How should heritage decisions be made?

QuestionRecently, I came across a publication from a research project led by an interdisciplinary team of 14 people in the United Kingdom and hosted by the University of Leeds. They tried to answer the deceptively simple question, “How should heritage decisions be made?”, through a participatory research methodology that addressed a wide variety of heritage objects from electronic music synthesizers to buildings. Over a period of two years, this research team solicited the participation of a broad array of civil and conventional experts to help them answer this question using the following iterative methodology:

  • Act: Make change from where you are
  • Connect: Cross boundaries and collaborate
  • Reflect: See your work through other people’s eyes
  • Situate: Understand your work in context

I just read through the report and wanted to share what I thought were particularly useful ideas in terms of public participation and community buy-in for the protection and management of built heritage and cultural landscapes.

Participation means decision-making

From the start, the team recognized that so-called “participation” typically used in heritage planning processes “is often opaque and is often used far too loosely to describe attendance at events, volunteering or consultation” (p. 2). Recognizing this issue, the team specifically defined participation to mean decision-making in an environment that emphasizes “the human and social ways in which we can all feel more able to influence things that matter” (ibid).

Based on the feedback of participants quoted in the report, it appears that this goal was largely achieved, but not without its detractors. A frequent complaint from conventional experts was that participation “undermines [their] expertise [and] that the public can’t deal with complex information” (p. 47). There were also concerns that the results would not be able to be generalized or scaled and that not enough people from communities actually would participate; moreover, participants would be the “usual suspects” that always dominate planning discussion. Based on the reports of the study, however, it appears that these fears were largely unfounded.

Participation means inviting and celebrating debate and sharing emotions

At least in North American contexts, we tend to be uncomfortable with public participation venturing into the realm of debate and argument. In other words, we respect calm, control, and people who are not too emotional in relating their “opinions”. The researchers for this project, however, came to the conclusion that the participatory process worked best when debate and emotion were central activities (p. 48). Interestingly, the researchers also used posts on social media to broaden the participation beyond those who could attend in-person meetings. The result was not “that many people changed their minds but their engagement in the issues deepened. Through this [the researchers] could map arguments and from there more solid ground for any decision emerged.”

But perhaps the most surprising conclusion was the importance of emotions in the participatory, decision-making process. This conclusion is simply the recognition that decisions cannot be made in an emotion-free “opinion” based environment, yet this is what the planning and regulatory environment demands: a “system which tries to take emotion out of the decision-making process, making the subjective objective, [and in doing so] it tries to make decision-making fair and transparent. But the biggest criticism of the planning system is that it is neither of those things” (p. 30). In the study, emotions manifested as “raw emotion at unveiling the beauty of the building during its stages of adaptation whilst at other times it was an emotion drawn out by decisions based on a unconscious feeling about the building” (ibid.). Interestingly, the study indicated that professionals had a difficulty time recognizing that they, themselves, were using emotions to make decisions and relay “facts”.

It’s worth nothing that emotion and affect are beginning to be topics of interest in heritage conservation, but this approach is still novel. For instance, Laurajane Smith and Gary Campbell (2015) are leading an effort to include emotion in heritage studies research, including organizing a paper session at the 2016 Association for Critical Heritage Studies Conference and a call for papers for an edited book on the subject.  My own work on the emotional attachment that people have for historic environments (Wells and Baldwin 2012) reinforces the importance of emotion and feeling in conveying why historic places are significant to everyday people.  Clearly, the researchers in the “How Should Heritage Decisions Be Made” project came to the same conclusion, as well.

The perceived marginal role of the regulatory environment in heritage conservation

Interestingly, the participants in this study did not think that the regulatory environment was a particularly useful tool for recognizing and protecting heritage. Instead, it was viewed “as a blunt tool to help achieve a final outcome.” For even the heritage professionals who administered heritage laws, they believed that it was “more about working through practicalities on a personal and professional level than following ‘the letter of the law’” (p. 29). Apparently not even the professionals whose job it was to enforce the law even understood how it was supposed to be applied, which is a feeling I can recognize having worked as a preservation planner for a large city. In my role I had to always wear two hats: 1) trying to understand the values of the community and how my work could help them and 2) making sure that the city attorney and my boss were assuaged that my actions did not cause the city to be legally liable or politically exposed. These activities were often mutually independent even though the “letter of law” ostensibly is in the public interest. In the end, the regulatory environment often only enforces processes and not outcomes, the latter of which is what most stakeholders want, but regulatory authorities seem to care little.

Importance of building a community of interest / network

Of particular use to anyone engaged in working with communities is the recommendation that everyone — regardless of background, training, or expertise — should empower themselves to take charge of recognizing and protecting heritage. To this end, the researchers came up with a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) heritage manifesto (p. 45):

DIY Heritage manifesto

Act: Be proactive about heritage that matters to you as a individual. Lead and take responsibility. Don’t ask permission. Make it your business to make something happen regardless of others helping you.

Capture: Research, explore and gather information and create your own photos, sound or video recordings, drawings and notes. Encourage and engage other people to contribute and help.

Stories: Tell and share the story, including the information, photographs, sound or video recordings, drawings and notes. Invite others to interact and add to the story.

Relationships and networks: Establish/consolidate relationships with active, willing and useful people (within and without institutions/organisations). People will contribute in different ways of course, with different levels of commitment. Look out for people who may get involved in the long term. Strongly challenge people as and when needed, but remember you may need to work with them in the future! But remember, being an activist trying to get things done can make it difficult to please everyone on all sides.

Preserve: Fix it! If you have the skills yourself (or you can get specialist support from other experts) why not protect, conserve, clean up or even restore the heritage that matters to you? If there is a danger of loss — act fast and in whichever way you feel will be most effective at: a) protecting/preserving b) conserving/restoring your heritage. It is vital that you make sure what you do is safe and does not harm the heritage that matters to you. Do your research and get specialist support wherever possible.

Global/local: Thing Big! Why not? Act with passion, energy, drive and intelligence and you can achieve a lot. You will success in protecting, preserving and conserving heritage that matters to you.

Where to go from here

The study’s web site and final report are available online as well as the blog site that the researchers used to report on and assemble their results. All are worth a look:

In the end, this report does not provide any final, conclusive answers or solutions, but rather suggests a process of participation that can lead to more engaged decision-making on heritage issues. I highly recommend this study for anyone engaged with the public and heritage conservation.

Cited references:

Smith, L., & Campbell, G.. (2015). The elephant in the room: heritage, affect and emotion. In A companion to heritage studies, W. Logan, M Nic Craith, U. Kockel (eds.). Wiley-Balckwell.

Wells, J. C., & Baldwin, E. D. (2012). Historic preservation, significance, and age value: A comparative phenomenology of historic Charleston and the nearby new-urbanist community of I’On. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(4), 384-400.

Leave a Reply