The Bartlett


Green by design

Heritage can play an active role in sustainable development contributions to the majority, if not all, of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Graphically designed image with a yellow background and text reading 'green by design' in block capitals
In 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that signed-up countries need to act upon. The cross-cutting message of the SDGs is that if they are met, prosperity for all will be achieved, while protecting the planet. One might wonder where heritage fits within this globally challenging context and within the current discourses and endeavours for sustainable development.

Interestingly, it does. Target 11.4 in Goal 11 on ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ states that it aims to  “strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage”. When you consider that the former Millennium Development Goals made no such reference to heritage, and only in part addressed the need to protect biodiversity and natural resources, this explicit reference to it in the SDGs is a great advancement for all of us working in and for heritage. However, as urgent as the need to protect cultural and natural heritage is, it is also risky to limit the scope of heritage in this way. Heritage can have a more active role in sustainable development and can contribute to the majority, if not all, of SDGs. 

By protecting and promoting heritage for all, cities can feel safer, wellbeing can be increased, new jobs and growth can emerge and environmental sustainable practices can be encouraged. This is because heritage is, as UNESCO says, green by design: heritage “embodies an intrinsically more sustainable pattern of land use, consumption and production, developed over centuries if not millennia of slow adaptation between the communities and their environment”. 

For heritage to contribute to the SDGs, it is essential that local communities are active agents in the sustainable transformation process of their area. As a matter of fact, the link between heritage and sustainable development is not new. Over the past few decades, there have been intensive initiatives to revitalise abandoned historic areas through, mainly, the conservation and adaptive reuse of derelict historic buildings. These initiatives have led to positive outcomes related to economic growth and poverty reduction. However, these outcomes either did not last for long or did not prove resilient enough to economic and social, global crises. Meanwhile, other unintended (or intended) negative social consequences, such as the dislocation of communities as a result of gentrification and high property prices and the lack of interaction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ communities, can be observed.

These observations led the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage to organise a workshop in March 2019, supported by the UCL Urban Lab and the Centre for Critical Heritage Studies, that brought together policy-makers from local authorities, national heritage agencies (such as Historic England) and international organisations (such as UNESCO, ICCROM and ICOMOS). The aim was to nail down the different ways in which heritage can contribute to the SDGs agenda and the methods we need to employ in order to evidence this contribution. We agreed that heritage is much broader than buildings, objects or sites. It is above all about ‘anything’ and ‘everything’ that people can culturally and socially identify with and which they wish to transmit to future generations. If heritage is understood in this way, then it can certainly be a catalyst for the achievement of many of the SDGs. 

The way forward is now for heritage researchers, practitioners and policy-makers to synergise with other sectors in order to systematically document and evidence the progression of SDGs for which heritage should be an integral component.