Climate change is drastically impacting the world’s most treasured heritage sites, with many of them, like Venice, at risk of losing what makes them outstanding.
But restoring all of them isn’t necessarily the best thing to do, nor is it feasible according to a new study. Instead of clinging to them, researchers suggest some of these sites should be allowed to adapt and transform.
Over 1,000 locations have earned a spot on the UNESCO’s World Heritage list on account of their “outstanding universal value” to humanity.
At some locations, the climate threat is obvious and imminent. For example, rising sea levels and higher waves are threatening to knock down the Easter Island statues, and in Venice, the water level is becoming more and more threatening.
The traditional paradigm of preservation is linked to the idea of static preservation of the heritage sites, keeping them in the original state in which they were designated as UNESCO sites. Nevertheless, this option just isn’t viable for all sites, according to Erin Seekamp, first author of the study.
“It’s really infeasible to manage all heritage sites and property through persistent adaptation due to the extent of projected climate impacts,” Seekamp, a professor at North Carolina State University, said in a press release. “We are arguing for preservationists to shift toward transformation in some cases.”
Working with Eugene Jo from the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), Seekamp presented two ideas on how a transformation could be done, either adaptively (in response to climate change impacts), or predictively (in advance of the projected impacts).
The researchers argued that some of the heritage sites that have been “severely impacted” by climate change-related events could remain like that and serve as a memory of the event itself. This would help communities to better understand and learn about the vulnerability brought in by a warmer world, they argued.
Meanwhile, other landmarks that are also at risk of climate change should be allowed to transform if the cost of preserving them is too high.
Ultimately, the decision on how the landmark should change has to be based on the values of the descendants of the people and the cultures that the sites aimed to preserve, they argued.
“Individuals whose heritage is at stake, and who receive benefits from those places as tourist sites, should be part of the discussions about change, and about what preserving values connected with sites should look like,” Seekamp said. “What we’re arguing is that the heritage field adopt an ecological framework of resilience to expand the current paradigm of preservation.”
The new perspective for the heritage sites is based on the concept of resilience in ecology, which argues that a landscape can absorb change from a disturbance. The researchers asked to create a new category of sites affected by climate change, called “World Heritage Sites in Climatic Transformation,” documenting sites at risk of climate change and garnering more support and resources towards them.
“We’re not saying that this should open the door for development or tourism,” Seekamp added. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s create a new categorization, and enable those places to not just think about persistent adaptation, but about transformative adaptation.’ It allows us to think about alternatives.”
The study was published in the journal Climatic Change.