14. Heritage Economics: Coming to Terms with Value and Valuation

  • David Throsby
The economics of heritage has emerged as a distinct field of research and empirical application in cultural economics. This paper considers the development of the field since the 1990s and explores its impact on practice and policy. Three significant areas of research are highlighted: theory and the application of economic analysis to heritage issues; evaluation methods and their suitability for assessing cultural value; and understanding the economic impact of heritage policy. This paper illustrates an example of innovative research and application in one specific area: heritage investment as a driver of urban renewal projects in developing countries. It reiterates the continuing importance of recognizing the economic, social, and cultural context and impacts of heritage practice.

When the Getty Conservation Institute organized a workshop on values in heritage conservation in Los Angeles in December 1998, the field of heritage economics as a recognizable specialization in the well-established discipline of cultural economics was barely a decade old.1 Sporadic interest in heritage issues among economists had been around for some years, but it was a paper by Alan Peacock to the British Academy in 1994 that first drew widespread attention to the questions raised if formal economics were to be applied to heritage decision making (). Peacock, an eminent British academic, public finance economist, and musician, argued that if governments were to provide funding for heritage conservation, the public should be allowed some say over how “their” money was spent. His acerbic intervention brought a spirited response from heritage professionals who feared that the intrusion of economists onto their turf would convert all values to monetary terms and allow ill-informed popular opinion to influence the allocation of conservation resources ().

In the years following Peacock’s paper, a growing number of economists took an interest in the economics of heritage, leading to the appearance of two volumes of collected contributions published in the late 1990s (; ). This work helped reassure skeptics that there was ample scope for economists to make a sensible contribution to discussions about cultural heritage without assuming that financial values were all that mattered. Since those days the literature of heritage economics has been augmented by several further collected volumes (; ; ; ; ) and an increasing number of papers and research monographs on a wide range of issues in the field.2 Researchers have been able to draw upon theoretical and empirical developments in the broad field of cultural economics, where valuing cultural goods and services more generally remains a key concern for economic analysis.

In this paper I discuss how economics can assist in understanding the societal values implicated in heritage conservation management, and give some indications of innovative directions in research in the field.

Basic Concepts

Among the economic concepts relevant to heritage that have emerged, the most important is cultural capital, defined as any capital asset that embodies or gives rise to cultural value in addition to whatever economic value it possesses (; ).3 This definition requires some elaboration. First, the term “asset” invokes the idea of a stock, which in the case of heritage may exist in tangible form as, say, a building or a painting, or may be intangible, like a traditional craft skill or William Shakespeare’s plays. In economics, any item of capital stock, such as a house or a car, is relevant for analysis because it yields a flow of services. In the case of cultural capital, the stock of capital generates a flow of services in various ways, for example when a tourist visits a historic site, someone looks at a painting, or Hamlet is performed. These flows can be interpreted as production processes, where the final output is the cultural service experienced by the consumer.

The second point relates to value, the basis on which economists interpret the characteristics of cultural capital that distinguish it from other capital goods. In common parlance the concept of an asset connotes worth, frequently thought of simply in financial terms. Cultural capital is no different—it generates economic value, and does so both in its stock form (a historic building can be sold) and as a flow (tourists pay to visit a site). But unlike “ordinary” capital assets, items of cultural capital embody or give rise to an additional and different sort of value: cultural value (). This concept seeks to capture the range of nonmonetary values attributable to cultural phenomena. In the case of heritage buildings, sites, and so on, the concept of cultural value is cognate with that of cultural significance (or heritage values) as understood in the heritage profession, as I will soon discuss.

It should be noted that proposing the existence of a concept of value that is not measurable in financial terms, as is essential in the economic definition of cultural capital, requires a broadening of outlook among economists schooled in the strict neoclassical tradition. In the standard model of an economy comprised of profit-maximizing producers, utility-maximizing consumers, and perfectly functioning markets, the value of a good or service is fully representable, in principle at least, in monetary terms. It is assumed that no matter what the motivation for demand, if an individual values something they will be prepared to pay for it, and their willingness to pay can capture all dimensions of their underlying preferences, including those derived from aesthetic or other cultural judgments. However, since economists are interested in understanding decision making, it may be possible to persuade a strict traditionalist to contemplate other forms of value if it can be shown that, independently of financial effects, such alternative values affect people’s choices and hence the allocation of resources.

Introduction of the concept of cultural capital into the economics of heritage has drawn on the parallel concept of natural capital in the economics of the environment (; ). A particular parallel relates to sustainability. The management of natural capital can be understood within the paradigm of ecologically sustainable development, where economic, social, and environmental values are interpreted within a holistic system (; ). In the same vein, it can be seen that sustainability provides an overarching framework for interpreting the management of cultural capital, allowing the articulation of a concept of culturally sustainable development mirroring that of its environmental counterpart (). A further advantage of this theoretical synergy between natural and cultural capital is that methodologies to assess the value of environmental assets have proved to be directly transferable to valuation processes in the economics of cultural heritage, as we shall see further in the next section.

Evaluation Methods

Although there may be some variation in the detail of different approaches to valuing cultural heritage assets from an economic perspective, the fundamental distinction between economic and cultural value alluded to above holds, whether applied to asset stocks or the services they provide. That being so, we can divide our account of valuation procedures according to these two value elements.

We turn first to economic value, which can be defined using methods of economic analysis and is expressible in monetary terms—the values that individuals are prepared to pay for in one way or another. The categories into which the economic value of heritage can be divided correspond to three identifiable ways in which individuals experience heritage—use, nonuse, or as a beneficial externality.

Use value accrues to individuals, households, or firms through the direct consumption of heritage services. It may be experienced, for example, through the ownership of heritage assets, or the enjoyment of the services of a heritage asset (living in a heritage house or working in a historic building). Such values are reflected in market processes, and can be observed in various financial transactions. Direct use value of heritage also accrues to tourists visiting cultural sites, measured by variables such as entrance fees.

The second aspect of individual valuation is the nonuse or passive use values, which are experienced by individuals but are not reflected in market processes, since they are derived from attributes of cultural heritage classifiable as public goods. Consumption of public goods is defined as being non-rival (one person’s consumption does not diminish anyone else’s) and non-excludable (once the good is available, people cannot be excluded from consuming it). Research in environmental and ecological economics over the last twenty years or so has identified three categories of passive use value that are equally relevant to heritage: existence, option, and bequest values.4 All of these sources of value give rise to demand for the conservation of heritage expressible as individual willingness to pay, the measurement of which is discussed below.

The third type of value of cultural heritage experienced by individuals stands somewhat apart from the above two categories, although it entails both use and nonuse characteristics. It derives from the fact that heritage may generate positive spillovers, or externalities. Heritage buildings, for example, give rise to a beneficial externality if passersby gain some transient pleasure from observing their aesthetic or historic qualities. For example, pedestrians in Milan may enjoy the sight of the Duomo as they walk through the adjacent piazza. In principle the economic value of such a benefit could be estimated, although in practice it seldom is. But the fact remains that positive spillovers are an identifiable and potentially significant value of heritage that accrues to individuals.

In regard to measurement, the assessment of use values should be straightforward, since they are derived from financial transactions that can be observed or estimated. Much attention has been paid to the more problematic estimation of nonuse values in applied research in the economics of cultural heritage, adapting methods from other fields. The approaches in use can be classified into revealed-preference and stated-preference methods. The former rely on inference from observed behavior, such as the use of real estate prices to estimate whether the heritage qualities of domestic dwellings in a certain area have an effect on their sale price (). These studies, and others based on revealed-preference data, including the so-called travel cost method (), are limited in their usefulness for estimating nonuse values because they essentially measure private individual benefit rather than wider public-good effects (). Thus, assessment by economists of the nonmarket benefits of cultural heritage has concentrated overwhelmingly on stated-preference methods using contingent valuation or, more recently, discrete-choice modeling.

Stated-preference approaches involve asking people to indicate their willingness to pay for the benefits received, or their willingness to accept compensation for their loss. The investigation may take place under quasi-experimental conditions, or more commonly may be administered through sample surveys of individuals. For instance, the nonuse value of a local heritage site might be assessed using contingent valuation by means of a survey of a sample of residents of the area (). Respondents might be asked hypothetically to indicate the maximum financial contribution they would make to a fund to support the site, or alternatively whether they would be willing to pay by some other means such as through an adjustment to their taxes ().

A discrete-choice experiment yields a wider range of information compared to that obtainable from a contingent valuation exercise. The methodology may be applied to heritage in general (), or more commonly to a retrospective (ex post) or prospective (ex ante) evaluation for a specific conservation project or site. A typical discrete-choice study applied to a heritage site will seek respondents’ evaluations of a variety of attributes such as its accessibility, its aesthetic quality, the facilities it offers, and so on (; ; ). Some payment requirement is usually included such that willingness to pay for the various attributes or for the site as a whole can be inferred. Discrete-choice surveys are readily administered online and can thus command relatively large sample sizes. They do require complicated experimental design, but nevertheless these sorts of assessment methods are destined to find wider application in the future.

What conclusions can be drawn about the usefulness of these economic assessment methods in the practical world of heritage conservation? Some form of economic evaluation of a conservation project is very likely to be relevant, if not essential, if the project is seeking to secure funding or to justify funding already received. The great majority of heritage projects are initiated for cultural reasons rather than for economic gain. Nevertheless it is likely that all projects will generate some benefits whose value can be represented in financial terms. All assessments are likely to include some monetary measurement of direct use values. In addition, as a component of an overall judgment on the economic worth of a project, it may be desirable or necessary to demonstrate in economic terms that the nonuse benefits have been or are likely to be significant. Indeed, for conservation projects, it is often the case that nonuse benefits will be expected to make up a major proportion of the undertaking’s total economic value.5

However, the sorts of economic assessments described above require expertise and resources. Even if the latter are available, the former may be in short supply. These considerations reinforce the proposition that assessments of important projects should ideally be implemented by a team that includes one or more economists who can work alongside other heritage professionals in evaluating the economic dimensions of the project’s benefits and costs.

We turn now to the assessment of cultural value. In the economics of heritage, cultural value has been represented as a multifaceted and shifting concept that has no single unit of account (; ). Given its multidimensional character, it has been argued that an appropriate way to proceed in assessing it is to deconstruct it into its constituent elements (, 26–31). For example, the cultural value of a heritage building might be identifiable as having aesthetic, symbolic, social, historical, educational, and scientific components. Such a categorization of cultural value dimensions is similar to the specification of criteria for judging the cultural significance of buildings or sites laid out in heritage evaluation procedures such as the Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance (Burra Charter) or the requirements for nominating sites to the World Heritage List.

Identification of cultural value in these terms is a prerequisite to a comprehensive evaluation, but measurement presents problems. A judgment as to the degree of cultural significance or the level of cultural value of a heritage item is inevitably a subjective one, so the challenge is to invent means of assessment that are as transparent as possible, in the hope of providing a common standard by which assessors can determine the score they wish to allocate to a particular item on a given criterion. Such a score might be a direct rating against that criterion, effectively a numerical representation of a qualitative judgment (“very significant,” “significant,” “not particularly significant,” et cetera).

This sort of assessment approach can be put into effect in practice by seeking individuals’ agreement or disagreement with a series of qualitative statements bearing on particular cultural value elements, where several different statements might be used for each value component to allow exploration of different ways of expressing that value. A numerical score can be assigned to responses allowing aggregation of judgments across individuals, across value elements, or both; if necessary, the aggregation can be weighted to reflect different levels of importance attaching to different components.

Economic Issues in Heritage Policy

The use and abuse of cultural heritage by private owners and public authorities has significant public-interest ramifications. For this reason virtually all governments—national, regional, state, local—have a heritage policy of one sort or another. Their policy will relate importantly to their own behavior, since they are often holders of heritage assets themselves, through their ownership of historic public buildings and so on. In addition, policy intervention is needed to control the behavior of individual and corporate owners of heritage to prevent practices judged contrary to the public interest. Several policy issues arise.

First, despite the fact that most economists prefer the operation of markets rather than regulatory intervention as the means to affect resource allocation in any industry, regulation turns out to be the major instrument that governments around the world use to deliver heritage policy—that is, listing of heritage buildings or sites according to their level of significance. Listing imposes constraints on owners as to how heritage can be used, whether it can be modified or sold, and so on. As a policy instrument, regulations have a number of disadvantages familiar to economists: they create inefficiency, they involve administrative costs, they convey perverse incentives, and they can be captured by interest groups who can turn them to their own advantage. Despite these drawbacks, regulations have some attractive features in the implementation of policy, especially in the case of heritage: they are direct, deterministic, and provide certainty of outcomes. Moreover, they act much more quickly than market intervention—an advantage, for instance, when needed to forestall demolition of a heritage property.

Second, conflict between public and private interests frequently arises in the heritage arena. For example an assessment by a private owner of the benefits and costs of a conservation project involving the adaptive reuse of their heritage property will be based solely on the financial flows into and out of their private accounts, whereas the same project assessed at a social level is likely to include a range of collective benefits and costs not otherwise accounted for. In considering how to deal with cases where private owners claim to be disadvantaged by listing or its consequences, a government cannot afford to lose sight of the primary purpose of heritage regulation, which is to protect the public benefit arising from the built heritage at whatever level that benefit is experienced. In particular, it is important that the short-term financial exigency of some property owners should not be allowed to override the longer-term public interest. The key to achieving the appropriate balance between private and public interest in heritage conservation lies particularly in two policy directions: the application of objective, consistent, and thorough procedures for heritage assessment, and the provision of adequate resources for compensation when a legitimate need for it can be shown to exist.

Finally, we turn to the issue of balancing economic and cultural objectives in heritage policy making. For some projects the generation of economic and cultural value may be complementary and balanced, leading to a win-win outcome. In other cases, however, a trade-off between the two types of value might be involved. Some heritage buildings or sites may have high cultural value but relatively little economic value, even when the latter includes nonmarket benefits. Others may be exactly the reverse. The choice between them, if there is a choice, entails some exchange of one value for the other. How much economic value are we as individuals or as a society prepared to give up in order to secure a given level of cultural value, and vice versa?

In practice, these dilemmas are resolved through some sort of political process or negotiation procedure. In such cases it goes without saying that a comprehensive assessment of both the economic and the cultural value generated by the project, evaluated using the procedures discussed in this paper, is necessary to reach a rational final decision.

Some New Areas of Application

Research in the economics of heritage has taken some innovative directions in recent years. For example, the role of tangible and intangible cultural heritage in contributing to the concept of terroir in analyzing the regional localization of specialized wine and food production has been studied (; ; ). In the present paper I discuss one further example of an area of research where economics is being applied to cultural heritage issues: urban renewal in developing countries.

In developing countries, significant concentrations of cultural heritage assets exist in the traditional architectural fabric of towns and cities. It is well known that processes of urban growth in such countries have frequently bypassed a central area where the street pattern, social networks, and traditional activities have remained unchanged, perhaps for centuries (). In such cases modernization and urban expansion have occurred elsewhere, so that the historic core comprises a more or less homogeneous agglomeration of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Although they may be of interest to conservationists, these historic cores oftentimes present difficult problems for urban planners, especially when the city’s development strategy is one of increasing inner-city housing densities and expanding large-scale commercial investment. In these circumstances the most practical and cost-effective development path for the city might appear to be to relocate the residents of the core, demolish the buildings, and replace them with modern structures.

On the other hand, a number of studies have shown that a viable alternative to demolition may be to rehabilitate the heritage building stock, upgrade the infrastructure in the core, and improve service provision to local businesses and households (). Historic urban centers, such as the medinas and souks in many Middle Eastern and North African towns and cities, are usually interconnected networks of local creative industries that supply cultural goods and services both to the resident population and to visitors, including tourists (; ). Rehabilitation of the core provides a stimulus to these industries, generating incomes and employment for local people and businesses. Moreover, cultural capital assets, both tangible and intangible, are important in maintaining the social and cultural fabric of the community (). It is well established that social cohesion, community engagement, and the development of social capital are greatly enhanced in urban environments that are of a human scale, that reflect traditional cultural values, and that encourage creative participation among the local population (; ; ).

Public or private expenditure on heritage conservation in cities and towns in any country can be seen as an investment project, and therefore amenable to ex ante or ex post evaluation using investment appraisal methodologies such as cost-benefit analysis. In principle these methods involve assembling the project’s capital costs, estimating the future stream of discounted benefits and costs generated by the project, and expressing the result in terms of statistics such as a benefit-cost ratio or a percentage rate of return on the original investment. The calculations should ideally include an assessment of any nonmarket or spillover effects of the project. Moreover, heritage conservation can be expected to have significant social and cultural impacts, and some account of these effects should also be included in the analysis.

However, when these techniques are applied to assess the economic, social, and cultural impacts of heritage-led urban rehabilitation programs in developing countries, some modification of these conventional appraisal procedures as used in the developed world is necessary. Most importantly, data are generally unavailable to estimate in detail the project’s time-stream of benefits and costs, and even its capital costs may be difficult to identify with certainty because of the range of financial sources likely to be involved. Moreover, a rigorous contingent-valuation study to measure nonmarket effects may be impossible to implement because of the resources required and problems in identifying the appropriate survey population.6

In these circumstances a methodological approach can be adopted that retains the overall framework provided by cost-benefit analysis but quantifies the various components only as far as data will allow. Rather than deriving precise estimates of the project’s financial benefits and costs over time, such an approach might instead specify a range of economic indicators that capture in broad terms the impacts on residents, households, and businesses who live and operate in the affected areas, and seek to measure them via sample surveys of relevant stakeholder groups. If the historic city center is visited by tourists, their expenditures can also be included.

Moreover, in this approach the survey instruments used to collect data on the economic impacts of heritage investment in historic centers can be adapted to gather information about the project’s social and cultural impacts as well. For example, a series of questions about the perceived cultural value flowing from the upgrading of heritage assets can be included in questionnaires, and the possibility of beneficial effects on social cohesion, quality of life, and so forth resulting from improvements in the urban environment can also be investigated.

Although these procedures are not capable of yielding the standard outcome statistics of cost-benefit analysis such as benefit-cost ratios or internal rates of return, they can provide a broader and in some senses richer account of the overall impacts of heritage-led urban investment projects. In particular they can focus attention on the specific role of heritage conservation in generating economic, social, and cultural benefits for communities.7


It can be argued that a major challenge confronting the field of heritage conservation in the twenty-first century is that of demonstrating the relevance of the field to the society or societies that it serves. Relevance in this context can be judged with reference to values: Are the values on which conservation practice is based consistent with societal values? Consideration of this question requires a widening of the context in which conservation practice is evaluated, bringing in perspectives from the humanities and social sciences where thinking about societal values is of central concern.

Economics can contribute much to this reflection. In the long tradition of political economy, debates about value and valuation have played a fundamental role. Issues have been carried forward in contemporary times in the field of heritage economics, with particular interest in exploring the interplay between economic and cultural values in the theory and practice of heritage evaluation. A suite of methodologies arising from this research have been applied in investigations into the economic and cultural values yielded by a range of practical conservation projects.

Decision making in the heritage conservation field clearly involves multidimensional values that call upon a range of different expertise. Here I hope to have shown that economists have something to contribute to values-based heritage policy making that goes far beyond a simple assessment focusing on tangible financial return. On the contrary, the approaches to value and valuation developed by heritage economists allow the integration of formal economic analysis into the wider concepts of societal value that heritage conservation is required to serve. By these means economists can assist in developing policy strategies that will more closely reflect the values of the society in which the policies are to be put into effect.


  1. See Mason () for a report on the meeting.
  2. For overviews of the field see Mason () and Benhamou (). For a discussion from a conservation perspective of the potential for dialogue between economics and conservation practice see Mason ().
  3. Usage of the term “cultural capital” in this sense is now well established in cultural economics. It contrasts with the way the term “cultural capital” is used in sociology, where it refers to the cultural competencies or acquired cultural knowledge of an individual or group, following the writings of Pierre Bourdieu (). In economics, these competencies and knowledge would be seen as one component in an individual’s human capital ().
  4. For explanation of these terms see for example Throsby (, 78–79).
  5. Note that if resources are not available for a full stated-preference evaluation for a particular heritage site, the relevant nonuse values may be inferred by reference to a similar study elsewhere, using so-called benefit-transfer methods. See Tuan, Seenprachawong, and Navrud (); Ulibarri and Ulibarri ().
  6. An exception is the comprehensive contingent valuation study carried out in relation to the rehabilitation of the medina in Fez, Morocco, in the early 1990s, undertaken by the World Bank. See Carson, Mitchell, and Conaway ().
  7. For illustrations of the development of these methodologies in evaluating urban heritage investments in developing countries, see applications in Macedonia and Georgia () and in Jordan (). For an outline of the methods used, see Throsby ().


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