A sense of connection is integral to who we are. As social animals, we want to belong. Heritage assets help to create that feeling, but their value is hard to measure.
According to the latest research, 3.8 billion people – over half the planet’s population – now use social media. Why do so many of us bother? The clue is in the name: as social animals, we need to connect with others. We need to like, be liked and feel part of something bigger: a community.
But that sense of community is in short supply right now. The pandemic seems to have created a tsunami of difference, dissension and dissatisfaction.
According to the Dutch historian and writer Rutger Bregman, establishing a strong base is crucial for our happiness and the greater social good. In his book Humankind: A Hopeful History, he says: “We need to realise it’s okay if we’re all different… We can build strong houses for our identities with sturdy foundations. Then we can throw open the doors.”
In other words, once we feel good about where we live and who we are, we can become more accepting of others. But feeling good about where we live does not always come easy. It requires clever placemaking by developers who know how to create communities, not just put up buildings. And that’s where heritage comes into its own.
Heritage is the king of placemaking. It infuses the built environment with stories that fuel our sense of identity and that, in turn, makes us feel happy and safe.
We know how hard it is to feel a connection with a poorly designed, shoddily built place
But how do we know what ‘heritage’ is? How do we know what to keep and what to tear down? And how can we measure the value heritage brings to individuals and society?
At one level, it is instinctive.
A beautifully crafted environment with the right blend of old and new, the right mix of uses, combination of materials and composition, makes us feel better. Conversely, we know how hard it is to feel a connection with a poorly designed, shoddily built place, where little thought has been given to those who live and work there.
But on another level, it’s ad hoc, because it is hard to assess with any real accuracy. In many quarters, heritage is also seen as a barrier to progress. Old buildings might look worse for wear and it is far easier for developers to tear them down and start again than to retain, restore and refurbish neglected or abandoned structures.
That leads to resistance in our industry and among policymakers – a belief that heritage assets are an obstacle to growth.
On the contrary, data from Historic England shows that heritage assets generate around £31bn of value annually. They support almost half a million jobs and attract over 200m tourists per year. Importantly, resisting the urge to demolish old buildings has environmental benefits: restoring them has a far lower carbon footprint than starting from scratch.
This research is hugely beneficial – and the public seem hungry for it. This summer, there were 1m visits to the Historic England website in a single month. And views of the Heritage Calling blog rose more than 50% year on year in the first half of 2020.
Imagine if we could go one step further and harness the algorithmic power of social media to map people’s response to heritage assets. These platforms know more about us than we do ourselves – using our data to continuously refine their understanding of what makes us tick and turn that to commercial advantage.
What if our industry could do something similar? What if we could create an algorithm that would accurately model how people feel about heritage and the quality of place? What if we could measure responses to old buildings, structures with character and places that effectively combine the new and established? Perhaps then we would take heritage more seriously and recognise its contribution to placemaking.
This may be a pipedream for now. But in the meantime, perhaps we should heed Bregman’s words: that we need to be in places with sturdy foundations to forge our identity and create a stronger society.
As Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Merton Solow said: “Over the long term, places with strong, distinctive identities are more likely to prosper than places without them. Every place must identify its strongest, most distinctive features and develop them or run the risk of being all things to all persons and nothing special to any.”
Richard Upton is chief development officer at U+I. This piece was also published in the U+I Think digital zine.