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Sustainable Development

World Heritage and Sustainable Development

© Hani Terraces Administration of Honghe Prefecture/ Li Kun / Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces (China)

Heritage was long absent from the mainstream sustainable development debate despite its crucial importance to societies and the wide acknowledgment of its great potential to contribute to social, economic and environmental goals.

Based on a strong appeal from national and local stakeholders, the 2030 Agenda adopted by the UN General Assembly integrates, for the first time, the role of culture, through cultural heritage and creativity, as an enabler of sustainable development across the Sustainable Development Goals. World Heritage may provide a platform to develop and test new approaches that demonstrate the relevance of heritage for sustainable development.

On 19 November 2015, the 20th General Assembly of the States Parties to the World Heritage Convention adopted a Policy on the integration of a sustainable development perspective into the processes of the World Heritage Convention. The overall goal of the policy is to assist States Parties, practitioners, institutions, communities and networks, through appropriate guidance, to harness the potential of World Heritage properties and heritage in general, to contribute to sustainable development and therefore increase the effectiveness and relevance of the Convention whilst respecting its primary purpose and mandate of protecting the Outstanding Universal value of World Heritage properties. Its adoption represents a significant shift in the implementation of the Convention and an important step in its history.

The Contribution
of World Heritage
to Sustainable Development

Outside the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) N. 7, on environmental sustainability, which addresses in part the need to protect biodiversity and natural resources, the MDGs adopted by the international community in 2000 made no specific reference to heritage or even to culture in general. Yet, the contribution of heritage to a sustainable human development is major.

Certainly, the protection of exceptional heritage properties cherished by people all over the world – such as great natural sceneries and landmark monuments - can be considered as an intrinsic contribution to human wellbeing. It would be hard to imagine our countries, cities and landscapes without the familiar remnants of our past, a witness to continuity through the passing of time, and the presence of nature, to inspire us with a profound sense of wonder and joy.

But in addition to its intrinsic value for present and future generations, World Heritage – and heritage in general – can make also an important instrumental contribution to sustainable development across its various dimensions.

Through a variety of goods and services and as a storehouse of knowledge, a well-protected World Heritage property may contribute directly to alleviating poverty and inequalities by providing basic goods and services, such as security and health, through shelter, access to clean air, water, food and other key resources.

Preserving natural resources, including outstanding sites containing some of the richest combinations of terrestrial and marine biodiversity, is obviously a fundamental contribution to environmental sustainability. Most of these sites, on the other hand, have developed over time through mutual adaptation between humans and the environment, and thus demonstrate how, rather than existing in separate and parallel realms, biological and cultural diversities interact with and affect one another in complex ways in a sort of co-evolutionary process.

Very often, World Heritage is also an important asset for economic development, by attracting investments and ensuring green, locally-based, stable and decent jobs, only some of which may be related to tourism. Activities associated to the stewardship of cultural and natural heritage, indeed, are local by definition (i.e. cannot be de-localised) and green “by design” since they embody an intrinsically more sustainable pattern of land use, consumption and production, developed over centuries if not millennia of slow adaptation between the communities and their environment. This is true for natural protected areas rich in biodiversity, of course, but also for cultural landscapes and historic cities.

World Heritage, of course, is also essential to the spiritual wellbeing of people for its powerful symbolic and aesthetic dimensions. The acknowledgment and conservation of the diversity of the cultural and natural heritage, fair access to it and the equitable sharing of the benefits deriving from its use, enhance the feeling of place and belonging, mutual respect for others and a sense of purpose and ability to maintain a common good, which contribute to the social cohesion of a community as well as to individual and collective freedom of choice and action. The ability to access, enjoy and care for one’s heritage is essential for what the Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen calls the “capability of individuals to live and to be what they choose”, that is a fundamental component of human development.

A well-maintained heritage is also very important in addressing risks related to natural and human-made disasters. Experience has shown how the degradation of natural resources, neglected rural areas, urban sprawl and poorly engineered new constructions increase the vulnerability of communities to disaster risks, especially in poorer countries. On the other hand, a well-conserved natural and historic environment, based on traditional knowledge and skills, considerably reduces underlying disaster risks’ factors, strengthens the resilience of communities and saves lives.

At times of crisis, moreover, access to and care for the heritage may help vulnerable people recover a sense of continuity, dignity and empowerment. In conflict and post-conflict situations, in particular, the acknowledgment and conservation of heritage, based on shared values and interests, may foster mutual recognition, tolerance and respect among different communities, which is a precondition for a society’s peaceful development.

All of the above concerned potential positive contributions that an appropriate WH conservation and management could make to sustainable development.

Sustainable development within the World Heritage Convention

The text of the Convention, adopted in 1972, does not make any specific mention of the term “sustainable development”. It has been argued, however, that the World Heritage Convention “carries in itself the spirit and promise of sustainability, …in its insistence that culture and nature form a single, closed continuum of the planet’s resources, the integrated stewardship of which is essential to successful long-term sustainable development – and indeed to the future of life on the Earth as we know it” (Richard Engelhardt).

This idea is enshrined in particular in Articles 4 and 5 of the Convention, recognizing that States Parties have the duty “of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations (emphasis added) of the cultural and natural heritage”, as well as “to adopt a general policy which aims to give the cultural and natural heritage a function in the life of the community and to integrate the protection of that heritage into comprehensive planning programmes”. In these articles, moreover, the scope of action of the Convention seems to go beyond the sites included in its List of World Heritage properties, to encompass national heritage policies and wider development strategies.

The notion of sustainability entered the Operational Guidelines in 1994, with reference to the “sustainable use” of cultural landscapes, then introduced for the first time as a new category of heritage properties. At its 26th Session (Budapest, 2002), the World Heritage Committee adopted the so-called “Budapest Declaration”, which stressed the need to “ensure an appropriate and equitable balance between conservation, sustainability and development, so that World Heritage properties can be protected through appropriate activities contributing to the social and economic development and the quality of life of our communities”.

In 2005, furthermore, the notion of sustainable development was taken into account in the introductory part of the Operational Guidelines, which notes that “The protection and conservation of the natural and cultural heritage are a significant contribution to sustainable development” (paragraph 6). The Operational Guidelines further recognize (paragraph 119) that World Heritage properties “may support a variety of on-going and proposed uses that are ecologically and culturally sustainable”.

At its 31st Session (Christchurch 2007), the World Heritage Committee decided to add “Communities” to the previous four strategic objectives, “to enhance the role of communities in the implementation of the World Heritage Convention” (Decision 31 COM 13B).

At its 35th Session (Paris, 2011), the World Heritage Committee made a number of additions to the Operational Guidelines which refer to sustainable development, notably in paragraphs 112, 119, 132, as well as in Annex 5, points 4.b and 5.e. These amendments are aimed on one hand at ensuring that any use of World Heritage properties be sustainable with respect to the imperative of maintaining their Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), and on the other hand to affirm the idea that management systems of World Heritage properties “should integrate sustainable development principles”. Various paragraphs of the Operational Guidelines, moreover, call for a full participatory approach in the identification, protection and management of World Heritage properties (e.g. paragraphs 64, 111 and 123).

The recent “Strategic Action Plan for the Implementation of the Convention, 2012-2022”, adopted by the 18th General Assembly (Paris, 2011), also integrates a concern for sustainable development, notably in its “Vision for 2022”, which calls for the World Heritage Convention to “contribute to the sustainable development of the world’s communities and cultures”, as well as through its Goal N.3 which reads: “Heritage protection and conservation considers present and future environmental, societal and economic needs”, which is to be achieved particularly through “connecting conservation to communities”.

All of these developments should be seen in the larger context of UNESCO’s initiative to integrate culture within the international sustainable development agenda (see: https://en.unesco.org/themes/culture-sustainable-development). In this context, World Heritage sites could provide the testing ground where innovative approaches could be applied.

The Need for a Policy

Despite these advances, contributing to sustainable development is not an explicit policy in the framework of the implementation of the Convention, as this continues to focus primarily on protecting Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), which justifies the inscription of properties on the World Heritage List.

The current procedures and guidelines for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention, indeed, do not currently include specific recommendations, checks and controls that would enable governments to fully harness the potential of World Heritage for sustainable development, on one hand, and to ensure that their heritage conservation and management policies and programmes are aligned with broader sustainable development goals, on the other hand.

This means that many opportunities could be missed in the implementation of the Convention simply because those responsible may not consider them or may not know how to translate them in concrete sustainable development gains. Conversely, the current procedures of the Convention offer no clear means to encourage heritage conservation and management to better align its activities with important sustainable development objectives, such as the respect of human rights, addressing basic needs of local communities or non-depletion of natural resources.

All the ideas and recommendations formulated in the context of the 40th Anniversary, in fact,  have not yet found their way into the policies of the World Heritage Convention, and thus have not become mainstream practice for nearly 1000 of the most outstanding heritage properties around the planet and, even more significantly, within the national heritage policies that – in many countries – are inspired by the standards set by the 1972 Convention.

For all these reasons, at its 36th Session (Saint Petersburg, 2012), the World Heritage Committee considered that the integration of sustainable development into the processes of the Convention should be promoted through a specific policy.

Policy to integrate a sustainable development perspective within the processes of the World Heritage Convention

To make a real impact on nearly a thousand sites around the world, the outcomes of expert meetings and other consultations on World Heritage and sustainable development need to be translated into actual policy for the implementation of the Convention.

Recognizing this, at its 36th session (St. Petersburg, 2012), the World Heritage Committee requested in Decision 36 COM 5C  that the World Heritage Centre, with the support of the Advisory Bodies, convene a small expert working group to develop, within a year, a policy for the integration of sustainable development into the processes of the World Heritage Convention, for possible inclusion in the future Policy Guidance document.

On 19 November 2015, the 20th General Assembly of the States Parties to the World Heritage Convention adopted a Policy on the integration of a sustainable development perspective into the processes of the Convention.The overall goal of the policy is to assist States Parties, practitioners, institutions, communities and networks, through appropriate guidance, to harness the potential of World Heritage properties and heritage in general, to contribute to sustainable development and therefore increase the effectiveness and relevance of the Convention whilst respecting its primary purpose and mandate of protecting the Outstanding Universal value of World Heritage properties. In line with the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, adopted last September by the UN General Assembly, this new policy revolves around the three dimensions of sustainable development, namely environmental sustainability, inclusive social development and inclusive economic development, complemented by the fostering of peace and security. Its adoption represents a significant shift in the implementation of the Convention and an important step in its history.

Following the adoption of the policy, relevant changes will have to be introduced within theOperational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, so as to translate its principles into actual procedures. The concrete implementation of the policy will no doubt require the building of necessary capacities among practitioners, institutions, concerned communities and networks, across a wide interdisciplinary and inter-sectorial spectrum. The necessary tools and programmes will therefore have to be developed, and appropriate indicators defined, to monitor progress in the implementation of the policy. Ongoing consultation with States Parties and other relevant stakeholders will be also established with a view to enriching the policy in the future.

Policy for the Integration of a Sustainable Development Perspective
into the Processes of the World Heritage Convention

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Paraty Meeting on the Relationship between the World Heritage Convention, Conservation and Sustainable Development
(29-31 March 2010)

The Paraty meeting’s conclusions recognized the important contribution of World Heritage to sustainable development while noting that securing sustainable development is – almost by definition - an essential condition to guarantee the conservation of the heritage. The results of the Paraty Meeting included an Action Plan (see Annex I). By its Decision 34 COM 5D, the World Heritage Committe agreed “that it would be desirable to further consider, in the implementation of the Convention, policies and procedures that maintain the Outstanding Universal value of properties, and also contribute to sustainable development”.

A brief summary of the outcomes of the Paraty Meeting is provided in Document 34 COM 5D. See: https://whc.unesco.org/en/events/665/

Ouro Preto Meeting on
World Heritage and Sustainable Development
(5 to 8 February 2012)

The Meeting acknowledged that, in the current context of changing demographics, growing inequalities and diminishing resources, heritage institutions would need to view conservation objectives within a larger system of social and environmental values and needs encompassed in the sustainable development concept. « Ultimately - the participants in the meeting noted - if the heritage sector does not fully embrace sustainable development and harness the reciprocal benefits for heritage and society, it will find itself a victim of, rather than a catalyst for wider change ».

A brief summary of the outcomes of the Ouro Preto Meeting is provided in Document 36 COM 5C. The full proceedings are accessible.
See: whc.unesco.org/en/events/794/

40th Anniversary Events

The year 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention. Significantly, the choice of theme for the anniversary was “World Heritage and Sustainable Development: the role of local communities”. Over 100 meetings and conferences were held to mark the occasion, culminating in the final event of Kyoto  and the resulting declaration called “Kyoto Vision”. These events produced a wealth of reflections, principles and recommendations concerning ways to integrate local community concerns in World Heritage.

An analytical summary of the events associated to the 40th Anniversary was prepared by the World Heritage Centre, focusing on the specific outcomes that are relevant to the debate on World Heritage and sustainable development. This analysis is accessible here.

Toyama Meeting on
“World Heritage and Sustainable Development: from principles to Practice”
(3-5 November 2012)

The Toyama meeting took place immediately before the conclusive event of the 40th Anniversary (Kyoto, 6-8 November 2012), to prepare and nourish its deliberations.

Its outcome document, the “Toyama Proposal on World Heritage and Sustainable Development”, reiterates the importance of mainstreaming heritage in the current and future international policies on sustainable development, but also stresses the need to mainstream sustainable development in heritage policies and practice, starting from the World Heritage Convention.  The document also recommends placing emphasis on capacity-building for local development actors, drawing in particular from various successful models and practices and to consider all the above in the drafting of the policy that the World Heritage Committee has asked the Centre and the Advisory Bodies to draft.

Working Document for the Toyama Meeting
Toyama Proposal on World Heritage and Sustainable Development
See: https://whc.unesco.org/en/events/930/

Hangzhou Congress

The International Congress "Culture: Key to Sustainable Development" was held in Hangzhou (China) from 15 May to 17 May 2013. This event was the first International Congress specifically focusing on the linkages between culture and sustainable development organized by UNESCO since the Stockholm Conference in 1998.  As such, the Congress provided the very first global forum to discuss the role of culture in sustainable development in view of the post-2015 development framework, with participation of the global community and the major international stakeholders.

Heritage and its contribution to sustainable development was a key consideration within the Congress (a specific session was devoted to this theme) and was strongly reflected in the final outcome of the event, the Hangzhou Declaration.

Background Paper:  “Introducing Cultural Heritage into the Sustainable Development Agenda”
Watch the video of the Session on Cultural Heritage
The Hangzhou Declaration

The Vilm workshop on World Heritage and Sustainable development – From Policy to Action
(14–16 November 2016)

To operationalize the Policy for the integration of a sustainable development perspective into the processes of the World Heritage Convention, the participants of the Vilm workshop elaborated an action plan, which was produced as an aspirational set of activities and timescales for the implementation of the policy, aiming to engage all the stakeholders of the Convention, at international, regional, and local levels. The meeting was organised jointly by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) with its International Academy for Nature Conservation, IUCN, ICCROM and ICOMOS, in cooperation with the World Heritage Centre.

The proceedings of the Vilm expert workshop

Related Themes and Programmes

Sustainable Development Goals
Climate Change
Cultural Landscapes
World Heritage Sustainable Tourism Programme

Economic impact of World Heritage Listing

World Heritage and
Indigenous Peoples
World Heritage
Marine Programme
Small Island
Developing States Programme


World Heritage
Education Programme


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