Heritage as sustainability: Intertwining past, present and future within the SDG framework

Humanity considers many historic landscapes, buildings and monuments as testaments to the greatness of past civilisations and intrinsically linked to their countries and cultures.  

Imagine Egypt without the great Pyramids at Giza, Sydney without its Harbour Bridge or New York without the Statue of Liberty standing guard over the harbour. Mention the Australian outback, and Uluru springs to mind. Kenya has the Masai Mara, and Jordan has Petra. Cambodia is synonymous with Angkor Wat, and it’s impossible to imagine Rome without the Colosseum.  

At a global level, everyone can acknowledge the value of these heritage landscapes and monuments. Indeed, many of them are protected by their World Heritage status.   

However, heritage is often viewed differently in communities on the ground. At a local level, people consider heritage to be the cultural practices, artefacts, music, art, stories, buildings, and natural landscapes that define their past. That is the inheritance they want to pass on to future generations. 

Cultural practices as a path to sustainable heritage 

The 1987 Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  

Today, we’ve reached a crescendo of urgency to bring sustainability to the forefront of every decision, thanks to the perils brought on by climate change and the adaptations that must happen globally and locally. It’s become critical that we understand how to retain, conserve and promote heritage as sustainability.  

So when we widen our definition of heritage to include cultural practices and local artefacts and landscapes, we see that heritage is entwined throughout the four pillars of sustainability—social, cultural, economic and environmental.   

Until recently, we’ve considered heritage separate; something to dig up, admire and preserve, but not necessarily relevant to the pressing problems of the day. That view is somewhat reinforced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, where out of 17 goals and 169 targets, heritage is mentioned just once and measured only in economic terms.  

That viewpoint is far from the realities of current heritage conservation practices. We would argue that heritage enables almost every SDG. 

In Kimberley, North Australia, the reintroduction of indigenous fire management practices is a clear example of heritage in action for SDGs 15, ‘Life on Land’ and 13, ‘Climate Action.’  

Since these thousand-year-old practices were abandoned, Kimberley and other Australian regions have been plagued with devastating bushfires. More recently, fire prevention experts have begun lighting cool-burn fires in targeted areas. Using this ancient practice to create strategic firebreaks and reduce tinder-dry fuel loads significantly reduces the chance of bushfires raging out of control. 

Or consider the critical role heritage can play in SDG 8, Work and Economic Growth.  

When we include local communities in decision-making around their heritage monuments or landscapes, we help local business development with job opportunities in the tourism and support sectors.  

One of the key principles of World Heritage is to make heritage monuments viable as an economic element via tourism. But that comes with its own set of problems.  

Remember Uluru.

Uluru, Northern Territory – AUS

Sacred to the Anangu people, the orange monolith stands alone in the desert. Despite a traditional ban on climbing, the sandstone rock became a magnet for 20th-century climbers with devastating physical and cultural effects.  

Injury numbers mounted, so tourism operators installed chains along a climbing path. Then millions of footprints following the same way caused erosion along the rock path. Climbers left litter and even excrement, which washed down to the plains below whenever the rains came.  

Climbing continued even after the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was returned to the traditional owners in 1985 until the practice was finally banned in 2019, finally acknowledging both physical heritage and Anangu law.   

Using the SDGs as a framework to discuss heritage and sustainable development

Can the Heritage As Sustainability programme help developed and developing nations use the SDG as a framework for ground-level sustainable policies and actions?  

The challenge of urban and rural development lies in balancing sustainability and heritage with economic and social development. Too often, one wins out over the other. Thus, heritage professionals have a vital role in ensuring that treasures (in their many forms) are not overwhelmed by other pressures but can contribute to community well-being in sustainable ways. 

The SDGs represent a global vision of a world where everyone and everything can thrive. Their goals and targets create a framework for countries to implement domestically in ways that fit their level of development. 

Sustainable Development Goals

In Australia, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) provides a national environmental framework. Every five years, reports are generated to identify the Act’s effectiveness and highlight implementation progress and deficiencies. The Heritage Report of 2021 listed several identifiable deficiencies, including valuing Indigenous cultural values. So, in the Australian context, this is still an ongoing problem.  

Queensland is implementing an immense building programme as the state prepares to host the 2032 Olympics. As heritage professionals, how do we protect and sustain heritage through such development? How do we develop a shared vision? And how do we imagine a sustainable future globally and within this local context? 

Part of the heritage dynamic lies in finding the answers to the key sustainability issues for all human developments.  

In the 21st century, we are challenged as never before.  

The Covid-19 pandemic created unprecedented economic, social and physical problems and solutions. For example, when institutions put their resources online, many people’s ability to view and enjoy heritage artefacts significantly increased significantly.  

So, while we all locked down, people who might never travel to the US could virtually tour the Smithsonian. Japan created a 3D tour of well-known landmarks to compensate for the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, while the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage organised virtual flash mobs where people put photos of their favourite Italian cultural sites online.  

On the other hand, the physical closures of many heritage sites put economic and social pressure on communities and countries that depended on people visiting in person.   

Climate change and the resulting weather disasters affect every area of the globe. 

It’s tempting to believe we’re sailing in uncharted waters. Yet, cultural heritage practices may point us towards future solutions. One more compelling reason to study our heritage and save it for future generations. At the same time, we must not be afraid to experiment and adopt new tools, for example, adaptive management strategies, when needed. 

By valuing and promoting heritage conservation—including built heritage, cultural perspectives and strengthening the involvement of all participants—we can move towards a sustainable future.  

Our future depends on all countries and cultures coming through this very real problem together. 

For additional information, please contact:

Principal - Heritage

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