).

Key take-home messages

“Cultural memories can create an intellectual platform to brainstorm potential use of the heritage practices for a sustainable future” 

-Dr Dulma Karunarathna, University of Victoria, Canada.

Local risk narratives have challenged conventional top-down approach to understanding the threats to heritage from climate change. We find that our case studies identified how local community value place, and how heritage can be a mechanism for engagement with adaptation. Conventional risk assessments for heritage sites rarely take into account local level values and are currently largely lacking in LMICs (Crowley et al 2022). Heritage is considered a resource in the three case sites. In Yogyakarta, the river is a heritage asset and forms a cultural axis through the city. In Elandskloof, a narrative of loss in terms of intergenerational knowledge due to forced removal and climate change were uncovered. The capacity of women and their traditional environmental knowledge for climate adaptation was captured across Sri Lanka. The research findings were discussed at a final stakeholder workshop in March 2022 resulting in the identification of three areas of critical thinking:

  • Heritage as procedural – That heritage should not necessarily be preserved in a static state without understanding its influence in local and regional level resilience building and how it is influenced by socio-economic change as well as environmental stressors.
  • Heritage as a research and engagement tool – There is a need for more creative and local level methods for discussing vulnerability and capacity. Our research has found that using heritage as a lens opens a dialogue on place-based issues vital for adaptation and wider resilience.
  • Heritage as adaptation and vulnerability influencers – Heritage is part of a local people’s vulnerability and capacity for CCA and a crucial component in resilience building. Heritage can be a critical asset for people living with environmental change and how heritage is ‘protected’ can have significant impact on people’s vulnerability. For example, the designation of UNESCO world heritage status can exclude the needs of local people, whilst embracing local environmental expertise can open up space for hybrid knowledge production that leads to improved adaptation.

The research team reflected on their cross-disciplinary work during this project at a time of global pandemic. A learning approach was central to this project and the interdisciplinary team has captured and shared a diversity of voice on heritage through a freely available e-Learning course, a series of videos as well as ArcGIS story maps.

Lessons learnt

Disasters related to climate change and environmental damage have put cultural traditions and cultural landscapes at unprecedented risk. The impact of climate change on heritage requires improvements in the planning and management.”

– Dr Arry Retnowati, Centre of Excellence in Technological Innovation for Disaster Mitigation (GAMA-InaTEK), Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

  • Local led research design that is fully supported and flexible enabled a depth of investigation led by international co-investigators.
  • The COVID pandemic not only led to challenges in continuity for the research teams due to illness, as well as how to safely access isolated settlements but there was a loss of elder-held knowledge within those settlements.
  • Full team face-to-face meetings were not possible during the project. Virtual meetings worked well and enabled attendance but a full team meeting would have improved team discussions and refinement of final outputs and future roadmap (see Figure 1).

Recommendations for policy makers, researchers and practitioners – let your voice be heard!

There are three core recommendations that speak across different audiences:

  • Recommendation 1: Examine and support the role of heritage for adaptive capacity and resilience building.
  • Recommendation 2: Enable access to, and dialogue around, climate change information for people living in isolated and marginalised settlements.
  • Recommendation 3: Expand the resources for local level adaptation through heritage driven risk assessments.

For funders and policy makers at an international scale:

  • Move away from heritage as a built asset that needs preserving or protection. Consider instead a narrative of heritage as a capacity for adaptation and resilience building.
  • Ensure that UNESCO World Heritage Site Outstanding Universal Value is balanced with local level understanding of value for heritage.
  • Invest in adaptation funds that are driven by the local level needs, and aim to move beyond assessment into implementation, monitoring and learning.
  • Ensure all funds enable local meaningful participation and target forgotten or marginalized voices.
  • Support interdisciplinary and women led applied research projects that test new ways of thinking and doing with local people rather than for local people.

For country-level policy makers:

  • Enable funds that provide access to national and local scale climate change information to the local level for local decision making that compliments local experiences and knowledge.
  • Enable flexible and long-term adaptation funding that includes local people, their livelihoods, and their heritage.
  • Take an inclusive and cautionary approach to UNESCO WHS status, considering the positive and negative impacts on livelihoods, socio-cultural, socio-economic power relationships and land use.

For researchers and civil society:

  • Evaluate heritage hotspots to capture a diversity of case studies demonstrating the value and influence for climate change adaptation and disaster management.
  • Enable locally led research that is flexible and designed by local researchers based in country.
  • Provide freely accessible space for sharing and learning through new technologies.
  • Build in a sharing of findings and tools back to the local people who are central to your research.
  • Enable access to and dialogue around climate change information for people living in isolated and marginalized settlements.
  • Enabling climate change literacy across stakeholders from local people to policy makers is essential. This should encompass being aware of both climate change and its anthropogenic causes and underpins informed mitigation and adaptation responses.

We would like to thank and acknowledge our funders the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and UK Department for Digital, Cultural, Media and Sport (Award ref: AH/V006371/1). We would also like to thank our expert advisory panel for their invaluable time and support throughout this project in particular Professor Andrew Dugmore and Dr Sukanya Krishnamurthy at the University of Edinburgh, Professor David Harvey and Professor Nick Shepard at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Terry Cannon at the Institute for Development Studies, UK.

We would also like to thank those who have contributed through reviews, video contributions and attendance at stakeholder workshops.

Overall, we would like to acknowledge and thank the people who have contributed their time and knowledge to this project from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and South Africa.

2.1 Cultural heritage, climate change and disasters

In this section you will hear from two leading experts in cultural heritage and disasters.

Cultural heritage and climate change relations: Loss, Adaptation and Creativity

Professor David C. Harvey provides a brief overview of cultural heritage and climate change relations.

Culture and risk perception: The hidden significance of culture in development, climate change and disasters

How we perceive cultural heritage is considered to be situated within a risk context (Harrison, 2013). From a Western perspective, heritage is often framed through a preservationist lens as something to be protected from threats rather than a dynamic and multifaceted resource that delivers resilience. To this end, heritage should not be viewed simply as a stable material to be preserved for the future, but as a shifting interaction between past, present and future.

There has been some progress on an international scale to incorporate heritage within risk thinking. For example, The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) refers to cultural heritage in terms of ensuring a better understanding of the impacts on heritage and of good governance for the protection of heritage:

‘To systematically evaluate, record, share and publicly account for disaster losses and understand the economic, social, health, education, environmental and cultural heritage impacts, as appropriate, in the context of event-specific hazard-exposure and vulnerability information; (UNDRR, 2015 p15)

To protect or support the protection of cultural and collecting institutions and other sites of historical, cultural heritage and religious interest;’ (UNDRR, 2015 p19)

To meet the goals of such international agreements, risk assessment methods and tools are developed, tested and improved. The result is a potential increase in accessibility to risk tools and data for local to national government and other key stakeholders. However, comprehensive and systematic use of holistic risk assessments for sustainable development through adaptation is still limited.

The majority of risk assessment tools and methods that incorporate heritage are developed on a project-by-project basis, for specific contexts. They rarely have a long life span.

Watch this video below to learn more about the interconnection between heritage and disasters.

Further reading & resources

Learn more about the UNDRR International framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (also known as the Sendai Framework) 

David Harvey’s book  The Future of Heritage as Climates Change: Loss, Adaptation and Creativity

1.1 Cultural heritage in the context of climate change

Why is heritage so important in the context of climate change?

Cultural heritage shapes our values and beliefs; it is a reflection of who we are and drives our motivations and actions. How we respond to climate change is therefore influenced by our cultural heritage. This may be directly through what we choose to believe and how we may or may not take action to reduce our impact on the planet. Or it may also be a positive tool that can lead to a better understanding of climate change and the actions we can take to protect ourselves, our communities and our shared future.

Climate change is not new. Our planet has warmed and cooled many times over thousands of years. However, anthropogenic (human induced) climate change (which we are experiencing now) is new because it is extremely rapid and driven by us pumping vast amounts of Green House Gases into the atmosphere. Never before has the planet experienced such a rapid change in temperature in such a short amount of time.

Cultural heritage can therefore provide a record of the nature and the effects of past climate change and other disasters, and our responses to them. It gives a valuable perspective on how climate change and other disasters have been experienced in the past by different members of society. It can provide an essential human dimension to our understanding of climate change that can complement data from the physical sciences. That can help us to understand the strengths and limitations of different responses to disaster and hopefully help us become more resilient in the future.

Cultural heritage is itself vulnerable to climate change and other hazards. Both tangible (e.g. buildings, paintings, or materials) and intangible (e.g. beliefs, practices and knowledge) heritage can be exposed to different threats and it can be lost. How we value our heritage and therefore protect or accept its loss. But these decisions should be made in collaboration with the people who live, embody and interact with that heritage.

Geologists say that ‘the past is key to our future’, well, cultural heritage represents our past and our future and therefore is a critical element of how we understand the world and our impacts on it.

Watch this short video explaining the connection between cultural heritage and climate change.

What does heritage mean to you?

Before we get into more detail about climate change and cultural heritage, the short video below shares a diverse range of perspectives on heritage. We invite you to reflect on what heritage means to you.

Heritage and how it is valued is personal to each one of us, it shapes our thinking and influences our actions. It is our toolkit for survival during the current climate emergency.

Further readings & resources

2.2 Challenge of cultural heritage and risk assessment

What’s the challenge?

There can be no sustainable development without Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) including Climate Change Adaptation (CCA). These rely on risk assessment that encompass understanding the hazard, exposure, vulnerabilities as well as capacities in all their complexities. Cultural heritage shapes our society and influences our actions before, during and after disasters, yet as Taschakert et al (2017:6) argue “assessments of disaster impacts largely ignores such experiences and understandings”. Incorporating heritage into risk informed decision making is therefore vital for building and maintaining resilience.

The video below covers recent efforts to build capacities in face of climate risk at the national and international level. In particular, the video highlights the importance of research and cooperation in the management of climate risk in a cultural heritage context.

The importance of risk assessment

Many cultural heritage sites are at risk of natural hazards and climate-change related such as, floods, landslides, droughts, wildfire, drought, extreme weather, and sea level rise among others. The impacts of natural hazards such as floods compounded with the uncertainty of climate change are difficult to identify and measure. To manage and reduce a specific risk, an assessment is necessary. Risk assessment is the judgement to combine present observation with past experiences to allow the prediction of future events and guide future actions. Since climate change is expected to intensify existing risk level, risk assessment should constitute the starting point for managing and eventually reducing future risks on cultural heritage.

The CRITICAL research team reviewed peer-reviewed academic papers published between 2007-2021 relating to risk assessment tools or frameworks and cultural heritage. There findings illustrate a serious issue with the incorporation of heritage within risk assessments.

Key messages from this analysis include:

  • Risk assessment for disaster management and CCA can take many forms. There is no standard risk assessment method for CCA or disaster management but rather a plethora of approaches from large-scale quantitative assessments using vulnerability functions to focussed qualitative narratives.
  • Exposure is critical for understanding risk, but not a sufficient analysis on its own.
  • Hazards are generally considered as single events although there is considerable debate about the effectiveness of this approach when multihazards are far more likely to occur.
  • Despite many of these papers discussing the importance of risk assessment and all its components (vulnerability, hazard, exposure, and capacity) the majority focus on just exposure or hazard modelling.
  • The tools developed and discussed in these papers identified the exposure of cultural heritage to hazards but not the degree of vulnerability or contribution towards capacity. Those that did discuss vulnerability did so largely in relation to exposure or focussed substantially on the structural vulnerabilities of the built environment.
  • Challenges predominately focus on a lack of data, tools and capacity.
  • Papers highlight a significant range of barriers to adaptation including a lack of understanding of vulnerability, a conventionally ‘top-down’ approach, lack of decision maker awareness, low level of communications between different stakeholders and a lack of policies or regulations.
  • The discourse across the literature is dominated by the drive to protect or conserve heritage, whilst only one paper reviewed discuss the lack of awareness of heritage benefits for adaptation. Whilst, only one other paper notes that lack of understanding between the threats to cultural heritage and wellbeing of the local communities.

PAR model for heritage risk management

The Pressure and Release (PAR) model in disaster management explained by Terry Cannon. The PAR model seeks to explain how the intersection between the process of generating vulnerability and natural hazards exposures creates and/or exacerbates social vulnerability (Blaikie et al. 1994). The video clip is from a CRITICAL project workshop ( July 2021).

This framework provides a way of understanding that vulnerability is multi-layered.  This framework was designed a number of years ago and describes that disasters are social constructs, and require both a natural hazard and also vulnerable people or ecosystems.


Further readings & resources

Blaikie et al, 1994, At Risk, Routledge


1.2 What is climate change ?

A climate emergency

In this section we will explore the current climate emergency. We will briefly explain why current climate change is so important and its fundamental drivers.

Our planet is warming at an unprecedented rate, this means that as global temperatures rise our weather and longer term climate patterns are changing at a local and regional level. This has overwhelmingly negative consequences for people and biodiversity around the world. Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a global body of climate change scientists) highlight that we need to take urgent action to reduce the worst possible scenario in the future. This means that we must reduce our Green House Gas emissions across the board from industry, to energy production through to land use and transport.  We must also ensure that we take action to reduce the risks we face now and in the future – we call this adaptation. It is important that we consider both mitigation (reducing our emissions) and adaptation together when talking about climate action.

Watch this short video to get a summary of climate change and actions we need to take.

Climate change in more detail

If you are new to climate change, then let’s delve in a little deeper. The following lecture provides an overview of the climate crisis, the reason why we are in a climate crisis and some of the possible things we can do to not only survive but thrive. We cover topics such as adaptation and vulnerability.

Further readings and resources:

Please share your thoughts and experiences in your regional climate change & extreme weather events by leaving comments on this blog post.

2.3 Rethinking value, risk and heritage

As explored in 1.3 What is cultural heritage? Heritage has multiple meanings, ranging from everyday objects and practices to symbolic spaces and rituals. Because these objects, spaces and practices are of value to a given community of interest, we might reason that they should be preserved in an unchanged and unchanging form—especially if they are threatened by the impacts of climate change and globalisation. But this preservationist approach is not a panacea because heritage is valued in different ways by different people over time. This section will expand on the idea of processual cultural heritage as a means of rethinking what is threatened by climate change.

Processual cultural heritage

Processual heritage recognises the multiple interactions of people with heritage objects and practices. This is seen in conservation practice, observing how attempts to stabilise or restore material decay – the practice of preservation – create new environments. This can be understood as new combinations of things used to hold materials together, and new histories – events of change – that recall events that change how the object is understood. In other words, heritage is the process through which ‘things’ become ‘objects of display’ (Harrison, 2013: 69). The process of becoming heritage is a human condition, a social process associated with memory, identity, and perception; it involves re-use, re-working, and re-interpretation (Harvey, 2001).

In the video below, David Harvey explains how we can think of heritage as a process. He explores not only material heritage, such as objects, sites, and landscapes, but also intangible values and power-relations.


Rethinking Cultural Heritage

Mainstream cultural heritage practice has increasingly incorporated the values of local groups in the act of conserving objects and landscapes. The Future of Our Pasts report, commissioned by the International Commission on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), draws attention to the role of cultural heritage, and local stakeholders, in the protection of cultural assets in the context of increased climate risk (ICOMOS, 2019). The report recognises the important role of heritage assets in reducing and compensating for loss and damage, improving adaptation through recognition of cultural limits and capacities, and drawing attention to the vulnerability of cultural heritage that has and will be lost to the impacts of climate change in the 21st century.

Heritage studies in the context of climate risk is therefore a highly interdisciplinary field, requiring the input of climate scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists, historians, museologists, artists, and disaster risk experts to name but a few. To safeguard cultural heritage for present and future generations, cultural resource managers (or heritage practitioners) will require input from each of these fields of research. As previously noted by Rowan Jackson, Hambrecht and Rockman (2017) draw attention to four pillars for addressing climate-related threats: science, mitigation, adaptation, and communication. At the upstream end, academic play a significant role in understanding how climate change will impact sites, landscapes, and communities. Practitioners play a significant role in the co-production of mitigation and adaption strategies together with stakeholder groups, as well as the communication of projected impacts on cultural heritage. A concerted effort to monitor impacts and build capacity is necessary to achieving resilient cultural heritage (Fatorić and Seekamp, 2017).

In the video below, Rowan Jackson asks: how we should conceptualise heritage risk?


Further readings & resources

  • Hambrecht, G. and Rockman, M., 2017. International approaches to climate change and cultural heritage. American Antiquity, 82(4), pp.627-641.
  • Harrison, R., 2013. Heritage: Critical Approaches. Routledge.
  • Harvey, D.C. and Perry, J., 2015. Heritage and climate change: The future is not the past. Routledge.
  • ICOMOS Climate Change and Cultural Heritage Working Group. 2019. The Future of Our Pasts: Engaging Cultural Heritage in Climate Action, July 1, 2019. Paris: ICOMOS.

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