Ananya Bhattacharya
Director, banglanatak dot com

Heritage is not only our inheritance from the past but also an important factor shaping our present and future. Every human settlement with a history of social, political, and cultural activity is characterized by distinct tangible and intangible cultural assets creating identity, a sense of belonging, and cohesion among the dwellers. Intangible cultural heritage or ICH thrives through a dynamic process of transmission through generations. It is an ongoing dialogue with the present, connecting generations through a bond of shared traditional values.

The term ‘regeneration’ has been largely used in the context of transformation of urban settlements in recent decades. Dominant discourse on heritage and regeneration has been more around built heritage, material culture, memories, and representation. Heritage conservation, place making, and adaptive reuse are some of the important considerations in architecture, planning, heritage management policies and processes. Regeneration strategies in Europe or North America for example have been concerned with rehabilitation or renewal of declining industrial areas (UNESCO 2016).

When we reflect on ICH and regeneration we observe that there is a paradigm shift from place to people. The shift in cognition of culture and its attributes is manifested in the UNESCO conventions on cultural heritage. The UNESCO World Heritage Convention 1972 focuses on preservation of historic sites and conservation of nature. The convention talks of universal value of outstanding examples of natural wealth and cultural diversity. Cultural heritage categories defined by the convention include monuments, groups of buildings, and sites including the archaeological ones. The approach has been rather top down with an international community recognizing universal value. The UNESCO 2003 Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage on the other hand focuses on living heritage manifested in practices, presentations, expressions, knowledge, and skills as well as objects, artifacts, and spaces associated therewith and recognized by communities, groups, and individuals as their cultural heritage. We need to recognize this shift in understanding cultural heritage from universality to community and individuals when reflecting on ICH and regeneration in both rural as well as urban contexts (Williams and Humphrys 2015).

Traditional agricultural knowledge builds eco resilience © Sevalanka, Sri Lanka

In a globalized and digitally connected world there is spread of culture at a greater speed. At the same time, there are greater concerns of dominant cultures and disappearing minority cultures. The UNESCO 2005 Convention of Promotion of Cultural Diversity aims to protect the diversity of cultural expressions and nurture cultural creativity. The focus is now clearly on people-centric policies and practices and the involvement of communities. All the three conventions are now addressing the sustainable development agenda. The 2015 Policy Document adopted by the 1972 World Heritage Convention and the Operational Directives of the 2003 Convention adopted in 2016 highlight the interdependence between cultural heritage and the economic, social, and cultural dimensions of sustainable development as well as peace and security. The 2005 Convention Global Report in 2015 analyzes how countries like Burkina Fuso, Malawi, Serbia, Kenya, Germany, or France have explicitly identified culture as a sector to contribute to sustainability. International development assistance of several developed countries also gives priority to the cultural sector and creative industries (UNESCO 2015). The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 of building sustainable cities and communities sets a clear target of strengthening efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage. In these changing contexts, ICH has growing significance and relevance in regeneration.

Indeed regeneration has emerged as a metaphor with a range of meanings in different contexts. ICH is a well spring of creativity and is constantly recreated. The resulting innovation builds new futures. Worldwide, there has been emergence of a new generation of cultural entrepreneurs. ICH-based cultural industries and creative enterprise provide income and employment opportunities. Economic empowerment leads to improved quality of life and general well being. Cultural tourism centering on heritage sites and monuments and promoting local traditions, food, arts, and crafts attract visitors. The economic context of regeneration is a key priority in situations of poverty-struck areas. Urban design led regeneration has targeted new investments through new visitor constituency, new retail cultures, and businesses centering spaces for creative engagement. Role of ICH in this process of renewal has been more in terms of increasing performance or production capacities and development of arts constituencies encouraging more visitors.

Regeneration centering specific physical spaces or localities have had negative effects like over commercialization, gentrification, and the loss of authenticity and intrinsic value. Increased tourism has led to commodification and overt simplification. There are examples of gentrification with displacement of low income populations in several cities in Asia (UNESCO 2016). Effective participation of the communities in planning and decision making is a critical measure to mitigate these challenges. Local communities are not only vital sources of information on resources and ideas for revitalization, their participation and ownership are also critical conditions for sustainability. Their participation from the formative stages of planning to implementation strengthens the process of regeneration.

ICH has played a significant role in regeneration directed towards local needs especially in the contexts of the vulnerability of indigenous communities to the forces of modernization and globalization. Vibrant living heritage strengthens community identity and pride and sense of belonging resulting in social renewal and engagement of people in local development. Community festivals are promoted to build on social dynamics. Culture has been used to nurture a sense of belonging in cities. In African cities marked by inequalities rooted in colonial patterns of segregation, good practices include inclusive, accessible and versatile cultural spaces, festivals celebrating cultural industries, and collaborative partnerships among communities, artists, and local governance (UNESCO 2016).

Intangible cultural heritage bridges social divisions © banglanatak dot com

In today’s world, the notion of cultivating a sense of belonging is perhaps more important that strengthening of identities. The latter may highlight some cultural elements, forms, and expressions while relegating others. Apart from power hierarchies, today super diversity resulting from large-scale migration in the past decade poses new challenges in culture-based regeneration aiming at creation of branding and identity. It is thus not only important to identify, acknowledge, and collaborate with the caretakers, owners, stakeholders, and custodians of all heritages but also recognize cultural diversity and equity-based decision making. This way cultural diversity becomes an asset. Today community engagement processes also target fostering social cohesion in areas affected by migration of new communities or in post-conflict situations. Examples range from rebuilding old districts in Kabul through revitalization of art and craft to using dance and theatre to build amity between ethnicities at war for decades in Sri Lanka. The growth of superdiversity has resulted both in new modes of prejudice and discord as well as new cosmopolitan cultural practices, shared social spaces, and inclusive social movements. ICH is used to build awareness about each other and finding common grounds. Art, music, theatre, and storytelling are used to build bridges among people of different religions, languages, and ethnicities. The cultural drivers used are cultural spaces and festivals where artistic collaborations and exchanges foster bonds of friendship and harmony (ICHCAP 2017, UNESCO 2016).

ICH and regeneration also find a new context in a world characterized by the destruction and conflicts between man and nature. There are close relationships between tangible and intangible cultural heritage and natural systems. Regeneration can happen through strengthening and nurturing of these co-relationships. In 1992, the World Heritage Convention recognized the importance of protecting cultural landscapes that illustrate how nature influences human society and settlements socially, culturally, and economically. The protection of cultural landscapes can contribute to modern techniques of sustainable land use and can maintain or enhance natural values in the landscape. The continued existence of traditional forms of land use supports biological diversity in many regions of the world. The rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras survived through the dedicated efforts of many generations of the Ifugao community. They were getting destroyed with onset of inappropriate development and were placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2001. Traditional knowledge of farming and irrigation also contributed to biodiversity conservation. National and international efforts led to the reinforcement of the traditional rice growing system and removal from the list of endangered sites in 2012 (IUCN 2017). The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is doing pioneering work with indigenous communities to support use of their rich knowledge of nature and culture to improve community livelihood, well being and eco system resilience (IFAD 2016). The gamut of regeneration through ICH is thus huge. It paves the path of new futures and sustainable development through improved resource management, social inclusion and cohesion.


ICHCAP. 2017. Contribution of Intangible Cultural Heritage to Sustainable Development in South Asia. Republic of Korea: ICHCAP.

Larwood Jonathan, Sarah France, and Chris Mahon (Eds). 2017. Culturally Natural or Naturally Cultural? Exploring the Relationship between Nature and Culture Through World Heritage. United Kingdom: IUCN National Committee UK.

Lawson, L., A. Kears. 2010. “Community Engagement in Regeneration: Are We Getting the Point?” Journal of Housing and Built Environment. 25: 19–36.

IFAD. 2016. The Traditional Knowledge Advantage: Indigenous People’s Knowledge in Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies. IFAD Turquoise Mountain. Last accessed on June 15 2018.

UNESCO. 2015. Re Shaping Cultural Policies—A Decade Promoting the Diversity of Cultural Expressions for Development. 2005 Convention Global Report. France: UNESCO.

UNESCO. 2016. The Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development. France: UNESCO
Williams, Michael and Graham Humphrys. 2015. “From Universal to Regional: Theoretical Perspectives on Regeneration and Heritage.” London Journal of Canadian Studies. 30: 6–16.