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Cultural heritage in disaster management

The world is vulnerable to disasters – both natural and manmade – that can damage or destroy cherished and significant cultural heritage landmarks.

This research project gauged the importance of including cultural heritage in post-disaster recovery and planning processes. The results make an informed case for integrating cultural heritage into disaster resilience, recovery planning and reconstruction processes.  Using as case studies a selection of natural and man-made disasters in Europe, America, Asia and Australasia, the research focused on how cultural heritage was valued – by communities as well as by cultural heritage specialists – within the context of history, place and environment and how these elements were important in maintaining the resilience of communities and in helping to rebuild damaged communities following disasters.

People expect the built environment to outlast them: cultural heritage features often serve as symbols of continuity and permanence. Damage or destruction of familiar, cherished and emblematic cultural heritage features by natural or man-made disasters can cause a profound sense of loss, at a personal or community level, that can significantly heighten and prolong the adverse impact of a disaster event.

There exists a raft of guidance published by various international organisations regarding disaster management of cultural heritage.  A key document for any particular cultural heritage site is its disaster management plan, which is both site- and disaster-specific. Each plan is a live document that typically addresses resilience planning through prevention and preparedness, and post-event response, recovery and reconstruction.

The research also made the case for ‘building back better’ during post-disaster reconstruction, for example to enhance the structural integrity of historic buildings in earthquake zones.

Disaster planning and recovery for cultural heritage within the built environment demands the effective collaboration and integration of a diverse range of technical skills and specialisms, including structural engineering, heritage facade engineering, heritage materials, field surveying and inspections, digital data management, historical research, cultural research, seismic engineering, archaeology, geotechnical engineering, heritage policy planning, community engagement, spatial planning, and risk assessment.

The protection and preservation of cultural heritage in the built environment is a worldwide and ongoing effort. It is therefore important to incorporate cultural heritage within strategic planning for the mitigation of the impact of disaster events, and in post-disaster recovery and reconstruction processes.

Cultural heritage can be an invaluable resource and support for communities facing post-disaster reconstruction, by allowing them to focus on repairing or re-building what is most valued in their environment and community.