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What role for cultural heritage in promoting societal well-being?

Although achieving open, inclusive and collaborative societies is at the top of the EU strategic agenda, building such societies is a complex process that requires various resources and tools. At EU level, but also at lower levels, cultural heritage has been increasingly identified as one of the resources to be brought into play in this process. As pointed out by the European Commission Communication ?Towards an integrated approach to cultural heritage for Europe?, cultural heritage is ?a resource for economic growth, employment and social cohesion? and a ?source of inspiration for thinkers and artists?.

The instrumental value of cultural heritage in achieving these objectives has also been increasingly acknowledged in academic, empirical and civil society debates.

But how does cultural heritage contribute to societal well-being in practice?

Three main dimensions of the contribution of cultural heritage to well-being have been identified by the ESPON HERIWELL project (2021): quality of life; societal cohesion and material conditions.

When it comes to quality of life, cultural heritage contributes extensively to, life satisfaction, health and well being, education and knowledge production and environmental sustainability. Such findings are also confirmed by the HERIWELL survey: 77% of people surveyed deem heritage relevant to personal development, whereas 72% consider that living close to heritage sites can improve people?s quality of life. In addition, a 2015 study conducted by Fujiwara reveals that visiting heritage sites saves the British health system over GBP 298 million.

Cultural heritage contributes to societ al well-being mainly through creating connectedness and solidarity among groups in society, fostering place identity and sense of belonging promoting inclusivity and community engagement. The HERIWELL survey also reveals the societal value of cultural heritage: 73 % of people surveyed consider that cultural heritage can bring people toget her and foster the social inclusion of minority/migrants, whereas 81 % consider heritage to be an important resource for the development of societies and communities (HERIWELL Consortium, 2021). The contribution of cultural heritage to economic development should also not be forgotten. Cultural heritage enhances tourism, territorial attractiveness, the labour market and hence economic growth.

However, cultural heritage may also have negative effects when not valorised in a socially and environmentally sustainable way, for instance gentrification and pollution, overtourism, faking of citizenship and social conflicts related to minorities/immigrants, or contested heritage). Negative effects of cultural heritage are also pointed out by the HERIWELL sur vey: 49 % of the sur veyed population considers that living close to heritage sites downgrades quality of life, whereas 45 % maintains that some cultural traditions can hinder migrants? integration.

Despite the value of cultural heritage to societal well-being, its mainst reaming into societal well-being policies is still lacking. As pointed out by Montalto this is because, in particular, the non-cultural policymakers and stakeholders seem to underestimate the role that culture, including cultural heritage, plays in mainstream well-being policies (e.g. Sustainable Development Goals).

The value of cultural heritage as a societ al well-being driver should, therefore, be further acknowledged and better integrated into all EU policies (including Cohesion policy), as well as policies at national, regional and local levels. Only a holistic approach ? rather than a sectoral one ? can unleash the full potential of our shared heritage for Europe?s society, economy and the environment.

Cristina Vasilescu, researcher at the IRS

This article appears in the EURegionsWeek 2021 Issue of TerritoriALL

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This article appears in the EURegionsWeek 2021 Issue of TerritoriALL