Coastal heritage and climate change

| 12th September 2019
Blackpoor pier
Global climate breakdown conference in Blackpool puts coastal heritage in the watery path of climate change.

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Blackpool’s piers stand exposed and look perilously fragile as the Irish Sea waves crash again and again against the Victorian structure.

These structures stand as an appropriate reminder of the very immediate threat climate breakdown poses to some of our most valuable coastal heritage - it's quite literally falling into the sea. 

World Monuments Fund (WMF) featured the piers in their 2018 ‘Watch’ cycle to raise awareness and broker solutions. WMF also joined with Blackpool Council to bring together a delegation of world experts for the Blackpool Sea Change conference. The delegation's expertise spanned fields from conservation to architecture, tourism, academia, and drew participants from grassroots as well as professional bodies.

Managing change

Blackpool Sea Change showcased examples of such heritage under threat and shared best practice – and offered up solutions. 

It is clearly not possible to hold back the tide, as the apocryphal and appropriately historic story of King Cnut so ably demonstrated. Climate breakdown has always altered our coastlines, but the rate of change is rapidly accelerating, with significant losses predicted over the next century.

In 1772 the light house at Orford Ness was two miles from the sea; now waves lap at its door.

The Blackpool Sea Change conference, which included 60 presentations from 13 different countries, had three clear take-away messages. As archaeologists, conservators and heritage professionals, many of the audience in the room were at the forefront of understanding that change is the story of the past, the only constant. Heritage conservation can therefore best be described as the ‘careful management of change’.

As such delegates were well-placed to help explain future change, by imaginatively demonstrating what has happened in the past. This usefully addresses a commonly held perception that the heritage profession is about stopping change or ‘pickling in aspic’. 

Honest and brave

There are many solutions to climate breakdown and coastal built heritage, from the traditional, such as building sea-defences and protecting against physical erosion, to managed retreat, which accepts and records loss.

Hard solutions however, are expensive, and the heritage cause needs to be combined with other needs to make a strong case.

Increased loss is inevitable, and we need to be more honest and braver in telling that story. Most importantly we need to make decisions and to prioritise. The alternative is that the decision will be taken for us.

The heritage profession needs to work in partnership with others – both to share solutions and to ensure our voice is heard. A theme heard repeated throughout the conference was of the success of nature-based solutions in mitigating the impact of climate breakdown, many of which had significant value for cultural heritage – the restoration of saltmarsh for economic benefit in the Venetian lagoon being an active example.

Concepts such as ‘natural capital’ are invaluable in making politicians, decision-makers and business leaders understand the financial benefits of investing in solutions to climate breakdown: the same applies to cultural capital, which we need to explain better. Combining forces with others in the world of arts, culture, heritage and tourism was seen as an important step.

Innovative technologies

It's paramount that we involve local communities, help them to understand the issues and to care for their heritage, and that we adopt a clear language and a values-based approach.

The use of art, photography and a range of innovative technologies, combined with a desire for true engagement (rather than consultation) were seen as essential pre-requisites for success.

Next steps for World Monuments Fund, Blackpool Council and the other conference partners, are to encourage participants and others with an interest to join The Climate Heritage Network, which launches in October in Edinburgh.

We are also exploring publishing the proceedings of the conference and developing a one-day version of the event which would act as a road-show for other coastal areas of the UK. 

This Author 

John Darlington is executive director of World Monuments Fund Britain. An archaeologist by training, John is an author and conservation professional with over 30 years of practical experience. He tweets at @JohnD_WMFB.

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