Sustainability and the Built Environment
Forging a Role for Heritage Conservation
By Erica Avrami
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When the Athens Charter was adopted in 1931, the world's population was two billion. By the drafting of the Venice Charter in 1964, that number had increased to three billion. Today, there are nearly seven billion people, with more than half living in urban areas.

While there are many unresolved questions about how sustainability is defined and put into operation, we know that current consumption of earth's limited resources cannot be sustained in light of exponential population growth. The climate change effects of greenhouse gas emissions, while debated, are well documented and widely acknowledged, as are the alarming contributions of the built environment to that carbon footprint. Buildings account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption. Approximately 50 percent of all raw materials humans take from nature are for use in buildings. Construction, rehabilitation, and demolition debris constitutes nearly half of all the waste generated in higher-income countries. Current trends suggest that by midcentury, the built environment will disturb or destroy natural habitats on more than three-quarters of the earth's land surface.

While heritage conservation is a key player in sustainability planning, it has yet to forge a clear role. This is due, in part, to unresolved tensions that can exist between conservation aims and those of sustainability. Take, for example, recent debates over solar and wind farms. Cape Wind, a pioneering alternative energy project, was proposed off the coast of Nantucket, along the eastern United States. Preservation groups opposed the wind farm, and in an effort to thwart construction, the stretch of water was designated a cultural landscape eligible for the National Register. When wind and solar farms were proposed in California's Mojave Desert along historic Route 66, legislation was introduced to designate the area a national monument, thereby scuttling projects that would have created clean energy and jobs. While one can justify the heritage concerns in both cases, will these interests continue to outweigh the larger sustainability trade-offs in the future?

Effective heritage legislation in many parts of the world and a well-established international conservation community have enabled the field to advance its agenda of protecting important places. However, with changing demographics and diminishing resources, options will become more limited. When weighed more stringently against clean air and water, carbon neutral energy, reduced sprawl and optimal land use, mass transit, jobs creation, and the like, heritage conservation faces difficulties in terms of rationalizing its cause and ensuring the balance of social concerns with environmental and economic interests. To prepare for change, the field must better align its goals and processes with those of sustainability planning for the built environment as a whole. That means questioning many long-held goals and practices about what to preserve and how.


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Consider sustainable management of the built environment as a large system of interrelating subsystems, of which heritage conservation is one. To ensure that conservation remains a relevant social process, its goals must be aligned with those of the overarching system.

Since the publication of the United Nation's Brundtland Commission Report in 1987, the international dialogue regarding sustainability has grown. While Brundtland referred to sustainable development as meeting "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," over two decades of scholarship and policy making have refined the concept as one that is both relative and universal. With more awareness of cultural differences about quality of life and the need for integrative approaches to human and natural systems, the concept of sustainability has emerged as an interrelating and adaptable balance of environmental, economic, and social concerns. Therefore, one must look at the aims and concerns of sustainability writ large, in order to understand how conservation of the built environment supports them at the global and local levels.


The bulk of sustainability research and policy making has focused on environmental sustainability, within which are two fundamental discourses: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation focuses on minimizing climate change. Adaptation addresses the effects of climate change.

Adaptation seeks to prepare and manage places in light of changing environmental conditions. This is where conservation efforts have been largely concentrated. UNESCO and other institutions charged with heritage stewardship have initiated projects to examine risks posed to sites by shifts in temperature, precipitation, groundwater and sea levels, and climatic events. Universities and other research centers are collecting environmental data to monitor trends and to better predict future conditions. Disaster preparedness and response programs are integrating climatic extremes and weather events into their scopes. The outcomes of these initiatives are geared toward more responsive strategies for the conservation and management of heritage sites, buildings, and landscapes in the face of climate change.

Mitigation presents a thornier challenge. An assumption of the mitigation discourse is that dramatic changes are needed in the way we plan, design, construct, and manage the built environment to ensure carrying capacity for a growing population. The built environment contributes significantly to climate change, consumes vast amounts of natural resources and land, and generates substantial landfill waste. Current practices must be altered. Reconciling the sustainability push for drastic innovation with conservation's goal of managing change and preserving existing historic or significant resources poses tensions as well as opportunities. Consequently, efforts to forge common agendas have been fairly ad hoc.


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The energy and resource consumption of buildings, particularly in industrialized countries, has spawned extensive research and policy making regarding energy efficient design and retrofitting. Standards for sustainable construction, such as the LEED green building certification program in the United States, have been developed to improve efficiency. Research has grown to support and inform these systems and standards, generating quantitative information about building performance and energy use. Analytical tools such as energy audits and life cycle assessments (LCAs) are increasingly sophisticated and allow assessment of energy saving options in new design and existing construction.

The heritage field was quick to claim that old buildings are inherently green because of their embodied energy and climatically appropriate designs. However, research substantiating this position has been slow in coming. Some LCA studies have indeed shown the energy savings and reduced carbon impact of rehabilitating a historic building versus building a new one. But these studies are small in scope, and LCA tools in general still have a high degree of variability. Large-scale, multi-typology energy audit surveys are needed to build a body of reliable data, as are more sophisticated LCA tools that address the complexities of existing buildings and historic materials. Innovative, case-by-case integration of conservation and energy efficiency can be found world over, but the heritage field has yet to aggregate the data effectively into consistent models for design and retrofitting. Such a synthesis would allow architects, planners, and real estate developers to compare more readily the life cycle energy costs of building new versus rehabilitating.

In addition to augmenting the analytical toolbox, the heritage field has much to offer in sustainable design solutions. The built environment in industrialized countries is in dire need of remediation because of high energy consumption and carbon dioxide emission rates. The situation in less-developed regions trends toward similar conditions, but it has yet to reach critical levels. These regions would benefit from a more prevalent use of vernacular architecture, which is generally better adapted to local climate and resources and thus consumes less energy. The heritage field can play an important role by promoting local knowledge and traditional construction techniques in sustainable design solutions that wed the best of new technology with time-honored know-how.


As noted, the construction industry is a notorious waste and pollutant generator, especially in industrialized countries. Regulation and disincentives, primarily at the municipal level, help to reduce waste generation at the back end by creating incentives for recycling and disincentives for not recycling (for example, high fees for dumping construction and demolition waste).

The heritage sector plays its part through architectural salvage operations and through the management of historic toxic materials. However, as more twentieth-century buildings join the inventory of historic structures, effective strategies for managing diverse waste products will be critical.


The environmental and heritage conservation establishments have long viewed landscape conservation as common ground. The preservation of forests and open space enables the sequestration of carbon and the protection of ecosystems; the conservation of cultural landscapes can bolster that process. However, with rising population size and rural-tourban migration driving increased urban growth around the world, land use planning and landscape protection are becoming a far more complex endeavor. Sustainability concerns compel the need to curb suburban sprawl and to densify existing urban centers instead. Such densification, along with the infrastructure development that accompanies it, often runs counter to heritage aims in older, historic cities. As communities and metropolitan regions grapple with the need to develop more robust economies and greener built environments, difficult trade-offs must be made regarding the historic urban fabric.

In Spain, for example, where many historic cities and sites benefit from heritage protection, a number of conflicts have ensued. The World Heritage City of Avila has a designated core, bounded by medieval ramparts; with protections in place for the historic center, new development has been pushed into surrounding open space, creating sprawl. A proposal for construction of an office tower, which would have concentrated development outside of Seville's World Heritage boundaries, has been opposed by preservationists because of its negative impact on the historic skyline. While these instances represent commendable efforts to preserve important heritage, they also illustrate ways in which conservation aims can bump up against sustainable urban growth.

Economic Sustainability

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The terrain of intersection between the built heritage and environmental concerns offers relatively clear paths toward mutual aims, rocky though they may be. The links between cultural heritage and economic and social concerns are more established but ill defined. Forging common ground is no less challenging.

An underlying aim of heritage conservation is to protect important sites, buildings, and landscapes for future generations. However, strains on public funds, a shrinking supply of buildable land, real estate development interests, job creation, and other factors have required conservation to rationalize its work in economic terms. These forces, along with others, have spurred the commodification of heritage. Thus, economic development agendas have found natural (though not always willing) partners in the heritage sector, particularly through tourism, compelling conservation to take up its role in a sustainable political economy and its contributions to quality of life.

There is growing research regarding the economics of conservation that aims to assess preservation's benefit to society and to understand its function in the marketplace. With tourism representing more than 10 percent of GDP worldwide and creating more than 200 million jobs, heritage conservation and related tourism have received increased attention as economic development tools. Lawmakers and policy makers seek hard numbers to quantify conservation's economic effects and weigh it against other investments. At the same time, economists, preservationists, and others grapple with developing methodologies for valuing cultural resources and conservation and assessing their effects on quality of life. However, there remain gaps in knowledge. The full-range costs and benefits of conservation are not fully examined so as to promote understanding of conservation's function in the broader realm of land use economics and sustainability—as well as its impact on society. Therefore, the basis for promoting broader preservation policy reform and further developing economic incentives and other interventions in the market remains limited. As with environmental sustainability, the more that conservation's goals are aligned with those of improving economic conditions and opportunities through the built environment, the more likely it will be that heritage concerns will be integrated into sustainability planning.

Social Sustainability

World population growth has been coupled with significant demographic changes. Industrialization and globalization have contributed to international and rural-to-city migration, postcolonialism, the resurgence of indigenous peoples, and the rise of organized civil society. These changes make for much more heterogeneous and urban societies, and they engender profound changes in negotiations about the built environment and the increasingly diverse memories associated with it.

As noted, the sustainability discourse has prompted more environmentally responsible land use and construction practices in many places. Growth management strategies are becoming common tools for planners and policy makers. Yet, while there are clear environmental and economic rationales for increased density and a more energy-efficient building stock, community preferences for downzoning and preservation pose interesting challenges. Communities are trying to combat the pressures for redevelopment and densification, adapt to the influx of new populations, apply sustainability principles to land use decisions, and yet still encourage growth. As a result, conservation is becoming an increasingly important aspect of planning and managing urban change.

Among the most substantive contributions the heritage field can make to sustainability is its work with communities. By focusing on cultural contexts and social relationships, the heritage field has developed effective tools for engaging stakeholders in value-driven planning that helps shape collective visions for communities and their environments. These processes foster civic participation, identify diverse and shared views, and ensure long-term sustainability by responding to local conditions. As the environmental field shifts toward engaging communities in stewardship, these cultural heritage methodologies become increasingly germane. Whether through incorporating energy-saving vernacular traditions into sustainable design, determining which buildings are most important to reuse, or deciding which cultural resources will be preserved and how to preserve them after devastating climate events, heritage conservation offers ways to improve planning and to negotiate change in the built environment, so as to ensure balance among ecological, social, and economic concerns.

At the end of day, a very significant historic structure may not be the most energy efficient, may not represent the best land use, or may not generate the most revenue. Its fundamental value is in the social benefits its preservation provides. So while it is important for conservation to contribute to environmental and economic sustainability, its social contributions are the linchpin. It is our work with people, memories, and their codification in places that differentiates heritage conservation within the broader realm of managing the built environment. However, the social benefits that conservation engenders are not well articulated or substantiated. Though these social benefits are intuitively understood by all of us who believe in the value of heritage, much depends on the field's ability to communicate widely and to demonstrate effectively—through interdisciplinary research, integrative practice, and an updated policy agenda—its utility in promoting social sustainability.


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The future of built heritage conservation hinges on the field's establishing itself as a component of the larger system of managing a sustainable built environment. We can do that by contributing to all three areas of the sustainability tripartite (that is, environmental, economic, and social benefits) and by demonstrating why social concerns must sometimes trump economic and environmental ones.

The conservation field should continue to plug away at environmental, economic, and social research and devise metrics for analyzing and amalgamating these data into frameworks for decision making. It must likewise place more emphasis on social research itself, to ensure that the core values of heritage conservation have credibility when weighed against environmental and economic concerns. A difficult challenge in achieving this will be the need to reexamine and reestablish these core values and the methodologies they engender. Given current realities and the dire need for a sustainable built environment, the following are important considerations:

Think beyond the building. While making individual buildings more energy efficient does reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sustainability of the built environment cannot be achieved building by building. Broader land use and urban community issues are equally critical—if not more critical—to an integrated approach to mitigation. It is important that historic buildings be retrofitted for energy efficiency and that analytical research better inform life cycle assessments and design decisions. However, the heritage conservation field must move beyond its traditional site-by-site approaches to ensure that it grapples with sustainability at citywide and region-wide levels.

Reinforce local-global connections. If nothing else, the climate change dialogue has demonstrated the profound correlation between local action and global effect. Heritage researchers and practitioners are compelled to contextualize their localized work with places and communities within increasingly international and cross-cultural frameworks. Thus, the heritage field has an acute understanding of how traditional built environments are a direct product of local culture, climate, and resources. It likewise has well-established global networks for information sharing about vernacular knowledge and new technology, and about innovative solutions that might be achieved by merging the two. Thus, the heritage field can help bridge the divide between industrialized and less developed regions and generate new knowledge from their respective sustainability weaknesses and strengths.

Engage in the creative process. Those in the heritage field often view themselves as stewards of the historic built environment, rather than as creative contributors to it. Decisions about which places to preserve have a profound effect on the shaping of landscapes and the development of communities. Embracing that role means more engagement in design and planning, whether through the development of new construction hybrids combining vernacular and new technology or through regional planning analyses to determine where redevelopment and densification are acceptable. The heritage field has important knowledge that should be integrated into those processes—knowledge that can better inform sustainability decisions.

Focus on quality, not quantity. A significant focus of the heritage field is on inventorying and documenting historic properties. However, a bigger heritage inventory does not necessarily translate to a better heritage environment—or a more sustainable one. Conservation will need to prioritize and compromise with regard to what is preserved, and with regard to what is acceptable in terms of alterations, additions, and infill development. The capacity to distinguish between what should change and what should not (and why) will be crucial to legitimizing conservation's role in sustainability planning. Focusing more on the quality of heritage conservation—its positive effects on communities and the benefits derived—rather than on the quantity and condition of protected sites will go a long way toward aligning heritage concerns with sustainability.

Now, more than ever before, the heritage field is faced with the need to qualify and quantify its fundamental contributions to society and sustainability. Whether through environmental, economic, or social benefits, the field must robustly demonstrate how it improves quality of life for communities. Realigning the goals of heritage conservation to ensure that they serve the greater good of the sustainability cause is an important first step.

Erica Avrami is the director of research and education at the World Monuments Fund and a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, where her research focuses on the intersection of sustainability planning and heritage conservation.