27 February 2023

Culture: a Cornerstone for Sustainable Development

Culture and cultural heritage have unique abilities to imagine and push forward sustainability efforts, especially at the local scale. Not only can cultural assets be a source of creative collaboration and strengthened social cohesion, but they can also be included in planning to create livable, inclusive communities.

The link between culture and the transition to a liveable, equitable future has long been coming into focus. On a global scale, Agenda 2030 – the United Nations resolution that first articulated global Sustainable Development Goals – integrates culture and heritage into Target 11.4. Europe has also made strides to incorporate culture into sustainable development through initiatives like the New European Bauhaus and the European Green Deal. But, this trend needs to go further, such that culture is fully recognised as a tool for driving circular economy initiatives, rethinking resource and energy consumption, protecting historic buildings, and forging a just transition.

Culture is intertwined with the fabric of our communities; as such, it is necessarily a part of transitions to a sustainable future.

In a brand-new briefing paper, Culture and Cultural Heritage: A key asset for sustainable development and transition in cities, ICLEI makes the case for culture as a key part of sustainable development conversations, and provides opportunities to strengthen the link between sustainability and cultural heritage – opportunities as diverse as our shared cultural assets themselves: from repurposing abandoned or vacant buildings, to protecting historic areas from climate hazards, or even crafting new architectural and urban planning practices based on creative engagement strategies.

Some of the main recommendations of the briefing paper suggest thinking holistically and addressing environmental and socio-cultural issues together; applying sustainability goals to historic buildings; pursuing training on the cultural elements of climate action; and creating pilot projects that meaningfully engage the cultural sector in sustainability efforts.

Advocating for culture as a pillar of sustainability

ICLEI includes Culture and Cultural Heritage as one of its main streams of work, with experience from many projects that blend culture with other sustainable development priorities, from climate adaptation to sustainable tourism. What’s more, many ICLEI Members share the position that there is immense value in integrating culture with other local priorities.

As Timo Hintsanen, Director of Urban Planning for ICLEI Member Turku (Finland) asserts: “Culture has a lot to do with the well-being and attractiveness of a city, which are a part of sustainability as well. We are trying to develop our cultural life in a sustainable way...Therefore, culture in Turku is seen as a way to promote sustainability and as a sphere to become more sustainable itself.”

ICLEI’s dedication to centring culture is taken a step further through membership in the Cultural Heritage Expert Group of the European Commission (DG EAC), the Climate Heritage Network, the EU Task Force for Climate Neutral and Resilient Historic Urban Districts via the ARCH project, and the Urban Agenda for the EU Partnership on Sustainable Tourism. ICLEI Europe is also part of the establishment of a European Heritage Hub starting this spring – a platform that will bring cultural heritage stakeholders and initiatives together and will run for two years. This pilot, funded by the European Union, pools resources and expertise from key European partners to establish the largest-ever cultural heritage-driven movement.

This is not to say that pairing cultural heritage and sustainability is always easy. As Miia Paananen, Senior EU Advisor in Turku explains: “A question we still have is how to use culture to inspire people to act and change for climate action. There is a lot of potential for strengthening collaboration with Turku and the arts and creativity sector for this purpose...We estimate that Turku can achieve half of the desired emissions reductions, and the second half needs to come from citizens and other stakeholders. Therefore this connection is important.”

Without culture, climate and other sustainability efforts are incomplete; missing not only a significant part of what is at stake, but also a potential part of the path forward.

For guidance on how to put this idea into action, read the full briefing paper here, and learn more about ICLEI Europe’s work on Culture and Cultural Heritage here.