Cultural heritage and disaster in today's cities

Helena de Jong (Netherlands Defence Academy), Miranda Dandoulaki (ANEVO), Sven Da Silva (Wageningen University)

The last decades have seen a series of disastrous events that were costly in terms of cultural heritage. Fires, earthquakes, flooding, tsunamis, land and mud slides, wind, and storms are among the major causes of loss and damage of cultural heritage. These disasters often result in the loss of irreplaceable assets (Taboroff in Kreimer et al. 2003).

Cultural heritage is seen as a major component of quality of life and plays an important role in society and community wellbeing (Tweed and Sutherland 2007). The loss or deterioration of heritage can seriously affect local and national communities for several reasons:

Cultural heritage has important symbolic and material value for community identity

Direct contact with cultural heritage enables history to come to life, and contact with culture inspires, humanizes, and enriches people, Alexander (n.d.) noted. Cultural items, he continues, contribute to the ‘spirit of place’. When a disaster occurs, the destruction of this ‘spirit of place’ can weaken a person’s sense of identification with a place and affect the determination to rebuild. On the contrary, a strong ‘spirit of place’ can inspire disaster survivors to overcome the obstructions they face due to the disaster and reconstruct not just their functional environments but also those that represent their heritage (Alexander n.d.). The psychological impact on communities due to the loss of cultural heritage to which they are closely associated should not be underestimated. Local communities and individuals feel a socio-psychological need to see and feel that the familiar environments with which they identify are not totally wiped out (Wijeratne in ICOMOS 2008).

Milko Morichetti, an Italian art restorer, expresses this sense of identification as follows:

“Without the culture that connects us to our territory, we lose our identity.” “There may not be many famous artists or famous monuments here, but before anything, Italians feel proud of the culture that comes from their own towns, their own regions. And when we restore a church or a museum, it gives us hope. This is not just about preserving museum culture. For us, it’s about a return to normalcy.” (Medina 2009)

Moreover, during the post-disaster and post-conflict phase, heritage landmarks and the continuation of traditional cultural practices may contribute to the recovery of a community and help vulnerable people recover a sense of dignity and empowerment (UNESCO website).

Cultural heritage has socio-economic value for cities

The historic built environment not only provides a city with character and a sense of identification for local communities, it can also boost the local economy and create jobs. Cultural heritage is repeatedly identified in both academic literature and policy documents and by regional and national governments as an economic source that can provide employment and realize profit and local development (Loulanski 2006). Heritage and its preservation have long been regarded as oppositional to economic development (it is either historic preservation or economic growth) but they are increasingly seen as effective partners in development, as Loulanski (2006: 56) argues. By investing in cultural attractions and infrastructure, cities seek to secure a niche position on the international tourism map. Tourism also represents an important source of financial resources for the preservation and restoration of the heritage, including traditional crafts, practices, skills and knowledge (Russo and van der Borg 2002). It is for instance noted that in Europe, heritage is vital to the competitiveness of tourism, which is valued at 586 billion euros per annum and employs 9.7 million people (Jigyasu et al. 2013).

Moreover, cultural heritage attracts investments and promotes locally based jobs related to a wide range of activities such as tourism, conservation, construction, arts, and the production of crafts. It is therefore also a powerful asset for inclusive economic development (Jigyasu et al. 2013).

Disasters therefore not only cause material damage to heritage sites but they may also severely affect the livelihoods linked to cultural heritage and the incomes generated through tourism.

Cultural heritage may serve as a source of resilience to communities

Heritage can play an important role in reducing a disaster’s impact on people’s lives, properties and livelihoods (World Disasters Report (WDR) 2014).

Cultural heritage in both its tangible and intangible forms may serve as a factor contributing to the survival of communities from disasters, both psychologically and materially. Traditional knowledge systems embedded in cultural heritage can play a substantial role in disaster risk reduction (Jigyasu et al. 2013). Disaster risk may for example be reduced through traditional knowledge associated with environmental management and building techniques (WDR 2014). Cities, their identity and building techniques are for a great deal influenced by their environment and the threat of hazards. People adapt the built environment to adjust to living with risks in places where they are frequently exposed to hazards. These patterns become embedded in cultures over time (Moore 1964 in WDR 2014: 124).

This accommodation is reflected in the design of buildings and the materials and construction techniques. Important to note however is that these architectures are the result of a whole range of socio-cultural factors, not just the threat of hazards. Heavy earthquakes in Southern Europe have for instance spurred major changes in architectural design and practice on several occasions (Buforn et al. 2004 in Bankoff 2015). In Dordrecht, the Netherlands, so called flood board are positioned in flood prone streets to prevent the water from entering shops and houses.

Testing of flood boards in Dordrecht, the Netherlands. Photo from municipality of Dordrecht

Moreover, traditional knowledge developed over time, enables communities in risk prone areas to recognize changes in the atmosphere, or the behaviour of flora and fauna, and prepare themselves (Jigyasu et al. 2013). ‘’Protecting heritage from disasters is, therefore, not a luxury, but a fundamental consideration to be given priority together with other humanitarian concerns (…)’’ (WDR 2014: 123).

From the above, the following points are distinguished that may harness the strength of culture as a tool to reduce disaster risk (see also Jigyasu et al. 2013).

  • Draw on traditional knowledge and blend scientific knowledge and technological advances with capacities and resources already available at local level
  • Draw on traditional building techniques and locally available material as to inform modern day practice

More on culture and memories

Defining cultural heritage

Cultural heritage is commonly defined along the lines of ‘the archaeological and historical built environment and moveable heritage’ (Taboroff in Kreimer et al. 2003). This heritage serves a role in preserving local identity and personality, but also local knowledge; preserving heritage has educational purposes in awareness raising, as the layout of a city (plazas, avenues), the construction of buildings (for example earthquake resistant) and infrastructure (multiple escape routes) may reveal a logic that is often more in tune with urban exposure to natural hazards than today’s urban development. This is even more the case for ancient civilisations. While modern urban citizens are unlikely to be persuaded to live in round Mayan houses for reasons of disaster proofing, preserving this knowledge and its context reminds us of tested design principles that are easily forgotten. Material culture is composed of the tangible objects, movable or immovable, that people create or share, from storm-surge barriers and dikes, to disaster-proof houses that protect people from environmental hazards. Preserving and restoring ancient homes, roads and infrastructure can also have a very concrete use in Disaster Risk Reduction, preventing expensive unreflective planning for the future ‘from scratch’.

According to UNESCO, material, or tangible, cultural heritage encompasses several main categories:

  • Movable cultural heritage (paintings, sculptures, coins, manuscripts)
  • Immovable cultural heritage (monuments, archeological sites etc.)
  • Underwater cultural heritage (shipwrecks, ruins and cities)
  • Natural cultural heritage (natural sites with cultural aspects such as physical, biological, or geological formations, specific flora, fauna and eco systems)

There is also natural cultural heritage, natural sites with cultural aspects such as cultural landscapes, physical, biological or geological formations (

However, culture is not only material, it also has a nonmaterial component, and so can its heritage. It is important to realise that material cultural heritage cannot really be dissociated from cultural practices that are often transmitted from one generation to another (nonmaterial culture). Nonmaterial culture, as elaborated in Section I of this handbook (LINK), comprises beliefs, values, language, perceptions, memories, and rules of behaviour. It makes good sense to include the time-honed cultural practices in this definition, and arrive at cultural heritage as the ‘products and processes of a culture that are preserved and passed on through the generations’.

A similar definition is used by UNESCO: ‘’the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations’’ (

Protecting and preserving cultural heritage

Cultural heritage is often concentrated in urban areas where trading and business activities have spurred the production of different displays of religious, civic, and private creativity. Such cities are often located in disaster prone areas, for example in coastal areas or alongside rivers or close to fault lines, and therefore vulnerable to natural disaster (Taboroff in Kreimer et al. 2003).

When disaster strikes, the loss of cultural heritage causes a wide range of destructions. EDUCEN’s cities are also at risk, or, sadly, already suffered from major damage to cultural heritage. Well known examples are the Italian city of L’Aquila where the earthquake of April 6, 2009 caused the destruction of much of the city’s historical and monumental heritage. Amongst others, several churches, the city’s oldest gate built in 1548, and the National Museum of Abruzzo, housed in a 16th century castle, have collapsed and/or are too unstable to enter. Another EDUCEN case study, the Italian region of Umbria, a landlocked region in the center of Italy, has been hit hard by a series of earthquakes in August and October 2016. Damage to cultural heritage has been severe. In Norcia, one of the affected towns, the Basilica of St Benedict dating back to the XIV century, survived the August shock but the force of the October earthquake proved too powerful, and caused the church to collapse.

The Basilica of St Benedict in the town of Norcia after the earthquake

In one of EDUCEN’s other case studies, the city of Istanbul, the likelihood of a devastating earthquake is estimated at 62% within the next 30 years. Istanbul is not only the financial, commercial and industrial center of Turkey, producing 56.6% of the nation’s export, but is also the cultural cross-roads of eastern and western heritage. The city has the highest number of museums of the country and hosts some of the most important monuments of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires (Johnnides 2010).

Despite the serious nature and consequences of the destruction or damage of cultural heritage, the number of heritage properties that have developed a proper disaster risk reduction plan is surprisingly low (UNESCO 2010). Nevertheless, the last decades have seen several initiatives at international and regional levels in the field of cultural heritage and disaster risk reduction. These initiatives aim on the one hand to introduce disaster risk reduction into heritage protection and management, and on the other to intensify and mainstream heritage concerns in larger disaster risk reduction initiatives (Jigyasu et al. 2013).

International and regional initiatives in the field of cultural heritage and DRR

At the international level, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has established a number of conventions for the safeguarding of cultural heritage, including from the effects of disaster. The 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Natural and Cultural Heritage (World Heritage Convention), with nearly 1000 sites recognized and 190 States Parties, has become the most popular treaty aimed at the preservation of cultural heritage from all sorts of dangers. In 2003 a new convention was adopted, focusing on intangible cultural heritage, including traditional knowledge, practices and skills which have been used by communities to reduce risk from disasters (Jigyasu et al. 2013).

Developments regarding the protection of cultural heritage have occurred also at the regional level. The European Commission for example included protection of cultural heritage in its ‘’Directive 2007/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2007 on the assessment and management of flood risk. The goal of the Directive is to reduce and manage the risks posed to, amongst others, cultural heritage (Jigyasu et al. 2013).

Moreover, the Council of Europe has promoted the reduction of the vulnerability of ancient buildings and historical settings from natural disaster. This has been done through its European and Mediterranean Major Hazards Agreement (EUR-OPA) which aims to ‘’reinforce and promote co-operation between Member States in a multi-disciplinary context to ensure better prevention, protection against risks and better preparation in the event of major natural or technological disaster’’ (Council of Europe website).

A major challenge for the protection and preservation of cultural heritage is the fact that it is managed through a very diverse set of ownership or management arrangements, including among others private foundations and national and local governments. To reduce the risk to cultural heritage, heritage managers have to collaborate with disaster management authorities, universities, NGOs, political leaders at national and local level, the private sector, and the public.

The commitment of local governments, in particular mayors, is also vital to the protection of cultural heritage and disaster risk reduction. In 2012, mayors from cities throughout Europe adopted the ‘Venice Declaration on building resilience at the local level towards protected cultural heritage and climate change adaptation strategies’. Fostering partnerships between these different actors and that protect and draw on cultural heritage- on international, regional, and local level- for disaster risk reduction is therefore vital.

An overview of key international conferences, workshops, training courses and publications on disaster risk reduction of cultural heritage can be found in the Jigyasu et al. report ‘Heritage and Resilience. Issues and Opportunities for Reducing Disaster Risks’ (2013: 50).

Dilemmas in reconstructing cultural heritage after disaster

As explained above, disasters often severely damage the built environment and its immovable tangible cultural heritage. Individual buildings, groups of buildings, whole neighbourhoods and settlements of historic or vernacular (traditional) character, under preservation status or not, are damaged at various degrees or even collapse. It then becomes a major issue to decide what to keep from what existed before the disaster and at what price in terms of resources, money and time.

Difficult trade-offs present themselves in a time when pressures to the response mechanism are severe and often overwhelming. Should all buildings deemed to be dangerous be demolished as soon as possible and what procedures should be followed? Should owners of dangerous historic buildings be allowed to proceed with engineering interventions for removing dangerous elements or even for the demolition of the dangerous building? In case of listed historic buildings that are deemed damaged beyond repair, should protection of heritage be considered prevail over protection of lives? Apart from historic buildings and monuments, what should be done with damaged (in some cases damaged beyond repair) traditional buildings and neighbourhoods that are not listed as monuments to be preserved? How long should recovery be delayed in order to protect tangible cultural heritage either already listed or not? Who should deal with such trade-offs and make decisions and how should this be arranged?

Especially in earthquake disasters, damaged buildings can be dangerous for people, particularly during aftershocks. Even more, people feel threatened by buildings; old buildings are often seen as dangerous without exception. In these conditions, preservation of existing buildings and neighbourhoods appears to be a luxury at best and an unnecessary present threat and future risk at worst. In the midst of emergencies and urgent needs, it takes a long term outlook to see the significance of heritage for future quality of life and sustainable development.

Every disaster is unique in its socioeconomic, historic and geographical context. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription towards the protection of cultural heritage in a disaster. There are some commonalities in observed positive cases, though. In societies and areas with disaster experience, the knowledge that the disaster is not the end but a phase, assists in maintaining a long term view. In such cases, the city and the society realise more that they will have a future and that the foundations of this future lay in post-disaster decisions in post-disaster decisions. If there is no local disaster experience, consultancy and know-how by trusted knowledgeable external agencies can be very helpful (see the example of Konitsa, Greece). What counts more, though, is the attitude of the devastated society towards culture and cultural heritage, history and continuity. Perception of cultural heritage and its value is different in different societies, so is the meaning of preservation of cultural heritage (Heritage Council of Victoria, 2014. HLF, 2015).

Saving historic and vernacular buildings after the Konitsa, N. Greece, earthquake disaster

Konitsa is a remote town in Northern Greece. In the ‘90s, it was a town of about 5.000 people mainly living on agriculture and services. Parts of the town and many buildings were of a vernacular form. There were also numerous listed monuments and historic buildings.

In 1996, Konitsa suffered an earthquake disaster. A first destructive earthquake caused severe damage to the building stock and great fear to the people. Yet, it was the main shock a week later that caused devastation and panic. The population did not have previous earthquake experience.

After the devastation, the population and the Municipality put pressure for the demolition of all old damaged buildings. Even buildings under preservation were at risk from demolition in haste. A trusted central government agency responsible for earthquake protection intervened and acted as consultant to the Municipality, advocating for the protection of vernacular and historic buildings and for preservation of the image of the place. Furthermore, the previous good practice of the city of Kalamata, in Southern Greece, in preserving cultural heritage after the earthquake disaster of 1986, about ten years earlier, was communicated to the Mayor of Konitsa via informal networking among Mayors. In the heart of the emergency, the attitude of the Municipality shifted towards preserving the identity and the vernacular character of the city and with it the stance of the population.

As a result, Konitsa preserved its vernacular and historic identity which together with its rich natural resources became tourism assets.

(Dandoulaki 2010)

Damaged building in Konitsa. Source: EPPO
Damaged building in Konitsa. Source: EPPO

Konitsa today. Source: Konitsa Municipality

Activities for saving historic and vernacular buildings, groups of buildings, neighbourhoods and settlements cannot be postponed for long, beyond the emergency phase or some elements to be preserved will be ruined or even demolished in the chaos and panic of post-disaster situation. During the emergency phase (typically the first 72 hours after the disaster) cultural heritage is under a range of new risks such as (UNESCO 2010, p. 41):

  • Theft of fragments or movable objects of the property.
  • In case of flooding, contamination through pollution and mould growth.
  • Risks arising from the surrounding environment or habitat.
  • Insensitive actions by relief agencies or by volunteers due to lack of awareness; for example pulling down damaged structures or causing damage from water used for extinguishing fires.
  • Risks by inappropriate damage assessment of heritage.
  • Confusion and delays due to lack of coordination and preparedness.
  • Salvation and preservation of cultural heritage should therefore start as early as possible after the disaster.

Emergency intervention measures of technical and non-technical character should be taken promptly. Technical measures include special damage assessments, documentation of the building and its condition (photos, drawings, reports etc.), emergency propping, removal and safe storage of significant elements of the building, emergency repairs. Non-technical measures refer to emergency planning concerning cultural heritage salvation, the deployment of special emergency response teams with clear roles and responsibilities for each member and equipped with safety equipment and appropriate material resources. It is also essential to have built complementary pre-disaster capacity and to have initiated educational and communication actions. No matter how well prepared, it should be expected that existing planning, preparedness, as well as knowledge and knowhow will be challenged by unexpected post-disaster circumstances.

At any case, pre-disaster awareness of the significance of cultural heritage pays off during the pressing emergency phase and also, having in place a strategy for the preservation of cultural heritage including institutions and legislation, as well as inventories and documentation of historic buildings and their contents. Furthermore, it would be greatly advantageous to already have a disaster governance structure in place that also integrates the cultural heritage community.

Nepal Cultural Emergency Crowdmap Initiative

On April 25, 2015 at 11:56 AM local time, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal, including Kathmandu Valley districts. The earthquake left over 7,000 people dead and destroyed almost 200,000 houses, while many hundreds of thousands more were damaged. Thirteen out of the seventy-five districts in the country were severely impacted.

Nepal is recognised as a country of many ethnic groups, cultures and faiths, has rich tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Four of its cultural and natural heritage sites have been inscribed on the World heritage list. Soon after, a crowd mapping initiative was launched by International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in collaboration with other international agencies and several cultural heritage professionals. It aimed at collecting on-the-ground reports of the damage caused to cultural heritage in Nepal as a result of the earthquake, particularly those reports that may not be collected by other actors. These reports come from residents, social media (via Facebook and Twitter hashtags), news agencies, and cultural heritage professionals.

Each report in the compiled heritage damage report summary contains information on: • Source of the information • Location • Type of heritage (generally the name of the temple or site) • Extent of the damage (minor, medium, major) • Whether or not protection or recovery measures are known to have been taken • Corresponding report number from the crowdmap, if applicable • Any additional notes.

About 85 reports were collected. Based on an understanding and analysis of data collected through the Kathmandu Cultural Emergency Crowdmap Initiative, as well as independent reports the following initial recommendations were made on the salvation and recovery of Nepal’s cultural heritage.

Kathmandu Cultural Emergency: A crowd map created by ICCROM. Source: ICCROM, ICOMOS-ICORP (2015) Overview report of the Nepal Cultural Emergency Crowdmap Initiative.)

Suggestions for further reading

Bankoff, G. (2015). DESIGN BY DISASTERS. Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction, 53.

Jigyasu, R., Murthy, M., Boccardi, G., Marrion, C., Douglas, D., King, J., … & Osihn, M. (2013). Heritage and Resilience: Issues and opportunities for reducing disaster risks

Taboroff J. (2003). Natural Disasters and Urban Cultural Heritage: A Reassessment. In: Kreimer, A., Arnold, M. & Carlin A. (eds) Building Safer Cities: The Future of Disaster Risk. Accessible online at:

Tweed, C., & Sutherland, M. (2007) Built cultural heritage and sustainable urban development. Landscape and urban planning, 83(1), 62-69.


Alexander, D. (n.d.) Cultural heritage and disasters. Accessible online at:

Bankoff, G. (2015). DESIGN BY DISASTERS. Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction, 53.

Dandoulaki, M. (2010) Earthquake reconstruction in a remote area with no previous earthquake experience: The 1996 Konitsa Earthquakes. In: Beriatos, H. & Delladetsimas, P. (eds) Earthquakes and housing development. Athens: Kritiki, pp.317-345 (in Greek)

Heritage Council of Victoria (2014) The community’s perceptions of heritage literature review. Accessible online at:

HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund, UK) (2015) Values and benefits of heritage. Accessible online at:

ICCROM, ICOMOS-ICORP (2015) Overview report of the Nepal Cultural Emergency Crowdmap Initiative. Accessible online at:

IFRC (2014) World Disasters Report 2014: Focus on Culture and Risk

Johnnides, C. (2010) Disaster Preparedness for Cultural Heritage. EAP DRM Knowledge Notes; No. 14. World Bank, Washington, DC. Accessible online at

Loulanski, T. (2006). Cultural heritage in socio-economic development: local and global perspectives. Environments, 34(2), 51.

Medina, N. (2009) Cultural Heritage and Identity in the Wake of the L’Aquila Earthquake. Accessible online at:

Russo, A. P., & Van Der Borg, J. (2002). Planning considerations for cultural tourism: a case study of four European cities. Tourism management, 23(6), 631-637.

Tweed, C., & Sutherland, M. (2007) Built cultural heritage and sustainable urban development. Landscape and urban planning, 83(1), 62-69.

UNESCO (2010) Managing disaster risks for world heritage. Accessible online at:

UNESCO (n.d.) UNESCO’s response to protect culture in crises. Unite 4 Heritage Initiative. Accessible online at:

Wijeratne, P. Post-Tsunami Redevelopment and the Cultural Sites of the Maritime Provinces of Sri Lanka. In Meier, H.R., Petzet, M. and Will, T. (eds) (2008) Cultural Heritage and Natural Disasters. Risk Preparedness and the Limits of Prevention. ICOMOS, Tud Press. Accessible online at:

Jha, A.K., Barenstein, J. D., Phelps, P. M., Pittet, D., Sena, S. (2010) Safer homes, stronger communities: A handbook for reconstructing after natural disasters, Chapter 11: “Planning reconstruction - Cultural heritage conservation”, World Bank pbl, pp.173-179. Accessible online at:

Jigyasu, R., Murthy, M., Boccardi, G., Marrion, C., Douglas, D., King, J., … & Osihn, M. (2013). Heritage and Resilience: Issues and opportunities for reducing disaster risks