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Changes that threaten heritage

The oil pipeline in Dakota, the widening of the motorway near Stonehenge, the construction of dams in Turkey and Iraq: newspapers and social media are full of alarming articles about threats to heritage as a result of large-scale construction work. Heritage experts at Leiden University have developed the Heritage Impact Assessment, a tool for handling changes within the context of heritage protection.

Changes inevitably entail all kinds of pressures: growth, urban renewal, the impact of infrastructural changes, environmental pressures, tourism. The challenge is to preserve the continuity and continuing relevance of the culture of the local community, and to protect heritage against exploitation, misuse and destruction. An important new tool has been developed to help manage changes in the context of heritage protection: the Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA).

More comprehensive assessment method

Over recent years the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has been facing more frequent threats to World Heritage sites. This was the impetus to develop the HIA, a comprehensive assessment method for measuring the impact of infrastructural or policy developments on World Heritage sites. In the first instance, the HIA was used to test whether proposed plans would have consequences for the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the World Heritage location. The OUV is based on all the unique characteristics of a location and is what qualifies it as a World Heritage site. 

The HIA is used mainly in the context of World Heritage, but it can be applied to any heritage site potentially under threat and to different types of heritage: material or immaterial, built or architectural. Carrying out a HIA allows policymakers and developers to gain a better picture of the possible consequences of a planned project on the local heritage so that mitigating measures or alternatives can be put forward to preserve the heritage. A HIA is a transparent, systematic and clear tool for supporting policy- and decision-making, allowing conclusions tobe drawn in a clear and identifiable way.  

Vigan under threat

The World Heritage town of Vigan on the Philippines is under threat from an ever-increasing stream of tourists visiting the small Spanish-colonial town. Traditional houses are being transformed into hotels at an alarming rate, driving the local inhabitants out and threatening the town's integrity and authenticity.  Together with the town authorities,  heritage specialists from all parts of the world are working with the town authorities on solutions to create a balance between an authentic way of life and a dynamic town development.  

The problems of Vigan were used by researchers at the LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development as a test case for the application of a HIA, to chart the consequences of policy plans, such as setting a limit on the number of hotels in the town centre. One of the solutions that was assessed positively was the proposal to spread tourism over the regions around Vigan. This arose from the realisation that many tourists visit Vigan not only for the town itself, but also for the traditional handcrafts. These crafts are made and sold throughout the whole region, which means tourists can view the handcrafts without Vigan itself becoming overrun by tourists. 

Promoting the Heritage Impact Assessment

Although there is as yet no obligation to apply a HIA for large-scale projects in all countries of the world and even though the tool is still under development, it is growing in importance. The LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development, that brings together society and science in the area of heritage, strongly advocates the use of the HIA. Given the wealth of knowledge about history, heritage, anthropology, architecture and geography within this Centre, this collaboration is ideally equipped for the task. 

The master's specialisation in Heritage Management in a World Context at the Faculty of Archaeology trains students in the use and application of the HIA. Higher education can play a significant role in disseminating this new methodology, by educating future heritage specialists and urban planners in how to use the tool. The interest shown by countries within and outside the EU in new urban developments is growing as a result of the degree and rapidity of urbanisation and the speed with which these countries are changing. Education has to keep up with this rapid rate of change and offer the necessary knowledge and skills to young professionals so that they can handle the challenges of the future.

(Mara de Groot)

The Centre for Global Heritage and Development is a collaboration of Leiden University, Delft University of Technology and Erasmus University Rotterdam. The Centre for Global Heritage and Development uses its interuniversity and interdisciplinary status to go beyond the traditional study of heritage, by focusing on how heritage relates to cultural, social and environmental developments and decisions.