Networked Heritage

Heritage is central to how places feel and function

Nov 6, 2016 · 16 min read
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Heritage shapes how people identify with the places they live, work and play. Yet a role for heritage is frequently missing in conversations and plans for how we want places to develop into the future.

From policy makers to property developers, the language of ‘regeneration’ is being replaced with one of place-making and place-shaping. But too often there is little clarity about who, or what, is doing the making and shaping.

At a time when government is devolving more powers to cities and local authorities, heritage must be seen as a fundamental differentiator for place: a strategic asset, which enriches the social and economic potential of places throughout the UK. But we go beyond this to insist on empowering people as the real place-makers. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we have spent two years investigating the links between place, distinctiveness, identity and value at the local scale. We already know that heritage assets and heritage activities play a fundamental role in reshaping our landscapes, cityscapes and identities. Our research explains how citizens, organisations, businesses and different tiers of government can use the potential of heritage to sustain distinct local identities and support places to thrive and prosper.

Our recommendations are for heritage organisations large and small to become more open and better connected — both within organisations and between organisations; within the heritage sector and beyond. This will support pro-active heritage citizens to step up as producers, participants and co-commissioners in managing and using heritage — already evident in many instances across the UK. We want to see a broad, inclusive and dynamic heritage model that delivers valuable, discernible social impacts. We call this ‘networked heritage’.

Networked heritage means having sufficient connections in a place for heritage to be understood as and treated as a common public resource — drawn upon and enhanced by the full diversity of citizens and organisations. The role of the heritage sector will still include facilitating access to heritage assets, but it is by enabling others to integrate heritage into their thinking and their actions that networked heritage can have a transformative impact on people and places, helping communities create heritage for themselves.

Networked heritage has both a local and a national dimension. At the local scale networked heritage connects heritage sector organisations to each other helping to, for example, share information across heritage groups about opportunities for involvement in local life such as upcoming public events. It will help to build contacts and relationships which can be drawn upon for informal support and advice — for example in recruiting board members and trustees from a wider pool. And it can provide reciprocal marketing support for heritage activities for the public to access, so drawing in new audiences.

Networks between heritage organisations at a local level are essential support structures. Groups can otherwise easily feel isolated, unsupported and in competition with each other for the attention of citizens and officials. Smaller organisation can be particularly afflicted, especially as they have often evolved in response to a specific threat to a specific asset. Through formal meetings, informal connections, and shared participation in community life, small and volunteer-led heritage organisations benefit greatly from reciprocal support. Groups are then better able to sustain themselves, get noticed and achieve impact.

At the same time, networked heritage means organisations being linked to the day-to-day structures which determine how a place functions; for example in relation to planning consultations, neighbourhood planning, adult education provision, employment support, youth services, and the workings of local media. At the local scale, deep, broad and collaborative networks help projects and organisations achieve more than they would be able to do alone. Such networks are strengthened when heritage activists, volunteers and community leaders have voice and influence in the decisions of professionalised institutions.

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Dundee Urban Orchard plucking pears fom a pear tree in Ninewells Community Garden and Orchard

At the national scale there are efficiencies to be gained from networked heritage. Many national heritage organisations have regional offices and a presence in multiple localities, but don’t have a way to have a local dialogue with other national organisations in those cities and counties. The Bristol Heritage Forum is an early indication of a local initiative to try and address this. In Scotland, museum professionals have self-organised a community of practice, connecting national institutions to smaller community trusts to help address this. As government devolves decision-making, so communities will have higher expectations of being able to have a local dialogue about the local footprint of heritage organisations.

In England, while over 200 neighbourhood plans have been adopted in law, a further 1,700 local communities have plans in development — predominantly led by volunteers. All have some bearing on local heritage. A networked heritage sector would be able to create, collate, publicise and support the adoption of some standardised approaches — for example maximising on the impressive work of Bristol Neighbourhood Planning Network to highlight useful resources. It would add richness to the more generic support commissioned by government (and administered by Locality), and it would work in collaboration with allies across the built environment and the arts, as the Place Alliance advocates. We should not let the value of local determination be undermined by local isolation, fuelled by inadequate networks of support.

But we cannot expect networked heritage to emerge organically, or to be wholly self-organised. From our work in the three case study cities, our research has shown that networks need to be nurtured. This can be done, by investing in staff who are tasked with maintaining communications through various media, by running events, sharing data, and building strong personal profiles at the centre of social networks.

Through the research we have developed five principles of networked heritage which, if adopted and applied, we believe will help heritage to secure its position front and centre of place.

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The devolution opportunity for heritage

Devolution of powers from central government to local government, and the creation of new combined authorities, means that citizens across city-regions come under a new identity — a new geography for governing across many local communities.

In an era of localism powers, newly devolved city-regions and increasing global competition in attracting people and investment, local distinctiveness becomes essential. As one heritage sector leader told us: “Place and authenticity — lose it at your peril. Differentiation of place is premium.”

The fundamental logic of devolution is that people and politicians will make better decisions about public services if those decisions are made closer to where services are actually delivered. With new city leaders in post, cities will have greater power to plan their future for themselves, as well as making decisions about how to prioritise budgets and resources today.

Essential to the debate about how a place should develop — socially and economically — is a shared understanding of what is valued by local people. What kind of place do we want to be in the future? What do we value about who we are? What makes us different from other places? What do we value about our past that makes us distinct? And what do we have that explains our place and its distinct identity to others? As we observed in our first report, the critical issue here is identity — what does a place mean to its population and in what ways can that identity be communicated, represented and made tangible. Heritage is the solution to the identity gap that exists at the heart of place-making strategies.

As soon as a place starts a conversation about forging its identity, local heritage becomes fundamental. Heritage must be at the heart of the conversation about a place’s future. As a resource it extends beyond the historic built environment of local streets and neighbourhoods and the artefacts and collections of museums, galleries and archives; it also includes historic greenspaces; it means recalling the social history of life in the past and the industrial history of work and technological progress. And it means remembering — sometimes re-discovering — the intricate links between the urban and the rural landscape of habitats we have conserved and cultivated to keep nature alongside us.

Adding all this up, heritage is the record of how places are different from one another. By stimulating debate about the differentiation of place, devolution has provided the heritage sector with the best opportunity to play an integral part in place-making that it has ever had.

To seize that opportunity the heritage sector needs a clear understanding of what success looks like; a toolkit of ways to bring heritage into place-making and support from national bodies. Networked heritage is our recommendation for meeting these challenges.

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Bristol Loves Tides participants

Strengthening local citizenship

An effective and viable local state is likely to emphasise collaboration, co-design and co-production within and between services, across administrative boundaries and various tiers of government, and with citizens. The challenge of devolution is to succeed in this transition — whilst reconciling this with the daily grind of local place leadership.

As recent RSA research has concluded (in the ‘People Shaped Localism’ research), local civic leadership seems,

“poised between hope and resignation, between a sense of agency and a sense of victimhood, between seizing opportunities and merely fending off chaos”.

There is not yet a strong account of how new devolved arrangements will promote stronger communities and more active citizenship. Fostering citizenship is an under-developed aspect of the combination of activities now commonly described as place-making.

This is a critical omission, and one which heritage can and must contribute to addressing. In this environment, the role for heritage pivots on two related roles: the stewardship of assets with fundamental value, alongside an instrumental role, animating local activity which produces valuable social outcomes and economic dividends.

Moreover, the heritage sector faces its own citizenship challenge. A thriving heritage sector is one which is confident in its practice, actively removes barriers to participation from the diversity of local communities, understands the wider context of issues faced at the local scale, and is able to work together to engage in complex decision-making at the local scale through to the international.

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Playable City, Bristol. CREDIT: pshab / Flickr

For heritage to fully contribute to shaping place-based identity, heritage activities must reflect and represent the communities which have lived in a place in the past. This isn’t easy. Representing the past always involved making choices about what is important, and interpreting what the past means for the present day. Those are decisions for present-day communities. Since you can’t take the politics out of heritage decisions, communities must ensure that the politics of decision-making in heritage is pro-active and inclusive. For heritage groups and organisations, this means outreach to the workplaces, high streets, housing estates and schools where people live their lives.

The full breadth of a local community must be able to explore and express its heritage in different ways. Digital tools and localism powers can enable this; the RSA Heritage Index includes data from Historypin — an online archive of user-generated content — and data on buildings and places that have been awarded status as Assets of Community Value.

The importance of local people to be empowered as catalysts and activists for local heritage is well documented through participatory research, and is increasingly supported. The potential of user-generated data, crowdfunding and new local powers to reinforce this is strong, but we can’t presume that the fact of openness will solve issues of inclusion and diversity and make heritage more democratic. This isn’t an automatic result of introducing new information and new networking platforms. In many cases, new and unfamiliar territory in fact risks adding to exclusion. Different communities do not have equal capacity to process, harness and utilise information. Nor do they have equal social and financial potential in their accessible social networks which underpin the value of crowdfunding approaches.

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Benefits of networked heritage

In concluding our previous phase of research, we argued that heritage and civic leaders needed a clearer idea of what success could look like, and a toolkit of approaches to bring heritage into place-shaping. In this follow-up study we have been seeking to provide that clarity: exploring the potential for a more fully developed role for heritage in the future of strategic decision making, and a better appreciation of the added value this will bring for places.

Most commonly, heritage is seen as a civic amenity, relevant in supporting leisure, recreation, tourism and learning about the past. Those in the heritage sector have traditionally asked for support from government and funders on this basis. But heritage considerations lie close beneath the surface of many other issues for how a place develops, provoking the ‘doorstep’ discussions which determine local political priorities. For example, the availability of brownfield land for development is largely determined by heritage considerations, which make certain forms of redevelopment financially unviable; or make demolition illegal — or both. Conservation area designations are shown to raise property prices. New road bypasses and housing developments are often supported and opposed based on how they will change the ‘historic character’ of various impacted streets. And across public services, the closure of hospitals, libraries or cultural venues understandably evokes in local people a sense that justice for their place is defined largely by the facilities and service that have been available locally to previous generations.

At the same time, heritage professionals and volunteers are promoting a crucial civic awareness: a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose in the lives of those they engage. Work that brings heritage to life shares much with the youth workers and community workers whose work explicitly addresses isolated, disengaged and vulnerable members of the community.

Based on this more comprehensive understanding of the role heritage and heritage organisations are already playing in local communities, our evidence highlights a more assertive heritage offer. Focusing on three cities — Greater Manchester, Bristol and Dundee — we consider that the importance of heritage can be recognised in:

  • Broader and deeper civic engagement, bringing disengaged communities together to have an influence over how the memory of their local area is taken forward; and at its most ambitious, creating a sense of meaning, belonging and healing social divides.
  • Attraction of business investment and visitor spending, through articulating a coherent story about the economic trajectory of a place and it’s distinct characteristics in a wider context.
  • Achievement of social outcomes in heritage settings, such as improving learning outcomes in schools, or offering heritage activities as social prescriptions for social isolation or poor mental health.

As the RSA’s work with several Wiltshire towns recently demonstrated, the shift in approach for a local authority — from delivering duties and services against pre-defined outcomes, to activating community resources which generate socially and economically inclusive outcomes — is so fundamental as to be overwhelming for the council. This shift is being pursued in social services such as health. In heritage, our three case study cities each show that this approach is emergent and bottom-up, but not yet dominant or deliberately accelerated by city leaders.

Five principles for networked heritage

First, start with people, use the tools and channels people are already using, to celebrate and engage with heritage where people live, work and play; where they shop, in pubs, cafes, libraries, sports centres and football stadiums. Get people in to heritage buildings and spaces through hosting projects, events and exhibits far beyond the usual programme.

Second, an acknowledgement that heritage is what people choose to make it. New skills and partnerships are needed among heritage organisations to overcome the engagement and participation gap which follows familiar lines of class and ethnicity. Several groups across Greater Manchester are leading this model of co-produced heritage, and recent research has echoed the value of ‘do-heritage-yourself’ approaches.

Third, going beyond yesterday’s battles to make an offer, not an ask. Looking to the future; consolidating local efforts to join together in making tough decisions around heritage priorities; encouraging creative industries, civic entrepreneurs and social innovators to become new leaders in heritage; harnessing the promise of new technologies to preserve and simulate historic environments. This will often mean prioritising heritage initiatives unambiguously focused on social purpose for local communities today.

Fourth, encouraging all stakeholders to open up and lead the change; advocating open sourcing of ideas, learning and data, promoting public participation through co-curation and co-production, and through the take-up of existing powers such as the Community Right to Bid (pdf), listing heritage sites as Assets of Community Value. There is a specific challenge to central government here to review whether there are any national statutory powers, relevant to heritage, which would benefit from being part of a discussion with local authorities as part of devolution deals.

Fifth, to help make heritage the local USP, as part of the UK’s global identity as a national ‘heritage brand’. Incorporating different perspectives on heritage from citizens and visitors in place-branding to create a broad tent which anyone can find their place within. Examples include Glasgow (‘People Make Glasgow’), Manchester (‘Original Modern’) and Dundee’s recognised focus as a City of Design. The fifth principle includes the hugely important caveat not to rely on a heritage strategy. Static strategy could be fatally reductive to networked heritage which, by definition, requires dynamic integration with other aspects of place.

Different models will of course work more effectively in different contexts. The approach to networked heritage can be as distinctive as place in supporting the principles outlined above. Many of the UK’s largest heritage organisations are networks of local charities, such as The Conservation Volunteers or Civic Voice. Share Academy was piloted with funding from the Arts Council to experiment with partnerships between museums and higher education. Museums Showoff is a bimonthly London event to share interesting practice across museums and heritage organisations, entirely run by volunteers. Creative Dundee started as a blog post in 2008, and has now been credited with increasing the profile of and pride in Dundee, helping retain talent in the city, developing new community empowerment projects, and bridging the gap between the public and the public sector.

The RSA’s conclusions point toward investing in the networks which help heritage talent — in all corners of the country — to inspire and learn from one another. While the House of Lords Select Committee on the Built Environment called for government to “recognise the full value of our built heritage as a unique national and local asset, central to place-making”, it will also be for heritage citizens, as the real drivers of a networked heritage model, to realise the value of their tangible and intangible heritage assets and foster the heritage activities that drive community wellbeing.


The UK is in the process of creating new political and planning geographies. In a devolved world, place itself is a ‘product’ with an increased premium. Without drawing on place-based heritage, a place product can only be generic rather than distinct.

Our research goes beyond making the case for formal place strategy to draw on the contribution that heritage citizens, assets and activities can make. Statutory and official plans are necessary and often useful; but lending real support to foster informal networks and collaborations should itself be considered a transformative strategy to develop a place, harnessing contributions from different corners of society.

Our lived experience in the material reality of the places we live our lives, and our connection to those who have lived in those places before, is a deep and powerful connection. Strengthening shared local identity across newly created political territories will be a vital contribution to the success of devolution within England.

The notion of networked heritage accommodates the reality that we hold personal identity at different scales, belonging to networks and feeling associations at different levels. So far, devolution and localism have largely failed to incorporate approaches which reconcile multiple scales of identity. Neighbourhoods are the building blocks that form a town or city, home to everyday institutions and the locale for our personal histories. We are simultaneously ‘locals’ in the street we live on, and citizens of wider communities. And it is at the city-region scale — extending into rural areas — that we share cultural experiences, civic amenities, and gain lived experience of the economic logic which dominates how places develop — their labour markets and property markets. Durable networks for the heritage sector will need to be comfortable with this flexible geometry.

To fully realise the value of heritage requires independent and well-networked intermediaries to act as motivators, advocates and critical friends to heritage citizens, volunteer groups and emerging social entrepreneurs. This could take the form of an organisation of approachable, knowledgeable and well-connected individuals who bridge heritage and other civic and economic worlds. An informal network could consolidate knowledge — for example looking across the funding landscape on both the funder and applicant side, and promoting place-based initiatives across the sector, like Heritage Open Days.

Networked heritage offers the opportunity for coordination between local groups and communities across neighbourhoods, and wider coordination across multiple groups drawn from across city-regions. The RSA has created a network of ‘heritage ambassadors’ who are piloting this wider role.

In times of highly constrained public finance and public sector capacity, the risk of heritage remaining a disjointed and uncoordinated sector is serious. As we concluded in our previous phase of research: these are dangerous times in which to be mute. Building connections which strengthen local networks, including citizens, community groups and more traditional heritage organisations, will help places better define their identity. The value of a confident and inclusive local identity, rooted in heritage, is evident in everyday quality of life and strengthened long-term prospects for local economies.

Networked heritage

Heritage connects people to where they live.


Written by


We are the RSA. The royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce. We unite people and ideas to resolve the challenges of our time.

Networked heritage

Heritage connects people to where they live. A publication from the RSA, in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund


Written by


We are the RSA. The royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce. We unite people and ideas to resolve the challenges of our time.

Networked heritage

Heritage connects people to where they live. A publication from the RSA, in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund

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