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

Category: 2: Cultural heritage and risk

Module 2: The incorporation of Cultural Heritage within risk assessments for climate change adaptation and disaster management

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

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


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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