H@R! : Heritage at Risk



1. A First Global Report on Heritage at Risk

In launching the Heritage@Risk programme in 1999 and in producing this first Global Report, ICOMOS initiated a process that brought its whole membership into action to improve the state of conservation of cultural heritage, monuments and sites around the world. This action relied on a great number of reports that provided national, international or thematic perspectives and information. These reports do not cover the entire heritage of the world in an exhaustive fashion but their content is sufficiently diversified in cultural, geographic or historical origins and in types to be considered representative for this first Global Report.


2. Effective Protection against Risks

The concept of risk is intimately linked to that of effective protection of which it is a measure. In many ways, the real type and level of risks affecting a heritage place, a monument or a site is indicative of its total effective level of protection.

Adequate protection of a heritage place, monument or site will ensure it maintains its cultural significance and its physical integrity, through time and eventual changes, as a document/record for the benefit of current and future generations. Protection is provided by all sorts of actions, whether they focus on heritage itself and on its values by their statutory mandate, or they have an indirect positive impact on it. Protection can be legal, physical or moral, and includes preventive measures as well as maintaining an appropriate use or developing cultural or educational activities. It relies on community commitment and, as a result, raising public awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage is a condition of success as well as a necessary action to ensure active and sustainable conservation of a heritage place. Beyond awareness, conservation requires skills and resources, in particular financial, otherwise even the effectiveness of protection mechanisms will decline.

Legislation might define powers to list a place and control its transformation by human activity, but it cannot stop natural processes that may damage it. For those, a culture or programme of active maintenance and adequate management is required.


3. Documenting the Threats

Conservation, or historic preservation as it is also called, deals with the current condition of heritage places, monuments and sites in order to secure their safe transmission to future generations, just as we have received them from our ancestors. But, the reason we care for those places or material objects is usually the intangible meanings and values they carry. Even if this meaning evolves over time, the unchanging physical existence of heritage places, monuments and sites is important to the sequence of generations.

As a result, documenting or monitoring the level of conservation and risk is more a qualitative exercise to appreciate actions and their impact on those values and the material we are preserving, than strictly statistical work. Whereas the decay of material from air pollution, for instance, can be measured in terms of the speed of deterioration, or the number of buildings demolished per year can be counted, the confusion about the meaning of a heritage place or the loss of spirit associated with traditional crafts or with patina is something that cannot be expressed in numbers. This Global Report recognises this fact and the need for appropriate indicators. It identifies trends as well as individual cases.


4. Global Trends

The reports indicated the following broad trends affecting heritage:


Main threats identified through the survey:

Maintenance deficiency

Economic and social changes

Insufficient conservation standards

Tourism-related issues


5. Most Threatened Cultural Heritage Types

The reports identify a number of types of heritage structures that are most vulnerable at this point, and might require special attention.

Religious heritage forms a major part of most societies’ heritage and is very diversified in its nature, including sacred sites, graves, isolated monuments or markers, individual buildings or groups, archives, fragile artworks and musical instruments, and sacred landscapes. Changes in religious traditions lead to the transformation of buildings or places. Due to the specific architectural characteristics of many religious buildings – size, shape, location, type of construction – maintenance is a major effort that requires specific skills and resources. Also, in the context of inter-ethnic conflicts, religious heritage is threatened by violence, vandalism or total destruction. In addition, looting and stealing of artworks or parts of buildings for art smuggling, is a major problem around the world. Large historic houses, their contents and their estates are particularly threatened by the dispersal of their collection, lack of maintenance, internal changes to accommodate modern functions or respond to comfort standards, or demolition. This heritage may also be subject to particular economic and tax constraints that put the weight of conservation on individual owners. Change of ownership within the family, by confiscation and restitution or by sale, creates discontinuity in the custodial role and often leads to the sale of furniture and surrounding land. Urban heritage is subject to a wide range of economic and political forces that transform it in different ways, from small-scale erosion that results from the introduction of new building products that then spread throughout the whole built landscape, to the creation of new roads, to the massive demolition of entire neighbourhoods to respond to modern so-called progressive standards. The large quantity of buildings as well as their contents and the presence of other dimensions such as archaeological resources, constitutes a complex challenge that is not fully addressed by traditional conservation methods aimed at individual buildings. The complexity of ownership and legal structure requires a capacity to successfully negotiate the case for heritage in urban areas and neighbourhoods that are also living places as human habitats. Vernacular heritage includes rural buildings, villages, as well as traditional town buildings. It is composed of modest elements that embody building traditions and a popular culture of architecture and construction that has evolved over centuries, forming a built cultural landscape. Today’s threats are that individual buildings are demolished or renovated using modern materials to meet the images of modern comfort. Entire villages are left empty by population migration. Many are being destroyed in the context of large industrial, power generation or land reform projects. A lot of that heritage is still insufficiently identified and protected. Also, some of the building techniques found in vernacular architecture – earthen construction techniques, for instance – are particularly vulnerable and require special attention that it often does not get. Another potential threat (although it can provide an acceptable alternative to abandonment or destruction) is the gentrification of vernacular areas. Industrial heritage is a privileged testimony of major parts of human activity, whether it relates to technological development or the social and physical transformations associated with production, transportation and trade. It has often been produced to meet a specific and not always sustainable need, such as housing production processes and machines that are subject to rapid obsolescence in some cases. It relates to production or transportation, and very often to specific technologies. Around the world, changes in the economy and in technical standards of production, have lead to the destruction of buildings, the loss of historic machinery and the obsolescence of entire complexes, including workers’ neighbourhoods or villages forming whole landscapes. In many places, industrial heritage, whether it pre-dates the Industrial Revolution or not, has not yet reached a sufficient level of recognition for individual objects, sites or landscapes. Environmental legislation and requirements enhance the difficulty of recycling or maintaining such property and often force their destruction. Recent heritage, particularly that associated with the classical modern styles, is an important part of our common heritage, expressing major developments in architecture and society. It is suffering from a lack of recognition and protection as compared to "older" or more traditional heritage. In addition, sophisticated designs and often experimental technology give it additional vulnerability. Simple changes to meet more current needs, can alter the subtle architectural qualities of the buildings. In addition, the large quantity of such buildings or urban complexes creates a problem in establishing protection and conservation priorities. Cultural landscapes include a variety of situations, from the planned monumental gardens in some European contexts to the highly spiritual descriptions of a natural place achieved by indigenous cultures in North America or Aboriginal cultures in Australia, to the land use patterns in cities or countryside. Agriculture is in many places a major source of the cultural identity of the land; changing practices in agriculture and in the food industry world-wide are affecting these, often leading to a total loss. Major development projects also threaten the fragile values associated with indigenous spiritual landscapes. Loss of traditional skills and methods are also a concern. In general, the lack of understanding, recognition or knowledge of cultural landscapes enhances the lack of protection they endure. Archaeological sites constitute a major archive of the world and often the last tangible evidence of lifestyles or even entire cultures. Yet, in most cases they are often an invisible and often unexpected part of our heritage. They are very vulnerable to modern or intensive agricultural practices, urban sprawl, transportation or power dam projects as well as construction such as underground car parks. In the case of many exposed sites, their maintenance, safety protection and interpretation do not receive adequate resources which threatens the integrity of the place and objects related to it. Additional threats of looting affect particularly underwater heritage, as treasure hunting is facilitated by new technologies and markets, in the context of insufficient international and national legislation. The spiritual value of a sacred place or landscape, the associated traces of history, the marks of the craftsmen’s tools or the evidence of age are often disregarded as we move towards a more materialistic and superficial society. Conservation practice also creates some threats to those dimensions of heritage as it often focuses only on the material or design dimensions and reverts to strong cleansing and upgrading interventions. Too often, monuments, heritage places or sites are treated, protected or managed without much consideration paid to their immediate surroundings or greater setting. This risk is increased as legislation is often narrow in its application and lacks the provisions or impact assessment capacity that would enable the protection of surroundings as a standard practice. Buildings as well as archaeological sites or cultural landscapes have a value as immovable property but also because of the objects they include. Conservation effort is too often concentrated exclusively on the built fabric. Furniture, artwork, ethnological objects, archival documents relating to a heritage place, or even smaller landscape features are subject to various forms of neglect or dispersal. The immovable monument is then deprived of its full meaning. In addition, documents such as archaeological records or investigation reports, produced to enhance the knowledge and understanding of a heritage place and often using destructive methods, are also at risk.

6. Risks from Natural Processes

Natural processes or risks are more likely to be predictable depending on appropriate scientific and technological means. Many of them have already been addressed throughout history in the development of traditional construction methods or traditions. Natural processes not only threaten heritage through spectacular events or natural catastrophes of great destructive potential, they also act as a permanent state that is a result of the environment of the heritage place or monument, such as weathering or wearing of a building, that can be addressed through maintenance to limit their effects. Here is a list of such processes and risks:

Natural conditions

Natural processes

Natural hazards

Such processes are natural but the response to prevent the risk they represent to cultural heritage is a human responsibility. In some cases, we do not provide any response or even no prevention methods at all; for instance, a fire alarm system. In other cases, the response is more damaging than the threat itself; for instance when giant tetrapods are used to stabilise the seashore next to temples.

Type of response


7. Development-related Risks

Human activities have created the heritage we are now conserving. Current human activities can also be the source of a great range of threats to that heritage: from locating incompatible functions close to heritage places to their total destruction. The degree of impact is based on the degree of knowledge, recognition and legal protection of that heritage. Development choices and trends can be anticipated to a certain degree, but they can also be influenced by the development choice process, the rules, or the conservation framework. Examples of the pressures are:

Economic pressure

Large development projects

Unmanaged tourism

Unchallenged or uncontrolled development practices have led to irreversible damage or losses to all our heritage. New and powerful trends are evolving in the context of a more global and interrelated economy whose influence on the world’s cultural diversity is potentially devastating. Deep or planet-wide trends cannot be acted upon only through regular conservation tools or legislation, but action can be taken to enhance the level of national, regional or local ability to create an adequate balance between conserving and maintaining traditional or appropriate use of existing heritage places, monuments or sites, and responding to economic needs. Sustainability of heritage and cultural heritage are important in themselves.

Type of response


8. Risks from Social and Collective Behaviours

Human behaviour prevails at the individual level as well as the collective, and has proven to be a source of cultural heritage as well as a constant threat to its future. Human creativity created the artwork we enjoy today while the expressions of cultural identity have given our generation a rich set of symbols and witnesses from a near or distant past. These factors are highly qualitative and barely measurable. Yet, they can be assessed and observed so as to anticipate danger for cultural heritage.

Social breakdown

General social issues

Conservation activities can only have a limited impact on the sources of many of these risks considering their roots in wider social dimensions. Yet, tools have been developed until now to try to address some of these threats. At a broader level, education to include heritage in the positive values of society in a more open and humanistic world can be seen as possible paths to follow. Also, promoting the contribution of cultural heritage to the development of a more peaceful and sustainable human society is necessary. Conservation – in particular maintenance and repair-oriented practices – is also a basic component of a sustainable strategy for poverty reduction and developing a responsible sense of ownership.

Type of response


9. Weaknesses of the Conservation Safety Net

Risks to heritage are largely the results of factors or pressures coming from either the natural, social or economic environments. Also, some of the damage or loss mentioned in the reports refers to the necessity to consider possible weaknesses and improvements to the protection framework and to the tools that exist to prevent further threats to cultural heritage. These potential weaknesses can range from the lack of legal tools to a competitive or clustered division of work amongst the various disciplines, to a corporate attitude of conservation which does not always put continuous care,maintenance and repair, as a priority. Professional issues are also crucial as the protection "safety net" relies so much on human beings and their ability or will to act properly to preserve sites, monuments and heritage places in everyday or exceptional circumstances. Another major weakness is found in the need to better integrate heritage conservation concerns in the other activities of the public authorities such as public property management or post-disaster recovery.

Protection framework

Professional issues

The safety net of conservation is built by a range of different players: the public sector (national, regional and local authorities and agencies, conservation institutions, universities), the private sector (owners, manufacturers and builders, professional conservators, craftsmen, planners), and the civil society (non-governmental organisations, private associations, volunteers). Risks related to that safety net should be monitored by an on-going monitoring exercise to help identify weaknesses and address them so as to improve the overall system. As defined in the context of the World Heritage Convention, monitoring should be seen as a collaborative exercise to improve the state of conservation and, as such, is best realised jointly and in an open way. Focusing a diversity of players is a great challenge for the conservation framework. It raises a range of issues: the public sector’s commitment to have an exemplary attitude in its own operations, the need for incentives to stimulate or support private owners, the capacity to ensure an effective field presence by conservation institutions in the context of budget and staff reduction.

Type of response

Regional and National Reports ISC and Special Reports Relevant Websites H@R Index ICOMOS Home Page