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The Heritage as a Resource


An asset for local development:
heritage as a resource

by Michael Dower


The future of a rural area can depend on
its capacity to successfully use the heritage from
its past. Taking advantage of heritage is a vital
component of the local development process.


Rural Europe is fortunate to have an extremely rich and varied natural and cultural heritage. The range of this heritage is very wide. It encompasses wild fauna and flora, natural or man-made landscapes, villages and hamlets with myriad historic and architectural distinctions in the form of buildings but also other works such as bridges, mills or dry-stone walls and a whole range of items (wash houses, roadside crosses, etc.) called "small heritage".

In addition to this physical and building heritage is everything that history has passed down, culture in its immaterial dimension: language and customs, folklore, musical and artistic traditions, dances, local products, culinary specialties, not to mention of course crafts, trades and old know-how. This diversity is also area-based: each "land" has its own character, a "soul" that is often the pride of the inhabitants and attracts the outside visitor.

The actors of development can count on this pride to encourage the continuation of actions that have led to the organisation of this heritage and that can satisfy today's needs. Heritage features are a resource to be used, and taking examples from various parts of Europe, especially buildings, we will try to show how these features can serve sustainable local development.



Old buildings and monuments were built to meet the social, economic and cultural needs of past generations. They embody the development effort of a specific period in time. They also represent an important asset and a source of inspiration for those who are working in the same sense today.

But pride in heritage and the sense of historic continuity are a recent phenomenon. They have not always been values shared by all rural people. In the 1960s, for example, those who wanted everything to be "modern" were not particularly interested in preserving old know-how. In a number of countries, for a long time, the past evoked hardships, lack of comfort, the "hard life", all things that people wanted to put behind them by adopting the latest technical innovations. More or less everywhere in Europe there was a clear break with traditions and techniques, the consequence being that buildings of character were abandoned and specific forms of landscaping disappeared (hedges, dry-stone walls, etc.). Rather quickly, however, the disharmony and erring ways that resulted triggered a reaction to rehabilitate heritage sites, to rediscover their authenticity, to again respect the past.

In certain regions, this continuity in tradition has never been broken and is fully participating in local development. In central Sweden, which is characterised by vast forest ranges, timber is still the mainstay of the economy and the primary building material. Most homes and commercial buildings are still built with beams and logs, but in a modernised form that meets the most demanding comfort criteria. In addition to the large industrial sawmills which primarily export timber are some modest-sized firms which still prepare timber in the old way for building. Benefiting from this major outlet which has a good value added, the timber business has generated a number of local jobs. The harmonious association between traditional building and modernity often induces other services: in Gysinge Bruk (Gäveleborgslän), for example, a documentation and consulting centre set up in old buildings helps people choose materials and equipment that respects the architectural tradition. In Stora Kopparberg (Vaestsverige), the famous red "Falun" paint which protects rural buildings throughout Sweden continues to be produced.

In Brittany (France), the architecture is characterised by sturdy gabled structures. Doorways and window frames are made of granite, the furniture is made of oak or some other hardwood. Even if the size of dwellings has often increased considerably, granite and oak are still present, ensuring continuity of tradition and employment for quarriers, woodcutters, stone masons and cabinetmakers.

In the North of England, Peak National Park is surrounded by limestone walls which have demarcated grazing land for centuries now. Over the past decades, changes in farming practices have led livestock farmers to neglect these walls and replace them by unsightly and less durable fences. Concerned with protecting an important feature of the landscape, the Park authorities were successful in obtaining State premiums for the restoration and conservation of the walls. The operation made it possible to safeguard the quality of the countryside while creating 20 jobs for full-time specialised craftsmen.


Old buildings, new purposes

All societies inevitably go through cycles of growth, decline or transformation. The periods of economic growth spur on the construction of new buildings for specific uses. Decline or transformation leads to a change in use, under-use or even outright abandonment of these buildings. But few buildings deserve such a fate: they are more often than not an asset to be put to use to get the local economy going again. The economic decline of L'Isle-Crémieu in Isère (Rhône-Alpes, France) led to the abandonment or under-occupancy of a number of stone houses in the historic centre. In the 1980s, an ambitious development programme was begun with the help of the ANAH, the "Agence nationale pour l'amélioration de l'habitat" (National Agency for the Improvement of Dwellings). The Agency financed a study to draw up a list of empty properties that might be rented out. A thousand buildings were identified in this way, and the ANAH contacted the owners to propose covering 50% of the costs to renovate the properties and bring them up to rental standards. The municipality also became involved by granting premiums for the safeguard of the historic nature of certain buildings.

Thirty years ago, the National Trust for Scotland, a foundation for the preservation of heritage sites, took a similar initiative by setting up a fund for the protection of houses of character in the ports along the coast of Fife. The Trust acquired some, then renovated and resold them on the express condition that the new owner respect their particular style. The initiative led to a number of revitalisation actions carried out by other organisations of this economically depressed area.

Germany has plenty of examples of old buildings put to new uses. In Hesse, for example, the "Förderkreis Alte Kirchen" (Foundation for Old Churches) association has tried to find new ways to use old disused churches by turning them into cultural centres, multi-purpose rooms, etc. Across Germany, thousands of old unused farm buildings have been turned into comfortable dwellings respecting the original style. There too, a number of associations provide the owners with technical assistance for restoration, remodelling and maintenance.

With a little imagination and ingenuity, a whole variety of uses can be found for these structures. In Austria, the development agency of Feldbach (Styria) has set up its offices in the annexes of Kornberg castle. The archways of the citadel of Blaye, north of Bordeaux (Aquitaine, France), serve for the meetings of the regional winemaking association and the offices of the European Conference of Winemaking Regions.

In Ireland, the outbuildings of Kilkenny castle were restored in the 1960s to house the Irish Design Centre, a government initiative aimed to stimulate ideas and foster research for innovative quality products. Today these buildings are used for training courses in craft techniques organised by the Irish Crafts Council. In England, the old watermill of Bovey Tracey is used for the shop and exhibition gallery of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen. In Hope, in Derbyshire, traditional rural buildings have been saved from ruin by the Peak Park Trust foundation which has set up a teleservice centre and a series of small workshops.

In addition to the technical and architectural know-how that it implies, the reconversion of old buildings can also require financial and legal ingenuity. In Totnes, in southwest England, a group of 19th century warehouses were sitting idle and doomed to be torn down. A group of residents formed an association and succeeded in finding the necessary funds to acquire the site. The association then created a company with ECU 250 000 in equity capital. The company leased the buildings and obtained an additional ECU 250 000 in bank loans. The total amount (ECU 500 000) was then invested in an initial phase of restoration and conversion. The remodelled rooms were then sublet, making it possible to free up the ECU 500 000 for a second phase of work. When this was completed, the same cycle of subletting was repeated so that the funds could be released for a final phase of restoration. All the buildings have now been restored and sublet as shops, flats (12 dwellings), offices and a restaurant. All these activities have created over 25 jobs. The company, which transferred its main lease to an investment company, can now pay back the loans and the investment of its shareholders. Meanwhile, the original association has continued its vocation by taking on other renovation projects.


Heritage and tourism

Tourism generally receives priority in rural development programmes (over 42% of the amounts invested during LEADER I went to this sector).
In some cases, like in Barbagia Baronie in Sardinia, the island of La Palma in the Canaries (see corresponding articles) or Pays Cathare in France, the local tourism officials are trying to get a percentage of the visitors of the tourist towns or the coast to go to the more remote rural areas. But rural tourism and coastal tourism differ substantially: the coast has the universal attraction of the sea and beaches whereas in the countryside the tourist will be more interested in the character of the places, the special aspects that he will discover, in short, the local heritage. One needs only open a tourist brochure on any rural area in Europe to see that heritage is the main feature. The region to be visited is always "full of history... endowed with a rich fauna... picturesque celebrations and festivals... traditional crafts... unique gastronomic products...". But it is much easier to write these kinds of things than to truly offer what is announced: the visitor must be able to actually taste, visit, see – and buy – what is local and specific. This means wisely developing the heritage sites in a sustainable manner in the context of integrated local development programmes like LEADER.

Fortunately, the Old World is not lacking in tourist sites, infrastructures or initiatives that bring the visitor in direct contact with heritage, thereby participating in its preservation and in the development of the local economy. Tourist accommodation is a striking example. Throughout Europe there are accommodations of all types and categories, set up in historic buildings or buildings of character. Among the most sumptuous are certain Spanish paradores and Portuguese posadas which give the visitor an idea of life in castles, palaces or stately homes. The economic interest grouping "Europe of Traditions", created in June 1997 at the initiative of the LEADER group of Vale do Lima (Portugal), comprises five national organisations of first-rate tourist accommodation: "Chambres d'Amis Benelux", "Château Accueil" (France), "The Hidden Ireland" (Ireland), "Wolsey Lodges" (United Kingdom) and "TURIHAB/Solares de Portugal". The aim of the consortium is to promote tourist accommodation in old homes of character throughout Europe and to preserve their related historic heritage.

In the United Kingdom, the Landmark Trust offers quality accommodation in a large range of buildings of architectural interest or with a certain originality: the profits generated from this are used for the conservation of buildings by local craftsmen. On the island of Hydra in Greece, an old sponge factory has been converted and expanded to house a hotel of exceptional character.

A large proportion of the 19 000 odd addresses listed by the Gîtes de France is comprised of annexes of reconverted farms or village houses of character. The same is true for accommodation on the farm – rural cottages, bed & breakfasts or guest rooms – marketed by Urlaub auf dem Bauernhof ("Farm Holidays", Germany), Agriturist (Italy), Privetur (Portugal), Irish Farm Holidays (Ireland) and other networks elsewhere in Europe.

Hundreds of youth hostels are in castles, manors, mills, etc. like Kasteel Westhove in Domburg on the Dutch coast. In the United Kingdom, a growing number of camping barns accommodate walkers for modest sums; it is a way of giving a new lease of life to buildings that have become useless and of ensuring an additional income for farmers. In disadvantaged rural areas, finding the necessary funds to convert a building for accommodation and bring it up to standards can be difficult. As a result, there is the risk of seeing houses become run down or bought up as second residences which is not always of help for the local economy. It is therefore an area of possible intervention for local development agencies.

In the small historic town of Specchia (Apulia, Italy), the LEADER group of Capo Santa Maria di Leuca reached an agreement with the owners of a dozen unoccupied houses in the heart of the village. The LAG rents these houses for ten years, renovates them by equipping them with every modern comfort and markets them as tourist accommodation. The profits are distributed to the owners who recover their property at the end of the lease and are free to continue or stop renting. In addition, a tourist information centre has been set up together with a restaurant accommodating fifty which is open throughout the year. A similar initiative in Ambelakia (Thessalia, Greece) has helped bring back to life a number of run-down or unoccupied houses in the village.

Heritage sites are also a pretext for a number of tourist activities. Too often, however, these are limited to the classic visit of a castle or church without any particular activity or special event. At the other end of the spectrum, some tourist initiatives use heritage sites for anything and everything, even the most doubtful, as long as they generate profit: the original heritage is then betrayed, distorted.

Between these two extremes, numerous actions fortunately try to protect the building of character or other heritage wealth and present it in a lively and honest manner and create jobs and income for the local community. The many French eco-museums are a good example of this, as are the great variety of country houses and gardens of character managed by the British National Trust or the town of Alberobello (Apulia, Italy) and its exceptional "trulli" houses with cone-shaped stone roofs.

The port of Morwellham is located along the banks of the Tamar, some thirty kilometers from Plymouth in southwest England. Founded 900 years ago by the monks of the abbey of Tavistock, it first served to ship tin from Dartmoor then experienced tremendous development with the discovery of a large copper deposit nearby. After the vein was depleted, around 1900, the port was gradually abandoned. In the 1960s, it had practically disappeared under the mud and vegetation. The valley's economy was bled white. In 1969, the port was taken over by a local foundation to preserve and "interpret" the place, to draw tourists and to generate income for the area. Since then, over ECU 2 million from private, national and European sources (ERDF) have been allocated to preserve the site and accommodate some 100 000 visitors a year. With turnover of more than ECU 1 million, the site currently provides 20 full-time jobs and 50 seasonal jobs.

One of the great attractions of tourism is its mobility. And many aspects of heritage can be easily incorporated in tourist itineraries or theme circuits. For example, wine trails, pilgrimage roads (such as those leading to Santiago de Compostelo in Spain), but also steam trains (very popular in the United Kingdom, France and Belgium in particular), canals and navigable waterways which in their own way tell the history of a number of regions, etc. are all ways to bring together different aspects of the heritage of the regions crossed (see boxed text on "Heritage Trails"). In Barenton, in the Regional Nature Reserve of Normandie-Maine (France), a rural group of buildings representative of the regional architecture house the "Maison de la Pomme et de la Poire" (Apple and Pear Centre) where the production of cider, calvados, "poirée" (alcoholic pear beverage) and other drinks is explained. Following marked itineraries, visitors can stop at farms where they can taste and directly buy these products.


Combining heritage and development

A resource at the service of sustainable development, heritage has a value in itself. It represents the collective memory of the population and is a potential resource for its future. If done properly, the development of a heritage site does not conflict with the satisfaction of current needs, much to the contrary. More and more, heritage sites are considered important, even when modest. The challenge today is rather to better integrate the protection, utilisation and enhancement of heritage in the local development approach. The defenders of heritage and local development actors are partners. The development programmes must include in their approach the utilisation of heritage, defuse the threats that put it in jeopardy whenever possible. Conversely, the defenders of heritage must take into account local development needs and take advantage of every opportunity for synergy.

The necessary merger between a heritage policy and the "bottom-up" approach of local development is at the heart of a programme like LEADER. This need was reaffirmed in the "Cork Declaration" of November 1996 (see LEADER Magazine no.14). It is also one of the main challenges of the "Strategy for Rural Europe" published by ECOVAST in 1994. Development agencies are in a good position to promote the awareness of rural communities of local heritage and its usefulness. In the United Kingdom, for example, an action conducted in the framework of LEADER II by the South Pembrokeshire group (Wales) includes courses in local history, training in traditional building techniques and the creation by village communities of heritage trails that encourage visitors to stay and consume in the region. The local people in this way participate in the development of their area and take personal charge of the heritage that they have inherited.

        Secretary General of ECOVAST (European Council for the Village and Small Town), a European network for the protection of heritage and the well-being of rural people, Michael Dower is guest professor at Cheltenham & Gloucester College (England, United Kingdom) where he teaches rural spatial development.


source: LEADER Magazine No.17 - Spring, 1998

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