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Rural Heritage as a Driving Force for Sustainable Development and Territorial Cohesion

Friday, 05 April 2013
by Maguelonne Dejeant-Pons, Head of Division, Policy Development, Democratic Governance Directorate, Council of Europe
Rural Heritage as a Driving Force for Sustainable Development  and Territorial Cohesion
The European continent has a rich rural heritage, shaped over the years by human activities. It is made up of an exceptional variety of land types, reliefs, climates and crops.

It is possible to consider that heritage provides a bridge between the past and the present, but it is useless to preserve it unless it can be given a guaranteed future and handed down to future generations. It is essential to encourage the key players to act. The heritage has a potential richness and can become a valuable resource, not necessarily in commercial terms, but for those carrying out projects and for the locality concerned. It becomes part of a sustainable development approach as it becomes a product, factor or source of development. The rural heritage therefore contributes towards achieving independent development of rural zones as areas for living and carrying on economic and recreational activities.

Considering the interest generated in several countries by the “European Rural Heritage Observation Guide – CEMAT”[1], of which they already took note at their 13th Ministerial Conference, the ministers responsible for spatial/regional planning of the member states of the Council of Europe adopted at their 15th Session a Resolution on a “Pan-European Charter for the rural heritage: promoting sustainable spatial development: ‘Rural heritage as a factor of territorial cohesion’[2].

The Charter seeks to make rural heritage a real asset to its territory, a factor and a driving force for sustainable spatial development, and to play a decisive part in making rural areas more attractive and in the town-country balance.

1. What is rural heritage?

Until recently, rural heritage was defined in very narrow terms. It was considered to consist of buildings associated with agricultural activity, and particularly with “minor rural heritage” such as wash-houses, mills or chapels. Planners now assign a wider definition to heritage, which is considered to include all the tangible or intangible elements that demonstrate the particular relationship that a human community has established with a territory over time.

Tangible heritage

This is the most easily identifiable part of heritage. It is made up of various elements:
- landscapes, since they result from centuries of human activity on the environment;
- property (buildings for agricultural use, those related to crafts or industry, holiday homes or public buildings that are evidence of specific activities or simply of an architectural style);
- moveable property: this includes objects for domestic use (furniture in regional styles), for religious purposes (furnishings in churches and chapels) and for festive events (carnival floats, village or corporation emblems);
- products which result from an adaptation to local conditions and to cultivation, rearing, processing and culinary traditions – plant varieties (plants, fruit, vegetables, etc.), local animal species and more “elaborate” produce (wine, cheese, pork products, etc.).
Intangible heritage

This part of the heritage is made up of a series of intangible assets that are inseparable from tangible heritage:
- the techniques and skills that have enabled landscapes to be created, houses and furniture to be built and local products to be developed;
- the local dialects, music and oral literature that have emerged from non-written traditions. These means of expression are evidence of a community’s particular influence on its territory and, more generally, of a specific way of living together. They include stories and legends describing individuals or sites that played a part in local history, as well as place names (toponyms), which reflect particular uses or representations;
- ways of organising social life and specific forms of social organisation, such as certain customs and festivals (seasonal, agricultural, etc.).
All these elements make up a living heritage. By identifying and laying claim to these elements, the various parties involved in the rural world invest them with meaning, both for the community and in terms of their heritage value.

2. What does it mean to “assign heritage value”?

“Assigning heritage value” to property or knowledge (individually or collectively) means investing it with meaning. No object or skill is a heritage item in itself. For example, a low wall has heritage value only in terms of its aesthetic value in a landscape, of the construction techniques used or of its link with local history.

The consequences of “assigning heritage value” to an item are:
- it makes a specific item “common property” with potential collective value;
- it introduces a specific type of bond, frequently emotive in nature, between a given item and persons who have no legal tie with it. Accordingly, use of the item supposes that a consensus has been established between the various potential users, i.e. the legal owner and potential “other users”. However, the latter may themselves have different views about possible use.
The Guide advocates a participative approach:
- unless we assume that problems will be settled by legal means such as expropriation, the only possible course of action is negotiation between the parties concerned;
- in order to avoid new arguments or antagonisms arising regularly on what is at stake when defining heritage items, it is essential to include as many potentially interested parties as possible right from the start of any discussions on the use of a heritage item, and to draw on as much information as possible when considering possible uses.
How is heritage created?

Some communities may believe they have “less” heritage than others. However, the absence of monuments does not indicate a lack of heritage: every community possesses archives, an oral tradition, forms of social life, persons with skills, etc.

In any case, all communities, from the richest to the poorest, may make use of their creative capacities.

3. Why should heritage be enhanced?

It is necessary to enhance heritage:
- for the sake of tourism: heritage undoubtedly contributes to an area’s tourist potential and to the economic benefit that may be expected from it. Evaluating the potential for visitors – and possibly improving it – is an integral part of the enhancement project;
- for social and cultural reasons: heritage does more than contribute to aesthetic pleasure and the quality of life; it anchors a population in its history, and roots (inherited or chosen), and gives meaning to the territory. As such, it is one of the constituent elements in local identity and the sense of belonging, a driving force in citizenship and solidarity;
- for economic reasons: the benefits of direct enhancement are easily identifiable: income from entrance fees, rental of farms that have been converted into holiday homes, the sale of bread baked in traditional ovens, etc. However, the indirect effects should also be recognised: visitor structures, shops, etc. This is also true explicitly, in terms of employment (guides, caretakers, escorts) or implicitly, in terms of the quality of life (the arrival of new residents, new businesses);
- for educational reasons: nothing can replace in situ dialogue, practical demonstrations and activities when teaching history, techniques, aesthetics, geography, etc.
4. How can one take action in the field of heritage?

Taking action in the field of heritage means, firstly, identifying its social, cultural and economic value. In so doing, it is essential to know it – and have it recognised – as a heritage item. Secondly, it has to be ensured that it is safeguarded and, possibly, to assign it a new use as part of a project. Finally, it means ensuring that it is handed down to future generations.

Enhancing one’s heritage
- Enhancing means adding value. This value depends on how one views heritage: many heritage items have long been considered in purely functional terms, and the issue of how to conserve them after use never arose. Fascination with scientific, artistic or technological “progress” led to old objects being replaced by new ones, which were thought to be more effective or more in tune with an era’s tastes.
- Enhancement is described as direct when it focuses mainly on the item itself, and indirect when it focuses primarily on the item’s surroundings. In each case, one aspect reinforces the other. Similar houses may have different values (economic, social, cultural, in terms of quality of life, etc) depending on whether they are located in a prestigious area or near a public rubbish tip.
Thinking about heritage in a new way
– Attitudes towards heritage have changed. Things that were previously valued only as tools are now appreciated for their historical value. Equally, they assume a potential cultural, social or economic value, beyond the functional reasons justifying their existence.
– It is impossible, and probably not desirable, to conserve everything, since such conservation is often expensive. Consequently, it is logical to seek to make the most of the heritage’s potential by integrating it into development projects.
The Guide therefore advocates: knowing heritage; obtaining recognition for heritage; restoring heritage; re-assigning heritage; renovating and rehabilitating heritage; handing down heritage; and handing down practices, skills and know-how.

5. What is the purpose of a project?

Before taking any action involving heritage, it is important to define what it is hoped to achieve, why and for whom. When drawing up projects, account of existing general policies and the public, on whose behalf one should act must be taken. It is essential that such projects mobilise a large number of partners and that local residents are involved through a participative approach.

The Guide advocates: putting policies in place; identifing the partners in the participative approach; analysing the various steps in the participative approach; integrating the project into more general approaches; targeting particular sectors of the public; mobilising all players; drawing up the project together with local residents; being concerned with all the elements of heritage.

6. Implementing projects

The implementation of a project concerning a heritage matter has different phases. The creation of a committee for its valorisation enables its better recognition, the confirmation of the wish to intervene and the participation from the start of the stakeholders concerned. The formulation of the draft project includes the choice of a project manager, the search for partners and the elaboration of terms and conditions. The formalisation of the project leads to requests for finance and to its appropriation by other users on the territory.

It will be therefore necessary to bring projects to life, draw up the pre-project, and formalise the project.


With both tangible and intangible aspects, the rural world is a treasure trove of the cultural, natural and landscape heritage. When searching for authenticity, modern people draw on their rural roots, seeking an identity in the rural world. This heritage is also an engine of development. Its preservation is fundamental and gives meaning to the development of our societies. It is our responsibility to recognise the value of the past, and to protect and promote this heritage, which is an essential factor for economic, social and cultural development.

We cannot discuss rural cultural heritage without referring to two obvious facts. The people who use the countryside, who live there and who have often played a decisive role in ensuring that these assets have survived are increasingly aware that it belongs to them and are becoming more vocal on this issue. At the same time, the countryside and the heritage that it represents and contains, is considered to be the property of every individual, including those from towns as well as from the countryside[3].

The Council of Europe’s CEMAT Guide and Resolution invites all those who feel concerned about the  future of their territories to be able to meet together, through national and local committees, for the purpose of listing and describing the rural heritage, and thinking about how best to promote it.


    1. Published initially in English and French, the Guide (Council of Europe document 13 CEMAT (2003) 4) was translated in Italian, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish. See the websites,
    See also:
    2. The CEMAT Resolution N° 2 was adopted by the Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Spatial/Regional Planning (CEMAT) in Moscow, Russian Federation, on 9 July 2010. For the text of this Resolution see MEPIELAN E-BULLETIN, Documents & Cases, 25 November 2010 (
    3. See Isac Chiva, “Une politique pour le patrimoine culturel rural”, Report to the French Culture Ministry, 1994.


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