Heritage Impact Assessment

The colonial streets of Vigan

The pipeline in Dakota, the widening of the highway near Stonehenge, the construction of dams in the Near East: the newspapers and social media are full of alarming reports on heritage under threat by major construction works. Moreover we are confronted with images of the intentional demolition of heritage in the Middle East. Then there are also natural causes like floods, cyclones and simply age that destroy heritage, with sea level rising as a slow but manifest new threat. Heritage - its nature being closely linked to identity - has always been targeted. Demolition of heritage (intentional and unintentional) has occurred ever since humanity, but took larger scale during industrialization and the fast demographic rise and urban development of the last centuries.

If the threat to heritage has always been there what is all the fuss about? The large media cover can partially be explained by the rising aspirations of the people on heritage conservation, people who feel themselves confronted with the rapid change in their habitat. Change inevitably brings pressure: growth, urban renewal, competing high-value activities, impact of major infrastructure programmes, environmental pressure, tourism. The challenge for the conservation worker is ensuring the continuity and continued relevance of culture in the community and to protect cultural assets from exploitation, mis-use and degradation. This engagement fits the rapid development of a (relatively) new tool to manage change in relation to heritage values: Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA).

Impact Assessment originated as a planning tool in the sustainable development debate of the 1970’s in the environmental sciences. In recent years the UNESCO World Heritage Committee reports dealt with increasing numbers of threats to the World Heritage properties. There was a need for being specific on the scale and nature of the impacts and the attributes being impacted and from this resulted the HIA. While the first assessments were targeted at WH sites and had to demonstrate the impacts of infrastructural and policy developments on the Outstanding Universal Value of the WH site, the tool can in fact be used for any potentially impacted heritage resource, being it tangible or intangible, built or archaeological heritage. HIA is a tool that helps decision makers to assess the possible impacts of any proposed project on heritage properties and resources. The goal of an HIA is to deliver transparent, systematic and clear methodology for decision making, conclusions should be argued in a transparent and imitable way.

Important aspects of the HIA that contribute to its effectiveness and sustainable results are its focus on a wider (heritage) setting, integrating natural and cultural attributes, the involvement of the local population from an early stage in the assessment and the proposed mitigation measures: can the identified adverse impacts be avoided, reduced, rehabilitated or compensated? An HIA is not just for protecting sites, but can also be used as a vehicle to provide benefits that enhance and improve them.

Last year, staff from the Centre for Global Heritage and Development took part in the Heritage Impact Assessment training offered by ICCROM and WHITRAP in Vigan, the Philippines. The World Heritage city of Vigan is threatened by an increasing number of tourists visiting the small Spanish Colonial city. Traditional houses are being converted to hotels in an alarming pace, pushing the local inhabitants out of the city, hereby threatening the integrity and authenticity of the site. Together with the municipality heritage professionals from all over the world looked at solutions to find a balance between an authentic and a dynamic city life.

While its use is still not part of normal requirements in all countries, and the development of the tool is still undergoing, HIA is expected to become more important. The Centre, bridging society and academia, having access to an enormous body of knowledge on history, heritage, anthropology, architecture and geography is equipped for promoting HIA. Also the new education at the Faculty of Archaeology (Heritage and Society, Applied Archaeology) will initiate student in use and applicability of HIA. Higher education has a significant role to play by training the future heritage professionals, urban managers and planners. There is a growing interest in new (urban) development issues in EU and non-EU countries due their scale and pace of urbanization as well as to the speed of change these countries experience. Education needs to cope with this pace of change and provide knowledge and build skills to young professionals to deal with challenges that lie ahead.

The Centre for Global Heritage and Development can also perform Heritage Impact Assessments under commission. Please contact us.

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