How can a circular tourism economy help repurpose heritage buildings?

Photo of an abandoned factory

Heritage buildings play a large role in defining communities and creating a sense of belonging. In this brief article, I discuss some of the issues that challenge the preservation of heritage buildings; their abandonment, degradation, substitution, or re-use for non-beneficial purposes. I argue that by applying circular economic principles in tourism destination planning, new functions can be prioritised for these heritage buildings that would not only finance their — often expensive — maintenance but also deliver sustainable sociocultural, economic, and environmental benefits for communities.

The degradation of heritage buildings is very visible. After heritage buildings have lost their original functions, they are often abandoned and left to crumble. This has significant impacts not only on the visual and historical landscape of a place but also on its sociocultural dimension. It is well understood that heritage buildings retain historical significance for local communities. So when they are left abandoned, might this be a sign of sociocultural decline?

When heritage buildings are repurposed, they are often given roles that ensure the long-lasting integrity of their architecture, which is great, but rarely do they preserve sociocultural functions. This is an opportunity lost, which I would argue is due to a lack of community consultation or participative approaches to decision-making.

Below I discuss this problem in the context of tourism destinations. Where circular economic principles are adopted in destination planning, I believe the tourism sector is well placed to help find participative ways to repurpose heritage buildings so that they are socioculturally beneficial to both local residents and visitors. Furthermore, the conversions are likely to generate enough revenue and/or political will for their maintenance, and avoid the exploitation of resources (and noise and disruption) involved in demolition and the construction of new facilities.

The circular tourism economy is a viable solution

The circular economy is often discussed from a resource flows perspective, such as water, energy, food, and so on. The point of a circular economy is to keep valuable resources in use and in circulation for as long as possible to maximise their economic utility and to minimise waste and therefore their environmental impact.

The concept of the circular economy can also be applied to heritage buildings. If considered a resource, like water or energy, heritage can be valued, valorised, re-used, and repurposed; and its sociocultural utility maximised at different levels of society.

This is an excerpt from an article by Angelo Sciacca, originally published on The “Good Tourism” Blog

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