IMAGE: ICLEI Europe
Positioning the past to reimagine the future
How culture and heritage
can advance sustainable,
September 15, 2023
It is all too easy to overlook culture and cultural heritage in discussions about sustainability, relegating culture as a sign of the past without seeing it as a lens through which we can co-develop the future. But because culture is seated at the intersection of the social, ecological, and economic, it must be the foundation for sustainable development. A repository for our shared values, beliefs, and assumptions, culture necessarily has to guide our approaches to multi-faceted sustainability goals. In a new briefing paper by ICLEI Europe, culture has the unique power to drive forward debates and action on our common urban future.
IMAGE: ICLEI Europe
Culture and heritage have a broad scope, encompassing architecture and the built environment, food, the arts and creative industries, religion, traditions, and lifestyles. These examples of culture and heritage are not only impacted by, but can also address rapid global challenges, changes, and disruptions. We can look to culture for solutions in many moments – for example, as we confront the hazards posed by climate change or as we strengthen community resilience. Culture is also a part of how we face increased mobility due to remote work and other labour trends. It can be a part of addressing urban sprawl, looking to existing vacant buildings for creative renovation opportunities. The possibilities span as widely as the definition of culture itself.
So how does this look in action? How can culture meaningfully drive forward shared sustainability goals?
In many ways, culture and heritage have already become a part of the policy conversation, reaching their way into sustainability commitments. And these changes are becoming apparent in areas like tourism – one area in which the link between sustainability and culture is taking root.
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Culture in Action
Culture and sustainable development have already informed international and European-level policies and commitments to sustainable development. For starters, Agenda 2030 explicitly highlights culture and heritage in Target 11.4 of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the European Commission has touted culture as a way to move toward social cohesion. At the same time, the beginning of an initiative called the New European Bauhaus has provided a moment to address culture as “an important contribution to sustainable development, including the circular economy, social and territorial cohesion, the environment, biodiversity and climate targets, prosperity and well-being…” In a nod to the power of culture to address a wide array of development goals, the European Green Deal (as well as Local Green Deals) also acknowledges cultural heritage and creative sectors as key players in addressing the climate crisis. This recognition at the policy level demonstrates the wide and growing consensus that culture is crucial to achieving a future in which our cities are more sustainable, beautiful, equitable and connected.
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Ideas in Action: Sustainable and Circular Cultural Tourism
At the local level, the connection between development and culture is playing out in sectors like tourism, which is undergoing a rapid transformation toward sustainability and circularity. Circular cultural tourism is an emerging concept still in its infancy, but with high potential for further development, generating increased circular, zero-pollution and climate-neutral practices and facilitating circularity in job creation in different sectors. The idea behind this type of tourism is to prioritise responsible and ethical travel practices and improve outcomes for communities impacted by tourism. From a human-centred perspective, circular cultural tourism means regenerating traditional knowledge and human capital, enhancing a sense of place and common belonging.
Today’s growing awareness of the impact of tourism on cultural heritage sites goes beyond anxieties about tourists’ potential effects on sensitive heritage assets, places, and cultural objects. We see a shift towards sustainable tourism that better serves local communities and their visitors, while preserving and protecting these sites for future generations. This move shows the compatibility between protecting humans at the same time as their built and natural environments.
A few types of touristic innovations are spreading along these lines, among them, community-based tourism, circular tourism, technologically enhanced tourism, and tourism’s interface with the climate crisis. These paradigms are shifting the way that people relate to their surroundings, and the ways that their travel impacts the environment and the cultural heritage they wish to experience.
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Innovations in Community-Based Tourism
Community-based tourism works with local communities, producers, and other stakeholders to make different locations and cultural heritage assets and sites appealing to potential visitors while also protecting the community and local environmental quality. By co-creating activities and involving more people in the cultural tourism industry, the benefits of tourism can be more equitably distributed, and the negative impacts minimised. By nature, meaningful involvement also ensures that the local culture is respected and celebrated.
A virtuous example of community-based tourism can be found in the region of Larnaca, Cyprus, a pilot heritage site of the EU Horizon 2020 Be.CULTOUR project. Here, local administrators, NGOs and small entrepreneurs, as well as a group of volunteers, work together to promote sustainable tourism and gently guide the visitors through the tangible and intangible heritage of the area: visitors are invited to taste the local honey in a new Sensory Bee Natural Trail, discover traditional basketry and lace techniques, and take part in the numerous festivals that animate the region, perhaps most especially Kataklysmos, the Festival of the Flood.
It is important to remember the opportunity to centre the role of local assets in order to cement trust and tap into local pride as we reframe heritage. One idea could be to adapt the widely popular concept of 15-minute cities to 15-minute heritage sites, supported by the intelligent planning of tourist flows, circular approaches to resource use on-site, and the procurement of resources produced and delivered locally.
As part of a broader movement by cities toward circular economy principles, many communities see an opportunity to apply them to the way they host visitors and grow or maintain their tourism industry. This can look many different ways, from adaptive reuse, to changing resource flows and educational outreach.
Activities like adaptive reuse of existing historical buildings and spaces can be crucial. As noted in the briefing paper; “cultural heritage sites in remote, peripheral or deindustrialised areas, as well as over-exploited areas, focus on sustainability, wellbeing, relationships, cooperation, and regeneration, rather than just tourism.” Such activities are in line with the European Commission’s Circular Cities and Regions Initiative (CCRI) implementing the circular economy across Europe’s cities and regions.
Furthermore, initiatives like the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative, administered by the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), are putting this idea of circularity into play already – with signatories committing to work toward the elimination of single-use plastics. The signatories represent a wide array of international and local-level organisations, including “leading tourism companies, suppliers, business associations, NGOs, consultancies and certification schemes.”
Cultural sites can also play a foundational role in awareness-building at the local level around developing more circular communities. In Psiloritis, on the Island of Crete, the EU Horizon 2020 RURITAGE project supported the UNESCO Geopark in carrying out circular economy educational outreach and programming in partnership with local museums and the University of Crete. In this way, visitors could engage with the topic while also engaging with the tangible and intangible heritage, ecosystems, and landscapes of the park.
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Technology Enhancing Tourism
Another trend is the use of modern technology to enhance visitors’ experience while minimising the impact on the cultural heritage site. We know from innovative digital modelling of the renowned caves in Lascaux and from the scanning of the Tomb of King Seti I to create a replica for visitors in Switzerland that this is possible, but there are more options to discover. For example, virtual reality tours and augmented reality apps allow visitors to explore sites without physical presence, preserving fragile or at-risk assets and sites while also generating a quality visitor experience. As a further element, this immersive and educational experience can have an express aim of enhancing accessibility – for example, by combining such technological advances with games to attract younger generations or adapting exhibits for people with disabilities. Also this would open more opportunities for “silver tourism,” to foster the cultural and digital inclusion of older generations.
Moving in this direction is the Archeological Park of Venosa, in Basilicata, Italy, another pilot of the Be.CULTOUR project. It has already adopted INVENTUM, a 3D augmented reality application, in practice a video-game, that allows visitors to experience the historical places and characters of Venosa. For the same purpose, the region currently works toward new creative ways to integrate storytelling about its cultural heritage into its programming and outreach.
Pakhuis de Ceuval, Amsterdam
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Climate, Resilience, and Culture
Culture and tourism also overlap with broader climate goals. Global commitments like the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism demonstrate an “increased urgency regarding the need to accelerate climate action in tourism and to secure strong commitments to support the global goals to halve emissions over the next decade and reach Net Zero emissions as soon as possible before 2050.”
Cultural programming can not only provide an opportunity for the sharing of historical narratives about resilience-building practices, but also the chance to collaborate on solutions.
For example, in Psiloritis, Crete, RURITAGE project partners organised resilience training sessions in the Geopark, informed by, and reflecting upon, previous disasters and hazards faced by the region. This type of outreach and training can boost local efforts in areas like disaster risk management and climate change adaptation, while also supporting engagement with heritage sites.
A Sustainable, more Equitable Future through Culture
The links between culture, heritage, and sustainability are growing in visibility. On a policy scale, global development goals increasingly take cultural heritage into account. On the ground, progress on community-based, circular, and technology-boosted tourism schemes, makes it easy to see how culture can be linked to the way that our communities can thrive now, and in the future. ICLEI Europe seeks to expand the impact of cities and landscapes at the intersection of culture, sustainability (including circularity) and tourism. Firm in the conviction of this connection, ICLEI Europe is involved in the EU's research and innovation funding programme Horizon 2020 Be.CULTOUR project (Beyond CULtural TOURism: heritage innovation networks as drivers of Europeanisation towards a human-centred and circular tourism economy) and is a member of the Partnership on Sustainable Tourism of the Urban Agenda for the EU.