Ecosystem Services and Historic Preservation: Making the Link Between Nature and Culture in the New Urban Agenda

By Rodney Swink,  Senior Associate, Heritage Strategies International
Today when people talk about sustainability, the notion of ecosystem services is frequently present in the discussion. Likewise, many argue that heritage preservation is inherently sustainable development. But are the two, ecosystem services and heritage preservation, in any way connected? The New Urban Agenda as part of Habitat III speaks to the importance of “deciding how relevant sustainable development goals will be supported through sustainable urbanization.” Perhaps a better understanding of the link between ecosystem services and heritage preservation will reinforce this idea.
Ecosystem services are goods and services of direct or indirect benefit to humans that are produced by ecosystem processes. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005 report organized ecosystem services into four categories: Supporting, Provisioning, Regulating, and Cultural (italics added). The latter is defined as “nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences.”  Heritage preservation certainly supports these benefits, some to a greater extent than others. For example, history of a place may be revealed through its buildings, and that story adds to a community’s collective sense of value, or to an individual’s sense of belonging, both aiding cognitive development and spiritual enrichment.
But that is just one narrow application of ecosystem services to heritage preservation. Recognizing the increasing pace of urbanization and development, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of the University of Texas at Austin, partnered to create the Sustainable Site Initiative™ (SITES™). Its primary focus is on land as a component of the built environment, i.e., sustainable landscapes, stating that “sustainable landscapes create ecologically resilient communities better able to withstand and recover from …catastrophic events.”  But even with that focus, SITES™ has a broader reach as seen through two of its guiding principles: “design with nature and culture” and “use a decision-making hierarchy of preservation, conservation, and regeneration.”
Furthermore, among SITES™ goals one finds “Enhance Human Well-Being and Strengthen Community”, restated as “improve human health – physical, mental and spiritual” and “encourage cultural integrity and promote regional identity”.  We know that heritage preservation is central to cultural integrity and identity, while the built form for most heritage areas is supportive of walking, which research has shown can improve our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.
SITES™ utilizes the framework of ecosystem services for its performance benchmarks. One of its ten areas of assessment is “Human Health and Well-being” and a specific credit incorporated in this category is “Protect and maintain cultural and historic places”.  SITES™ recognizes that “protecting and maintaining significant historic…and cultural landscapes” enhances identity and meaning. A second credit under human health and well-being is to “Support local economy”.  An economic strategy that emphasizes historic preservation does just that. Building rehabilitation has a greater economic impact locally than comparable new construction being more labor intensive and utilizing more local materials.
Heritage preservation belongs in the ecosystem services conversation, just as it does in any conversation on sustainable development, and it certainly is part of the New Urban Agenda.

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Editor’s Note

On May 6, the U.N. released the Zero Draft (i.e. the first draft) of the proposed outcome document for the monumental Habitat 3 meeting occurring later this year.  This document, known as the New Urban Agenda, is meant to be a road map reflecting a global consensus on the path to sustainable cities and towns in the 21st century. It also may well prove to be one of the most consequential steps ever taken in terms of establishing the role of historic preservation and culture in global efforts to achieve safe, inclusive, sustainable and resilient cities. A key reason for this is that the New Urban Agenda is the first major step for operationalizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015. Unlike prior development agendas, this one speaks boldly about heritage. Of the 7 targets making up the groundbreaking new Urban Goal, Target 11.4 calls for “making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by strengthening efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.”
With so much on the line, the Zero Draft was eagerly awaited by the historic preservation community and, now that it’s been released, is being carefully reviewed.   Heritage professionals had an early chance to provide their initial thoughts as part of the Urban Dialogue on the Zero Draft conducted by UN Habitat from May 9 to May 23.  Comments provided by US/ICOMOS Executive Director Andrew Potts praised aspects of the draft but also found areas of concern.
A key concern expressed in the comments is that, unlike SDG Goal 11 and Target 11.4, the Zero Draft does not speak to the inter-linkages of natural and cultural heritage. The emerging need for a paradigm shift in the concept of development in more humanistic and ecological terms is manifest in the linkages of the two found in Target 11.4. Enhancing these linkages is a key tool for increasing the resilience and sustainability of cities. The broader role of  heritage in disaster risk reduction and resilience and the role of heritage in ecological sustainability was also identified as needing improvement in the Zero Draft.  Click on the link to the left for more information.

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