Last edited 04 Oct 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Heritage risk management strategies in the EU



Europe’s cultural heritage is under increasing threat from the effects of natural disasters often caused by climate change, and from hazards caused by human activity such as armed conflict. These threaten not only the physical structure of heritage, but also its social, economic, historic and cultural value. The loss of heritage can have a profoundly negative effect on a region’s tourism, economic prosperity and cultural identity, so the research, development and implementation of pan-European strategies to ensure its protection are vital.

To help determine the best way forward, in 2014, the Council of the European Union requested that the European Commission conduct a 12-month study into existing policies and strategies of risk assessment and prevention for safeguarding cultural heritage from the effects of natural disasters and threats caused by human action. The result was the 2018 reportSafeguarding Cultural Heritage from Natural and Man-made Disasters: A comparative analysis of risk management in the EU’.

In June 2016, the European Commission also published a five-year action plan on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 (Sendai Framework), a global agreement on disaster risk management, adopted by the United Nations in 2015. The action plan aimed to create a more systematic disaster risk-informed approach to protecting cultural heritage and promoted the need to integrate it in the development of national disaster risk reduction strategies and policies.

The 2018 European Commission report on safeguarding cultural heritage promoted the integration of cultural heritage as a new focus area within the Sendai Framework and encouraged a collaborative approach to protecting heritage across national platforms as outlined later in this article.

Study objectives

The 12-month study that led up to the publication of the 2018 European Commission report focused on three specific objectives to help determine which areas still need to be addressed in terms of the risk management and the protection of cultural heritage in EU strategies and policy. The first objective was to provide an overview of available risk assessment and prevention information at EU and international level. The second was to map existing strategies and management tools in all member states for the disaster risk management of cultural heritage. And finally, it was to assess and identify strengths and weaknesses in European cultural heritage risk management measures and to make recommendations to improve them.

The study took into account a range of factors relating to risk management, including threats posed by and stemming from climate change – with particular attention given to issues caused as a result of human activity - flooding, landslide, earthquakes, and other human driven issues like armed conflict.

Study findings

Within the priorities identified by the Sendai Framework, the study consistently found key gaps where cultural heritage issues were not being taken into account. The requirements were reported on as summarised below, and subsequent recommendations were put forward.

Policy requirements

The study identified a need for greater understanding transnationally that cultural heritage requires protection from a wide range of potentially damaging scenarios. Long-term cultural heritage measures and strategies were required to address the impact of both natural and man-made consequences, including greater universal integration of cultural heritage requirements into existing and future funded research, and information and mapping development programmes. Improvements were also needed in unifying the accessibility of national and regional/local strategic guidelines and regulations, including addressing the ‘linguistic obstacle’ where texts are only available in local languages, not in English. Amendments to Eurocodes and other relevant standards would be required to take into account the physical features of traditional and historic assets and their cultural and socio-economic value, when addressing disaster scenarios. The study highlighted the use of innovative financial incentives, including tax relief to address the lack of maintenance and remedial work which leads to deterioration and/or abandonment, and called for an evaluation of the potential economic loss caused by all forms of physical damage. It also highlighted the need for long-term support for pan-professional disaster training for experts in the built heritage field, covering the full range of relevant risks.

Implementation requirements

Regarding administration and managerial implementation requirements, the study recognised a need for an effective coordinating methodology that covers all eventualities relating to disaster and cultural heritage. Educational programmes were also required to combat the lack of public awareness of disaster management issues, and a need to train specific employees of relevant organisations to plan for and respond to disaster related incidents was flagged. The study also recommended that documentation relating to cultural heritage be digitised and made available as electronic archival reference materials, and that emergency measures be put in place to ensure the protection of valuable items be prioritised in the event of a disaster. The importance of monitoring possible vulnerabilities of cultural heritage was also highlighted to help prepare for and aid in the recovery of heritage items.

Knowledge and research requirements

The study identified a need for an inventory of cultural heritage assets that are pre-assessed as disaster endangered to help pre-empt the possibility of damage. It also highlighted a need for the development of a risk management strategy that looks at the consequences associated with the loss of heritage, along with an assessment of its values. It recommended putting in place an integrated methodology to help predict the impact of potential disasters on cultural heritage through collating and improving inspection and diagnostic observational data.

The study also highlighted the importance of recognising and understanding the range of risk scenarios possible in urban historic centres, archaeological sites, and cultural landscapes, which can occur as a result of climate change related incidents and other potential threats. It flagged a need for developing an early warning system to effectively safeguard cultural heritage, and for appropriate quantitative design data codes and methods to be developed to repair damage and establish funding action priorities. The promotion of pre-planned analysis and preventive measures to develop a suitable strategy to protect cultural heritage against disaster is recommended, as is the development of strategies to raise awareness of the pre- and post-disaster event documentation to all related parties.

Key lessons

It was noted that the challenge of integrating cultural heritage within member states’ national disaster and risk reduction efforts suffered from: a lack of coordination and integration between and across the European, national and regional risk management policies and strategies; a lack of alignment in the responsibility chain from policy making to practical application; and the current low priority of cultural heritage in risk management planning.

Study recommendations

To help overcome the issues outlined above, the European Commission report promoted an integrated approach to safeguarding cultural heritage from disaster in Europe. This aimed to address the problems surrounding the implementation, management and application of existing strategies, and to bridge the gaps in existing knowledge and policy by creating synergies between political, administrative and operational levels of disaster awareness, with the subsequent recommendations framed in accordance with the four Sendai priorities:

  1. understanding disaster risk – countries should raise awareness of the risks to heritage from disaster and support targeted projects that address all categories of risk
  2. strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk – countries should promote the collaboration of competent authorities and support structural documentation of heritage using digital methods
  3. investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience – countries should establish priorities for protecting cultural heritage assets and improve education on the subject
  4. enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to ‘build back better’ in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction – new European standards should be drafted, the application of satellite services is to be fostered, and research on safeguarding heritage should be supported.

European civil protection forum

The findings of the European Commission study were presented in Brussels to 900 representatives at the European Civil Protection Forum 2018. The aim was to provide a platform to discuss the current developments in safeguarding cultural heritage from the effects of disaster, and the future of the Union’s civil protection mechanism. The forum was developed on four strategic pillars: strengthening preparedness; simplifying response; scaling up prevention; and fostering resilience in Europe’s neighbourhood.

Of particular interest was how cultural heritage needs should be incorporated in future EU policy decisions. The forum’s ‘Pillar 3 Scaling Up Prevention – protecting cultural heritageevent offered a series of related presentations that built upon the European Commission study findings, concluding with a discussion that summarised its concerns and promoted a future direction.

Consequently, in the forum’s final report, the sectionPillar 3 Scaling up Prevention, cultural heritage’ comes centre stage in directing the various agencies civil protection future policies, as the extract below makes clear.

Adequate preparedness, improved coordination at EU level and enhanced capacity-building is needed for better protection of cultural heritage. The facilitation of pre-event assessments and pre-defined recovery actions and targets can lead to greater and more effective protection of cultural heritage in emergencies. Disaster risk assessment and the related risk reduction measures should be introduced into the planning and management cultural heritage resources. The proposed Civil Protection Knowledge Network should develop in-depth knowledge, analysis and data collection and assessment of risks to cultural heritage. Strengthening coordination at EU level among National cultural heritage authorities, research centres, and emergency response actors is fundamental. In the context of the ongoing revision of the Union Civil Protection Mechanism, capacity-building initiatives and best practices should be harnessed and scaled-up to address the existing gaps. Dedicated cultural heritage units within civil protection agencies should be created.

From Pillar 3, Civil Protection in a Changing Risk Landscape: Final Report

It should be noted that, in the aftermath of Brexit, a key to the continuing success of European cooperation in the safeguarding of cultural heritage against risk and the development of future needs lies in the ability to effectively link with likeminded professionals and operatives in mutual recognition of the issues to be addressed. Inevitably, concern over research funding will emerge, but with an appropriate will and the greater benefits of remote electronic communications, much can still be achieved, notwithstanding the political and administrative turmoil that will inevitably take time to settle down post-Brexit.

Further information

All the documents referred to here can be found online, including Safeguarding Cultural Heritage from Natural and Man-Made Disasters, European Union Publications, 2018, to which the author contributed.

This article originally appeared as ‘Heritage risk management strategies in the EU’ in IHBC’s Yearbook 2019, published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in 2019. It was written by Ingval Maxwell OBE DA(Dun) FRIBA FRIAS CAABC FSAScot, who had a career with Historic Scotland spanning 39 years and retired in 2008. Past chair of COST Action C17 he has since acted as an EC Research Project expert assessor. Currently, he is chair of COTAC and a member of the RIBA Conservation Group.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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