Cultural heritage

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Cultural heritage in coastal zones

This article gives an overview on special issues connected to Cultural Heritage in the context of integrated coastal zone management

Introduction and overview

Coastal zones are an important element of Europe’s cultural history, as the history of most European and global societies is closely connected with interactions between land and sea and across seas. Consequently, many buildings, port structures and production plants, further to shipwrecks and submerged artefacts are concentrated in coastal areas. They represent a cultural heritage which, in a prospective of sustainable and integrated coastal development, are a cultural endowment which should be handed down to future[1]. Further to this ethic imperative, cultural heritage has a potential of contributing to economic development, enhancing, if properly managed, the local potentials for attracting quality tourism in an area. The protection of this heritage represents a special challenge in the context of coastal zones, where pressures on land use are high, as economic interests connected to the conservation are frequently not developed, and the ethic imperative in favor of future generation's rights only rarely has a political voice in coastal management processes.

This contributions gives an overview on

  • Definition of Cultural Heritage
  • Legal aspects
  • Main specificities of cultural heritage in coastal zones
  • Principal challenges for their conservation
  • Options for management
  • Some examples

This article does not deal with specific, mainly legal, issues connected to underwater heritage and archeology, which should be treated in a separate page.

Definition of Cultural Heritage

The definition of the term “Cultural Heritage” has been evolving throughout the 20th century from an approach referring exclusively to "monuments", mainly single buildings, a concept which has been successively broadened, considering groups of buildings (ensembles), natural and man-made sites, arriving at a definition which includes both tangible and intangible heritage and the close interrelations between the two. According to the definition by UNESCO[2], objects and land/seascapes belonging to cultural heritage distinguish themselves for their "outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science". Natural heritage can be defined as "natural features consisting of physical and biological formations or groups of such formations, which are of outstanding universal value from the aesthetic or scientific point of view..." and " ... areas which constitute the habitat of threatened species of animals and plants of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation" and natural areas of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty". The close interrelation between the cultural heritage and (national, regional, local) identity introduced in the last decades of the 20th century, to the consideration of intangible heritage as the "mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development"[3] an element in need for safeguarding. Intangible heritage comprises, according to the definition provided by the specific convention adopted by UNESCO in 2003[3]: "(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; (b) performing arts; (c) social practices, rituals and festive events; (d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; (e) traditional craftsmanship."

Legal aspects

Cultural heritage is object of protection both at international and national level. At international level, UNESCO has promoted the ratification of the World Heritage Convention of 1975 and has included almost 1000 properties in the World Heritage List considered as having outstanding universal value. Practical implications for properties included in this list regard the possibility of financial support for countries in need of international assistance, and formal obligations for national authorities with regards to conservation of the properties. Further to these international recognition of sites and properies, the most relevant level for the protection of cultural heritage is represented by national laws, which can differ from one country to the other. (TBC) Since the early phases of legal formalization of Coastal Zone Management principles within the European legislation and policy frameworks, an important role has been attributed to recognition and management of coastal cultural heritage, as for instance in the European Code of Conduct for Coastal Zones adopted in 1999, which requires the protection of coastal landscapes from development, and the protection of cultural heritage[4]. Both the European code of conduct and the European Recommendation on Integrated Coastal Zone Management[5] underline the social, economic and environmental importance of cultural heritage in coastal zones and recommend “culturally sensitive management” and to include the protection of cultural heritage as part of integrated management strategies. The ICZM protocol under the Barcelona Convention[6] explicitly obliges all partners to “adopt … all appropriate measures to preserve and protect the cultural, in particular archaeological and historical, heritage of coastal zones, including the underwater cultural heritage, in conformity with the applicable national and international instruments.”

With regards to underwater heritage, special legal issues need to be considered as the sustainable conservation and protection of cultural heritage, such as ship wrecks and their freights poses various further challenges.

Characteristics of Cultural Heritage in Coastal Zones

Most coastal communities have developed strategies, knowledge, traditions, beliefs and professional skills connected to trade, exchange and exploitation of marine resources, which are particularly rich as they correspond of the specific challenges connected to the management of the coastal and marine environment and because of the particular intensity of exchanges between cultures passing across the seas[1]. Coastal and marine activities have created buildings and artefacts highly adapted to their specific technical needs, like port structures, shipyards, structures for navigation, fisheries and aquaculture as well as representative buildings which once defined the physical interface between land and sea, defining the identity of a place. Further to coastal villages and urban waterfronts with a specific architecture and asset connected to the necessities of fishermen or marine trade, also productive areas can be candidates for conservation, like salines, shipyards and aquaculture plants. In some regions, port areas are characterized by huge obsolete industrial zones, which for some time coined the cultural identity of these areas. Many of them are difficult to be conserved because of their extension and because of the lack of economic support for new projects so that the physical landmarks potentially connected to a specific regional identity are being cancelled[7].

Globalization, urbanization of coasts and economic and ecologic change threaten both material and immaterial evidence of knowledge and skills created over centuries of managing coastal and marine resources, for instance in relation to water management or fisheries, at the same pace at which local identities are deminished. In coastal zones, artefacts, landscapes and intangible elements are under specific threat of damage or complete loss, given the great anthropogenic pressures exerted by urbanization and economic development onto the relatively restricted coastal areas. Further threats onto elements of coastal heritage are connected to impacts from climate change, especially in terms of coastal flooding and erosion, which are expected to provoke damage or complete losses of buildings, structures, and of coastal land- and seascapes.

Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development

In a prospective of sustainable development, conservation of all forms of cultural heritage has a twofold value, both in social and in economic terms: Under a prospective of social justice, cultural heritage represents an endowment which should be handed down to future generations. Under a prospective of economic development, cultural heritage is able to generate positive externalities and to contribute to the valorization of coastal areas, mainly in relation to an increasing demand for quality tourism and quality of life for the local communities. For this reason for instance in the European Community's[1] finance of local and regional development in poorer regions explicitly targets the promotion of cultural development, "to help them assert their identity, attract tourists and create jobs in areas like online services and the media".

Options for management of cultural heritage in coastal zones

Protection and conservation of objects of coastal heritage requires, further to their inventarization, specific technical, institutional and economic measures for their consolidation. Accelerated social and economic change and the gradual enlargement of the concept of coastal heritage have created a growing number of objects in need of conservation measures, for example, of historic buildings connected to sea ports or manufacturing facilities. The realization of conservation projects for the protection of cultural heritage artefacts represents a special challenge in the context of coastal zones, as economic interests connected to its conservation are frequently not developed, and the ethic imperative in favor or future generation's rights on experiencing these objects only rarely has a political voice in the management processes. The most conventional form of conservation measure consists of an exclusion of the objects of cultural heritage from economic uses and their transformation in museums and protected areas. Many museums are dedicated to marine and coastal culture and exhibit artefacts, objects, and buildings. These initiatives represent, further to their conservation activities an important attraction for tourists. As successful strategy for local or regional sustainable development should nevertheless be able to build on networks connecting different objects of cultural heritage or on trails of objects to be visited in order to create a territorial identity to be used for attracting cultural tourism[8]. Considering the entity of objects requiring conservation measures, public finance for conservation projects, creation of museums and parks or the introduction of new public uses (schools, administrations and other public services providing public access to the objects) appear feasible only for a part of the objects requiring intervention. Alternative forms of uses need to be considered which are able to reconcile the very specific requirements of a conservation project and the maintenance of the specific characteristics of the building which qualifies it as cultural heritage, with those of economic uses which are able to contribute to or provide for conservation and re-use. The decision not to use an asset undermines the intrinsic value of the asset and poses the threat of possible abandonment and subsequent loss of the asset on the whole. Economic projects for the re-use of cultural heritage demand for a balance between those conditions which make the project affordable for an investor and the public interest in cultural heritage, thus including the possibilities of access and the object's visibility. In case of economic re-use, most of the buildings or ensembles will be used for purposes which are very different from their original destination, and even in cases of re-use for similar purposes, the interventions required (for instance dictated by standards and building regulations to be respected) might require alterations which are not incompatible with the typology and structure of the original asset. Over-use or incompatible use can have similar consequences to those of abandonment and can gradually reduce the cultural value and historic evidence of the artefact. The design of economic re-use projects requires, further to the availability of private investors, a careful valuation of the sustainability - in social (conservation of the historic legacy) economic (feasibility of the conservation project) and environmental (suitability of the context and of the new economic use) terms[9].


Hamburg Speicherstadt:Zollkanal
Objects in coastal zones comprise many port areas which have become obsolete by the evolution of marine transport, leaving areas frequently close to the city centers free for new uses. Neverthelss, many of these areas are so extended that their re-use finds obstacles in the lack of demand and complex projects need to be activated. An early example of urban re-use of former port areas is represented by the London Docklands, where most of the historic buildings have left place for an urban structure with a much higher density; and the, in Hamburg (Germany),an area of Warehouses transformed in part for public attractions and museums and in part used as warehouses for economic activities.
Venice Arsenale

Urban marine architecture: Venice Arsenale (Italy)

About 45 hectares in size, the Venetian Arsenale accounts for about 15% of the area of the city of Venice. Founded in 1104, in its heyday the Arsenale employed roughly 20,000 workers and was said to produce one ship a day. The Arsenale started to decline after World War I with increasing ship sizes no longer compatible with the traditional buildings, and continued to decline at an even faster rate after World War II, when its buildings were progressively abandoned. Since the Military use is actually gradually declining, its reuse represents and important challenge for the Venice Municipality, which is actually resolved only partially by the adaptation of parts of the buildings for research facilities[10].

Traditional coastal knowledge and skills (Delta del Po Natural Park (Italy)

The Italian natural Park Delta del Po, in the Emilia Romagna, aims at protecting a natural area in the Po Delta which has been transformed during centuries of human intervention and economic uses of the coastal and estuarine resources. Further to the more pristine natural areas, the park has included, fish farming and salt works among the traditional economic activities represented to visitors, involving local communities in the management of these activities and in surveillance against illegal fishing, internal catch management and marketing.

Traditional tool for fish capture, Natural Park Po Delta, Italy (With kind permission from "Archivio Fotografico Parco Delta Po Emilia-Romagna")

Coastal landscapes: Ibiza (Spain)

In the UNESCO World heritage programme, many coastal areas have been included in the list of world heritage sites, the highest internationally recognized status for conservation. One of these sites is the Island of Ibiza, where the protection programme asks for the conservation of both ecosystems (especially prairies of oceanic Posidonia) the island's cultural landscape and archeologic sites.

References and further readings

  1. 1.0 1.1 Vallega, A., 2003. The coastal cultural heritage facing coastal management. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 4(1), pp.5–24.
  2. UNESCO, 1972. Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Adopted by the General Conference at its seventeenth session Paris, 16 november 1972.
  3. 3.0 3.1 UNESCO, 2003. Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
  4. Council of Europe, 1999. European Code of Conduct for Coastal Zones, Committee for the Activities of the Council of Europe in the Field of Biological and Landscape Diversity.
  5. Council of Europe, 2002. Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2002 concerning the implementation of Integrated Coastal Zone Management in Europe,
  6. UNEP/MAP, 2008. Protocol on Integrated Coastal Zone Management in the Mediterranean,
  7. Howard, P. & Pinder, D., 2003. Cultural heritage and sustainability in the coastal zone: experiences in south west England. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 4(1), pp.57 – 68.
  8. Callegari, F., 2003. Sustainable development prospects for Italian coastal cultural heritage: a Ligurian case study. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 4(1), pp.49 – 56.
  9. Giove, S., Rosato, P. & Breil, M., 2009. A Multicriteria Approach for the Evaluation of the Sustainability of Re-Use of Historic Buildings in Venice, Venice: University Ca’ Foscari.
  10. Rosato, P., Giove, S. & Breil, M., 2011. An Application of Multicriteria Decision Making to Built Heritage. The redevelopment of Venice Arsenale. Journal of Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis, 17(3-4), pp.85–99.
The main author of this article is Margaretha Breil
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Margaretha Breil (2020): Cultural heritage. Available from [accessed on 5-12-2022]