Cultural Heritage & Sustainable Development: The Cities We Want

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Cultural Heritage

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were conceived at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (Rio de Janeiro). The objective was to formulate a set of universal goals that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world, writes Junhi HAN, Chief, Culture Sector, UNESCO New Delhi.

“The Future We Want”, the Outcome Document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio de Janeiro, 2012) mentioned specifically about the importance of safeguarding cultural heritage by stipulating, “We recognize that many people, especially the poor, depend directly on ecosystems for their livelihoods, their economic, social and physical well-being, and their cultural heritage”. It further stipulates “the need for conservation, as appropriate, of the natural and cultural heritage of human settlements, the revitalisation of historic districts and the rehabilitation of city centres.”

This is the culmination of the debate on the importance of culture in particular cultural heritage in relation to its role and potential to contribute to Sustainable Development, intensified since the 1990s on all levels of international stakeholders. However, it would be important to underline that the very idea of the role of culture in sustainable development was already there in 60-70s, the “age of decolonisation”.

René Maheu, the then Director-General of UNESCO at a Conference in Venice, highlighted, “The idea of development has, in fact, gradually become broader, deeper, and more varied so that going beyond the purely economic aspects of improving man’s lot, it now also embraces the so-called social aspects… Man is the means and the end of development.” In the concept of development, the centre of gravity thus began to shift from the economic to the social, and mental well-being of individuals.


A decade later, UNESCO member countries, in the intergovernmental UNESCO Conference on Culture in 1982, adopted the “Mexico Declaration”, one of the most important landmark documents in culture since the end of the Second World War which recognises the role of culture as a driving force for sustainable development. The Declaration affirmed that “Man is the origin and the goal of development, it is vital to humanise development, the ultimate goal of which is the individual in his dignity as a human being and his responsibility to society. Development implies for every individual and every people access to information and opportunities to learn and to communicate with others.”

Also Read: Heritage Concerns & Cultural Ethos of a City

The acknowledgement of the role of culture and cultural heritage for Sustainable Development in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (Rio De Janeiro) was indeed the result of several decades’ efforts deployed by the international community, notably UNESCO.

World Heritage Convention And Sustainable Development

The linkages between heritage protection and development have deep roots in the World Heritage Convention, where the concept of heritage protection is not only based on the inseparability of culture and nature but is firmly integrated with comprehensive development planning which is enshrined together in this international legislation.

The World Heritage Convention was one of a group of environmental treaties adopted after the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, Sweden. The Stockholm Conference, which for the first time placed environmental concerns on the international agenda, brought a global focus to the understanding that environment and economic development are inextricably linked that environmental safeguards are not possible without socio-economic development.

By bringing together the conservation of cultural and natural heritage under a single legal instrument, the World Heritage Convention pioneered some of the thinking which during the later 1970s and 1980s evolved to become the core of the concept of sustainable development, first articulated in the report of the Bruntland Commission Our Common Future (1987) and later elaborated in Agenda 21 of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20 years after the Stockholm Conference and more recently in the outcome document “the Future We Want to Live” adopted in the UN Conference in Rio De Janeiro in 2012, which served the basis of the SDG 2030.

The importance of the nomination process lies not only in ensuring the adequate protection and management of potential World Heritage Sites but for the process to serve as a means to encourage the adoption of comprehensive and integrated policies and actions to conserve and manage other sites of national, regional or local importance. States Parties are encouraged to involve the local communities as well as all ministries within the central government in the nomination process. At all levels of authority, the World Heritage Convention can and should be used as a tool for linking heritage protection and development, in addition to socio-economic benefits to be received from tourism perspectives for local communities.

Policy Document On World Heritage And Sustainable Development (2015)


The World Heritage Committee considered that the role of World Heritage properties, as a guarantee of sustainable development needed to be strengthened and their full potential to contribute to sustainable development needed to be harnessed. To this end, the Committee advises the States Parties to consider in their implementation of the Convention the three dimensions of sustainable development, namely environmental sustainability, inclusive social development and inclusive economic development, together with the fostering of peace and security. These reflect the concern for “planet, people, prosperity and peace”, identified as areas of critical importance in the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Urban Heritage Conservation

Urban Heritage, including its tangible and intangible elements, is a key social, cultural and economic asset for cities. It constitutes a complex and dynamic layering of heritage meaning and values, created, interpreted by successive generations in the past. In adopting the Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations Member States committed to ‘make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ (SDG 11). One of the concrete actions to achieve SDG 11 is to safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage and this includes naturally historic towns, embedded of their intangible and tangible heritage which are assets of every historic town bridging local communities into economic, social and environmental dimensions of development.

The loss of cultural heritage, tangible and intangible, provided by urban heritage can therefore undermine the community’s potential to share the benefits of development among its members. For a decade, the international community, notably the United Nations fully acknowledge that the conservation and development of urban heritage as a central component of a development agenda. To this end, they also need to be effectively utilized according to their developmental potential.

Unlocking Historic Towns Potential For Development

The conservation of buildings and public spaces in historic cities in Asia is recently getting more and more to centrestage as an important aspect of development. For example, in many cities, entrepreneurs and property investors are interested in the economic values of historic buildings: their capacity to accommodate contemporary demands while keeping the attributes that confer its heritage values.

Perhaps one of the most viable urban policies and valid conservation strategies that can balance in harmony urban heritage conservation with development would be to promote the adaptive rehabilitation of heritage monuments for contemporary uses. The assets of this approach are to allow the historic buildings and urban heritage to retain a social and cultural memory of cities through sound adaptive reuse of its material urban heritage. The current trend: monument-based, and government-financed approach that restricts the use of protected properties and relies on public funds cannot continue to be viable at the long term level in dealing with the vast urban heritage of most communities and of sustaining conservation efforts.

Sustainable Development

It is essential for cities to engage in debate about their heritage, identify its multiple layers of values as well as the threats to its preservation, and strengthen the value of its contributions to sustainable development, as suggested by the 2011 UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape. To this end, the regulations affecting the use of tangible heritage must progress from preventing changes to its attributes and uses towards promoting the sensible adaptive rehabilitation of the urban heritage to satisfy contemporary requirements. Private owners of monuments and buildings should be provided with some incentives such as tax-reduction when they undertake either conservation/ restoration or re-adaptive use of their historic houses/ buildings which is already in practice in many European countries.

Also Read: Heritage-led Urban Revitalisation in India: An Integrated Approach

The re-adaptive use of historic monuments also greatly contributes to environmental issues. Currently, the construction industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world and the construction of new buildings and infrastructure development are today the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Indeed, embodied energy of conventional construction materials such as cement or energy required throughout a building cycle to extract, process, transport, assemble, maintain, repair, demolish and dispose of a building – makes the construction sector the most energy-intensive of the global economy. It represents over 35 per cent of global energy consumption and accounts for 40 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Most countries still use massively concrete because it is the cheapest material in construction but concrete makes the planet sick.

So conserving historic buildings and using them by maximising their re-adaptive use is not only important because it is part of our history and feed us with cultural identity but also the first ecological choice for sustainable development and for the future of cities.

Indian cities face unprecedented urbanisation and will have to absorb 416 million more inhabitants into urban areas by 2050. This may result in rapid and uncontrolled infrastructure development which often takes place at the expense of natural ecosystems and citizens’ wellbeing.

In addition, India is the sixth most vulnerable country to climate changes in the world as per the risk index of COP 23. Core areas of historic cities of India are also often a concentration of poverty. 21 major Indian cities are going to run out of groundwater soon if not already run out. Bangalore and Chennai have already lost around 80 per cent of their water bodies over the last 40 years. Currently, most of European cities biggest concern is how to make their cities greener and more resilient.

Isn’t it high time that Indian authorities should brainstorm collectively on an environment-friendly urban development strategy, making its cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. According to a 2010 Report, over 70 per cent of the infrastructure that will exist by 2030 in India is yet to be built which means there is an urgent need to propose a new paradigm to make urbanisation sustainable, particularly in line with the SDG 11.4.

India is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of built heritage and a great number of historic centres still remain preserved offering a great opportunity for India’s historic cities to unlock the potential of their urban heritage for sustainable development. Indian historic towns will benefit hugely by putting urban heritage in its proper place as a development asset; time for urban heritage to become a fully integrated component of the sustainable development of cities.

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