By Donovan Rypkema
Confused by acronyms? Welcome to the world of the United Nations (UN), international diplomacy, and the inching forward of heritage conservation on the world’s development agenda.
In October some 50,000 people from 200 countries descended on Quito, Ecuador, for Habitat III—and the fact that Quito was the first World Heritage City was not lost on either the heritage conservation advocates or other attendees. Does this matter to historic preservation in the United States? Absolutely! But first a step back.
Leading up to Quito
In 1976 the United Nations held a conference on “Human Settlements and Sustainable Urban Development” in Vancouver—a forum subsequently dubbed Habitat I. The resulting Vancouver Declaration included an action plan to address issues of global urbanization and its consequences. Two years later the conference also resulted in the establishment of the United Nations Human Settlements Program, or UN-Habitat,—one of 30 or so UN Agencies, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and others.
Twenty years later Habitat II was convened in Istanbul, and from that session emerged the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This commitment, adopted by the members of the UN General Assembly, included eight goals, within which were a total of 18 targets, each of which had one or more indicators. For example, Goal 4 was “Reduce Child Mortality,” with one target—“Reduce by two-thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate”—and three indicators to measure progress. The goals were certainly a noble set of aspirations, but they did not include any mention of culture in general or heritage in particular.
The deadline for reaching the MDGs was initially set at 2015, so if this process of international accountability for sustainable development was to continue, a new set of goals became necessary. In fall 2015, after two years of meetings and diplomatic negotiations and input from hundreds of stakeholder groups, the UN General Assembly approved the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), intended to guide the world toward comprehensive sustainable development. The list expanded to 17 goals and 169 targets. But as a result of years of conscientious work by UNESCO, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and dozens of like-minded entities, culture was finally recognized as an essential component of sustainable development.
Several of the SDG targets actually mention culture or cultural heritage, but the most significant is Goal 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Its Target 11.4 reads, “Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.” From the perspective of historic preservation in the United States, the goal is great, the target is good, but the indicator, frankly, is terrible:
Total expenditure (public and private) per capita spent on the preservation, protection and conservation of all cultural and natural heritage, by type of heritage (cultural, natural, mixed and World Heritage Centre designation), level of government (national, regional and local/municipal), type of expenditure (operating expenditure/investment) and type of private funding (donations in kind, private nonprofit sector and sponsorship)
The definitions are fuzzy; the data are uncollectible in many parts of the world; and even if the first two problems were resolved, the answer wouldn’t tell you much. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there will be work over the next two years to expand and refine the current indicator.
The New Urban Agenda
Largely parallel to, but separate from, the SDGs is the New Urban Agenda (NUA). This document was developed over the last year-and-a-half through an exhaustive preparatory process, but grew out of the recognition of several realities: (1) while the SDGs set targets for nations, most of the implementation will need to take place at the city or regional levels; (2) the SDGs have much to say about “what” but much less about “how” or “by whom”; and (3) goals are great, but the real tests of success will be implementation, bottom up experimentation, and localization.
While there are no specific targets within the NUA, each of its components represents a formal commitment by the nearly 200 countries that voted for its adoption. In the typical language required to get all of the nations of the world to agree to anything, there are 175 paragraphs, each beginning with “we encourage,” “we will support,” “we will strengthen,” or similar. But six of them (slightly paraphrased here) represent a direct commitment to heritage conservation:
- Leverage cultural heritage to strengthen social participation and the exercise of citizenship (38);
- Develop vibrant, sustainable, and inclusive urban economies, building on cultural heritage (45);
- Support urban economies through promoting heritage conservation activities (60);
- Promote regeneration while preserving cultural heritage (97);
- Include culture as a priority component of urban plans and strategies that safeguard cultural heritage (124); and
- Support leveraging cultural heritage for sustainable urban development (125).
The Outcome in Quito
We now have, for the first time ever, a written acknowledgement of and commitment to historic preservation as a part of sustainable development. It is not just that the UN General Assembly approved the SDGs last fall or that the heads of state, ministers, and cabinet officials unanimously agreed to the NUA in Quito—the United States voted “yes” on both documents. As Andrew Potts noted in his analysis, this is a very big deal. (And Potts would know: he has simultaneously served as the executive director of US/ICOMOS and the SDG point person for all of ICOMOS for the last two years. No other American outside of government has played a more active role in pushing for the inclusion of in the SDGs and, even more so, in the NUA.)
While clean air, clean water, the reduction of poverty, and safe housing remain vitally important international commitments, the inclusion of cultural heritage as a parallel commitment represents a sizable and positive shift in international attitudes—one that was evident in the exhibition area in Quito. Many countries were represented by booths, and many of those booths included posters, displays, or materials that emphasized cultural heritage in countries as diverse as Belgium, Saudi Arabia, China, Poland, Japan, France, and Morocco. Sudan and Malaysia, as well as the Palestinian Territories and the European Commission, highlighted their built cultural heritage initiatives. Alas, the U.S. booth made no mention of cultural heritage.
The Next Two Years
Now that the SDGs and the NUA have been officially adopted, the real work of implementation begins. Much of that, of course, is in the hands of national governments, but there is also a long to-do list for heritage advocates. As noted earlier, the indicator for SDG 11.4 is inadequate and needs to be drastically improved. At the same time, putting the NUA into practice will require tools, measurements, case studies, and strategies to need to be developed. And if heritage advocates don’t take the lead in developing those resources, it won’t get done.
But one of the most positive outcomes in Quito was the development of a working group—put together, again, by Andrew Potts. Potts assembled a coalition among ICOMOS; its counterpart in the natural heritage world, the International Union for Conservation of Nature; and the cultural committee of the United Cities and Local Governments. In a meeting that included participants from Belgium, Canada, France, Ecuador, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States, this informal group committed to take the lead in proposing alternative metrics for the SDGs and appropriate measurements for the implementation of the NUA.
The international policy framework has now been established for heritage conservation to play a much larger role in the world’s sustainable development efforts. It will be up to historic preservation advocates to make that happen.
Donovan Rypkema is the principal at PlaceEconomics a private sector firm with over thirty years experience in the thorough and robust analysis of the economic impacts of historic preservation.
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