Mapping heritage

Jun 15, 2016 · 9 min read

The RSA’s Heritage Index is provoking new conversations on heritage

By Jonathan Schifferes

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jschifferes

One of the most powerful benefits of data analysis is that it is able to bring to the surface deeply held values and assumptions that we may not even be aware that we hold. When it comes to heritage — local, national and indeed global — this is clearly the case.

Collaborating with Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the RSA has set out to foster a richer understanding of how heritage relates to local identity. Our Action and Research Centre has broken new ground with an ambitious exercise to collate more than 100 datasets relating to heritage into a Heritage Index, having started with a deceptively simple question about which local areas in Britain have the most heritage.

Answering this question is difficult. But it is the subsequent questions it raises that show the value of provoking a richer public debate at a local level: How do you measure heritage? What counts as heritage? How do you judge the value of different types of heritage?

We started with a definition of heritage that includes anything that is inherited from the past, which helps us interpret the present and plan for the future. In keeping with this, the data we have brought together goes beyond the conventional castles, palaces and tourist landmarks to include historic parks and open spaces, measures of landscape value and natural heritage.

We also looked at industrial history and social history; the cultures and memories that places carry forward.

Heritage provides one of the foundations on which people construct their identity and it shapes the distinctive character of a place.

Indeed, evaluation of historical significance is defined (in statutory terms) through uniqueness and scarcity. More importantly, strong local identity is crucial in revitalising civic and democratic engagement. Many of the most salient political issues of this decade concern questions of how we come to feel we belong, and how we understand the relationship between our place and other parts of the world.

Think of debates about Britain’s participation in shared European projects, the integration of new migrants and refugees into local communities, and the fragility of local communities, and the fragility of local economies feeling the echoes of shocks in volatile financial markets across the globe. In talking to progressive innovators such as the UK’s Happy Museum Project — which explores how museums can play a more active role in creating a more sustainable future — one is inspired to think that connecting people with local heritage can help to address the sense of displacement, disillusionment and alienation that underpins so many contemporary challenges. An emboldened and empowered local heritage is a remedy for clone towns, and perhaps reduces anxiety in those who feel vulnerable to change.

To realise this potential, citizens and decision-makers need tools that help them interpret their assets, strengths and opportunities in context; in other words, relative to other places. The trickiest element of the Heritage Index comes down to how to fairly compare between places. How to weigh up a World Heritage Site revered by historians of ancient civilisation against an old cinema, cherished by local people? The Heritage Index includes data on both assets (such as buildings, museums, archives, and historic and protected landscapes) and activities (participation, tourism, volunteering, investment and local action). We include unconventional indicators such as the number of foods that have protected European legal status, heritage open day events, and data from the online digital archive Historypin.

“Many of the most salient political issues of this decade concern how we come to feel we belong”

The beauty of data visualisation is that it uses our latent visual literacy to add to the cause of intellectual enquiry. We can spot patterns on shaded maps and charts much more easily than in tables of numbers. We interrogate the data to tease out what we have learned, and present these findings in a series of maps online. But our analysis will only be the tip of the iceberg. Importantly, and in the spirit of open policymaking discussed in previous issues of the RSA Journal, it is by making the data transparent and easily accessible that we can encourage others to provide additional analysis.

First, taking a broad definition of heritage, it is clear that there are some surprising star performers. Chocolate-box towns such as York and Bath, which fit the traditional definition of history and heritage, are outscored by coastal areas such as Scarborough and cities such as Portsmouth. Dundee tops the Scottish list.

Second, some common myths are busted. Fears of yet another North South divide are misplaced. Rural and urban areas each have areas of strong, deep and broad heritage. When it comes to heritage, Liverpool is the highest performing large city outside London. A region like the north-west also contains incredible landscape and natural heritage, in the Lakes and on the coast. Strong local heritage can exist in some of the most deprived parts of the country, such as Barrow-in-Furness and Blackpool, while some of the most prosperous parts of the country do not necessarily have a rich density of local heritage. Third, looking at our heritage data alongside other datasets at the local scale, there is a clear link between well-being and heritage but this is driven by heritage activities rather than an area simply possessing assets. This suggests walking through a beautiful conservation area every day will not improve the well-being of residents, but being part of a youth archaeology club or volunteering at a nature reserve might. There are places that the data shows have high levels of activity, already making the most of their assets (such as Cornwall). Equally, there are places of unrealised potential such as Southend, where heritage assets could be harnessed to drive higher levels of activity, and, potentially, improve well-being.

By provoking conversations about local heritage, it is clear that everyone has a stake; everyone can take a role authoring the history of where they live. Like starting with food (as the Incredible Edible urban gardening project advocates), heritage offers a ‘way in’ to encourage people to consider how their area functions and who influences that functioning.

Explore the RSA Heritage Index

What we have sought to do with the Heritage Index is to encourage a stronger culture of open data. Providing a single point of public access to data can promote both shared and discordant interpretations of where the strengths or weaknesses in local heritage might lie. The question then becomes what steps should be taken to support local heritage so that it is recorded and conserved for the future. Should a place focus on addressing its weaknesses (for example, celebrating the history of parks through an oral history project) or consolidating its relative strengths (for example, broadening the activities around a cluster of industrial heritage assets)?

If knowledge is power, this is perhaps rarely more explicit than in the bureaucratic and technocratic process of planning to accommodate new housing and commercial development. The Localism Act 2011 created community-led neighbourhood planning. Other government initiatives such as Town Teams and those working to deliver projects under the Coastal Communities Fund also involve bringing in non-professionals to help shape the future of a place. The professionalisation of regeneration has become a frequent and legitimate complaint, but to genuinely empower citizens to play a stronger role means making information accessible and valuing community- generated knowledge.

Brighton, UK. Seaside towns score particularly well on the Heritage Index

We have taken newly published open data, such as the Companies House register, and used it to identify continuously trading businesses over 75 years old, as an example of how economic history is stewarded by private enterprise as much as by public agencies. Controversy over the direction of new development around Brick Lane and Spitalfields in London encapsulates this debate. Previous research found that 200 members of the recently formed East End Trades Guild (led by FRSA Krissie Nicholson) represented over 7,000 years of trading history and each knew 80 customers by name. In their own words:

“We carry the history of the East End in our businesses. We are caretakers of historic buildings and we add a narrative to the memory of the place we’re in.”

In coming years, across Britain, vast postwar housing estates, which present opportunities to increase density, draw the attention of developers and local councils. Engaging residents has never been more needed; as research from Create Streets highlights, people often oppose new development because they do not like how it looks. At worst, people feel new development blights the historic environment we have inherited. This will be an interesting battleground on which to assess heritage values. Will commercial pressure to rebuild be less opposed when the buildings are modernist and the inhabitants poorer and less powerful? How do we reconstruct or even account for the strong social fabric among a stable resident community, evident on estates like the one I live in?

Since launching the project, we have been reminded that there are some things a national endeavour such as the Heritage Index will never be able to reach. The pivotal day for Emily Davison and the suffragette cause at Epsom Downs in 1913 cannot be reduced to chalking up a statue in a data table. The (historical) success of Liverpool Football Club exceeds other businesses that we have recorded as having heritage value. And while places may be able to protect their food products, we cannot account for the extent to which a distinct local accent is cherished, or the value of playing in an old music venue to new performing artists today.

What we have done is set up a network of RSA Fellows who have agreed to be a local point of contact, in order to channel feedback and ideas into an informal but transparent and structured conversation. The objective is to get consensus about priorities for action: our website starts by suggesting a range of activities from the simple to the ambitious, which would serve to bring local history to life by the time HLF recommissions the Heritage Index next year.

In an era when the UK government is engaging in efforts to localise, devolve and decentralise, heritage should have heightened importance in providing the context for local place-based strategies to develop socially, culturally and economically. Devolution will only deliver different results if local places act in a different way, breaking the inherited models of centralised governance and command and control.

To develop effective plans, strategies, projects and investments, leading local institutions – including local government but also anchor institutions such as universities and major employers – will require a comprehensive engagement with citizens. This is a process, not simply a consultation period. Deep questions, which are often close to the surface in statutory exercises including the planning process, relate to what kind of future people want for their place, how they feel about their neighbourhood. What kind of values do people hold and how do they want local resources and services to reflect that? What do people value from the past and want to preserve, adapt or renew? What kind of assets do people want to take forward into the future? What will shape the perception of a place in the eyes of newcomers, visitors and investors?

As soon as we start making judgements about how to build for the future of a place, we are drawing on issues of place- based identity. And heritage – our understanding of the past today – is fundamental to our identity. Heritage provides the local USP for a place. It is one of the few things that globalisation cannot successfully outsource. And in a global context, the UK, as the first industrialised nation, has a bounty of heritage assets. There is no better place to articulate the value that our past offers our efforts to shape our future. The Heritage Index is the first in a series of resources that the RSA is developing to help places do that for themselves.

Find out the Heritage score for your area

To join the network or find your local heritage ambassador visit RSA Heritage Ambassadors

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 3 2015