Menu Close

Ruminating on a radical role for the past in caring for our future: Heritage as holistic regenerative approach in Western-Europe?

Photo: Gayle Mill in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, UK, is part of projects on preserving biodiversity. Cultura Trust is trying to re-use the industrial water powered mill for local power production: how to implement big net-zero dreams with little funds?

By Anna Tonk

Some linked questions I ponder on often throughout my ongoing research are: How can heritage, as a form of stewardship, help in mitigating or adapting to the rapid societal and environmental change we are experiencing? Can European heritage management and development ever become a holistic regenerative approach?  And, can heritage change our disconnected relationship to the environment, or does that mean the foundations of European heritage needs to be rethought? 

Critically, as I have experienced myself during fieldwork, heritage’s usefulness and relevance to society is being questioned. The preservation of our past is not self-evident anymore when values are shifting to look more toward the precarious future. As argued by Holtorf, the socio-cultural role of identity formation that heritage once fulfilled no longer exists (2012: 10-11). Perhaps more radically thought, in the face of the looming crises in all domains (ecological, economic, social and cultural) preserving heritage as a material object, or just for the sake of heritage’s values and its material survival is not deemed ethical anymore. Holtorf articulates that a “new cultural heritage employs heritage for the sake of people, not the other way around” (Ibid.: 12), and the good thing is that it is possibly already happening. 

Official heritage discourse has aligned itself with the sustainability goals as seen by ICOMOS projects and publications such as ‘The Future of our Pasts: Engaging Heritage in Climate Action’ (2019). Historic Urban landscape approach (HUL) (Ginzarly et. al. 2019) and Europa Nostra’s Heritage Green Paper (Potts 2021) also attest to that Western Europe is calling for a new paradigm. Additionally, there are more voices from the academic world trying to change the view of heritage, its practice and sector into something part of a holistic spatial planning agenda and advocate its connective capacities through a landscape approach for heritage (Fairclough et. al. 2014: 7-8). So these views of a holistic and fluid, negotiable and ethical heritage are paired with the argument for integration into the planning systems and the idea of creating sustainable futures using heritage as a vehicle, pressing its usefulness for society in this way.

So the concern for the environment ‘beyond the conservation site’ in heritage is not entirely new. Since the Burra charter there is attention for more connective concepts of heritage such as the ‘cultural landscape’ (ICOMOS 2013). It is now official that cultural and natural heritage are not separate categories and thus these official views in a way promote a holistic sense of a fluid connected natural and cultural identity of landscape and heritage altogether.   

Here is where my query starts. This fluid view stems largely from an indigenous worldview. It has been a great step in heritage practice as it is an official broadening of the concept of heritage and creates recognition of other non-western worldviews, but if we turn it around, would the western view of heritage practice be able to adapt to this holistic way of seeing and managing the environment? Can we make European heritage practice more aligned with indigenous worldviews? Can Europe go beyond a view of heritage as materialistic, monumental or simply as an asset part of a ‘sustainable development’ plan? 

Projects working with heritage where an indigenous worldview exists connect sustainability ideals often naturally as it is part of the cultural group’s innate bond with the environment. Indigenous peoples are sometimes even called ‘the stewards of the Earth’ (Kalibata 2021). It is clear there is a large official movement for getting the heritage sector involved with sustainability, but it is still established on the idea that humans control the environment or have control over the fate of the future (of heritage). An interesting critique coming from a post-humanist view is that this idea continues and even exacerbates the idea that humans and nature are separate, we simply position ourselves as agents of control over our environment again (Sterling 2020: 1039-1041).

The cultural and materialistic focus that rose in Europe and is often still standard, has to make room for other types of values attached to heritage, but that means the cultures of Western Europe that inform how heritage and the environment is approached need to make a change. To my knowledge there is an integrated heritage and landscape planning approach present in my home country of The Netherlands called the Belvedere Memorandum (Janssen et. al. 2012), but then again, the cultural values already present made that integration possible. And then some might argue that the Netherlands has an extreme form of disconnect to the environment because they have taken full control of nature. For other countries, making the shift to having heritage as an integrated part of landscape management and spatial planning where the system allows you to prioritise non-materialistic values such as social or ecological benefits (Fatoric & Egberts 2020: 2) could be behind the challenge of having to change the Western European worldview and hierarchy of values first. 

Tollered Kraftstation, a listed industrial age water power station still operational in Tollered, Sweden. Will such heritage become part of local resilience in the future?

There is some hope. Perhaps all the bottom-up community engagement, landscape governance partnerships, activist heritage developers are making a difference in creating heritage places that defy the ‘visitor standard’ or are more than just a ‘destination location’. There are countless of small-scale projects and communities being stewards to their own environment, NGO groups doing social projects while re-using and maintaining heritage property, people protecting the right to allotment gardens in Amsterdam (see my first blog on This kind of local scale heritage practice often goes against how the big and popular sites normally are used for, heritage here is not a part of the moneymaking system, escapism rhetoric, or nationalist identity politics. These heritage places seem almost part of a movement of subversion, a space outside of the neoliberal grind, and it is here that people feel the urge to protect, identify with and find themselves care for their environment. And through active participation in the management of the historic landscape people try to make their living spaces healthier, greener, and more inclusive. In seeing the sum of such small-scale historic spaces of regeneration, heritage as a regenerative approach is already present in Europe, but is it the norm? In my view, no. 

To end this pondering with some more questions: is it radical to think about using heritage to plan for a different utopia? Is it radical to value heritage for its relevance and utility for creating a liveable and fair future? I believe it is even more radical to let heritage sit and continue to be an escapist destination or place to be exploited while its official discourse dictates it cares for the future. I believe this future that heritage cares for should include the ecological, social, cultural and economic. Alas, will that be ever possible in a system where competition for funding is normalised? The true radicalism is perhaps, to accept to live in an extractive economy where profits from someone’s identity is normalised under neoliberal capitalism. But not to end with terror, let’s imagine something desirable: to what future may we lead ourselves if we can standardise heritage being an active part of citizens and non-humans’ resilience and empowerment in the face of change?

Heritage cared for by locals, by communities in connection to their own living environment, can be a catalyst for building resilience in the face of world crises such as rising inequality or climate change. It can be a breeding ground for a new relationship to our world, one we desperately need when fossil fuels bleed into the ocean, while activists are murdered for short terms profits in the Amazon and pacific islands states are already being taken by the sea.

Just a thought. 


Fairclough, Graham, Pedroli, Bas & Dabaut Niels (2014) “Introduction, Seeing Heritage through the Lens of Landscape: New Approaches in Landscape Archaeology Based on the Fusion of Heritage and Landscape”. In: 3rd International LandscapeArchaeology Conference LAC2014. 2014, Rome: CLUE+, the research institute for Culture, Cognition, History and Heritage of the VU University Amsterdam, DOI: 10.5463/lac.2014.64.

Fatorić, Sandra & Egberts, Linde (2020) “Realising the potential of cultural heritage to achieve climate change actions in the Netherlands”. Journal of Environmental Management 274, pp. 1-9. DOI: 10.1016/j/jenvman.2020.111107.   

Ginzarly, Manal, Houbart, CLaudine & Teller, Jacques (2019) The Historic Urban

Landscape approach to urban management: a systematic review, International Journal of Heritage

Studies 25:10, 999-1019, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2018.1552615

Holtorf, Cornelius (2011) “The Changing Contribution of Heritage to Society”, Museum International 63:1-2, pp. 8-24. 

ICOMOS Australia (2013) The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance.

ICOMOS Climate Change and Cultural Heritage Working Group (2019) The Future of Our Pasts: Engaging Cultural Heritage in Climate Action, Paris: ICOMOS.

Janssen, Joks & Luiten, Eric & Renes, Hans & Rouwendal, Jan (2014) “Heritage planning and spatial development in the Netherlands: changing policies and perspectives”,

International Journal of Heritage Studies 20:1, 1-21, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2012.710852.

Kalibata, Agnes (2021) “Indigenous peoples are the best stewards of our environment – the rest of us pale in comparison”. Available at <> (last accessed on 21 March 2022)

Potts, Andrew (Lead Author) (2021) European Cultural Heritage Green Paper. Europa Nostra, The Hague & Brussels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *