Australia’s Example of a People-centred Approach to Sustainability Within Heritage Preservation

Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania—Penitentiaryl 004, by Rexness/Flickr (2015) Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

By Marina Herriges, NiC Editor for Reframing Conservation Through Sustainability

On the back of the IIC Net Zero Pilot Programme, I have been learning from a variety of professionals who have been doing great work to tackle climate change within conservation in different parts of the world. One of these professionals is Emilia Zambri who is a built heritage consultant and materials conservator. Emilia describes her work as having a people-centred and sustainable approach to heritage preservation and conservation of the built environment. 

I had the pleasure of speaking with Emilia about the work she has been doing and how it has been shaping her life not only as a professional but also as an individual: “My professional journey shifted towards incorporating climate mitigation and resilience in my practice due to the pressing challenges posed by climate change to Australia's historic and natural heritage. The increasing impacts of rising temperatures, extreme weather events and sea-level rise demanded consideration. Recognising the unique vulnerabilities and opportunities inherent in climate change, I pivoted towards integrating climate resilience and adaptive management strategies into my built heritage projects.” 

Emilia understands that engaging further with interdisciplinary dialogues on climate adaptation will enrich her understanding of the subject. Her engagement thus far has been through collaboration with climate scientists, engineers, architects and communities, which provide a holistic perspective on the convergence of climate science, cultural heritage and sustainable conservation practices. Emilia reiterated that “this inclination was not solely prompted by professional considerations but also fuelled by a sense of responsibility to protect and preserve the nation's cultural and natural legacy for future generations.” 

At the end of 2023, Emilia published an article entitled “Preserving Australia's past in a changing climate: A call to action for climate-resilient heritage conservation” in which she stresses the need for urgent and adaptive strategies in conservation. While we spoke, Emilia told me that, in her view, “the conservation profession is actively responding to the pressing need for adaptive strategies in historic and natural heritage amid the challenges of climate change. This transition involves moving away from reactive recovery measures to proactive approaches centred around resilience, effective management and capacity building. Present conditions reveal a concerning trend of heritage sites deteriorating due to climate change-induced events including flooding, coastal erosion, bushfires and evolving fire regimes. Despite ongoing efforts, limited monitoring and evaluation underscore the heightened vulnerability of these sites.” 

Emilia also underlined the value of “a collaborative and effective international conservation community, the diversity of perspectives and approaches, often stemming from different global contexts. By bridging the gap between the global north and south dynamics, we can create a more inclusive strategy to address the pressing challenges of the climate crisis.”

As a Hungarian, who grew up in South Africa and immigrated to Australia, Emilia observes that the country is in a good position to influence the world in a collaborative effort by passing on their learnings. “Australia, with its unique ecological landscape and conservation practices, offers valuable insights that can greatly benefit the global conservation effort. Australia's experience in dealing with extreme weather events, such as flooding and bushfires, provides valuable lessons for building adaptive strategies for natural, built and archaeological heritage sites. Developing resilience through fire/flood management plans, early warning systems, and community engagement models can be crucial for mitigating the impact of climate change-induced disasters worldwide.”

Emilia also acknowledges the challenges posed by insufficient government resources and pressures from urban development which makes apparent the need for a holistic management strategy within our profession. “There is a need for a collective effort for effectively addressing the multifaceted impacts of climate change on heritage.”


Nature and indigenous heritage in the climate agenda

The connection between nature conservation and heritage conservation is an obvious one, especially when we are looking at heritage sites that are inbuilt into environmental areas. Emilia and I spoke about these crossovers, and she gave me an interesting example: “A prime illustration of this synergistic relationship is evident at the Port Arthur Historic Site in Tasmania, where historical structures and archaeological remnants coexist with the surrounding natural bushland and coastline. The conservation efforts extend beyond the maintenance of the structures built by convicts, but also encompass the careful stewardship of natural elements including the management of natural bushland, fire risk and weed control, forming a holistic strategy for heritage conservation and preservation. Preserving and safeguarding built heritage, biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes are essential elements contributing to the overarching goal of conserving all values associated with the site.”

The conversation evolved towards lands and indigenous communities and how these groups have been leading the way in the climate adaptation agenda. Emilia told me about the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape project, located in the traditional Country of the Gunditjmara Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia. The community has been taking the lead in adapting to climate change and safeguarding their land and heritage by actively joining decision-making processes on the management of their ancestral lands. The project developed over seven years with extensive community consultation and showcases how traditional knowledge can be integrated into building sustainable and resilient tourism sites. Emilia explained that “the project illustrates the vital role of architecture in storytelling, aiding both Indigenous and non-Indigenous visitors in understanding the Gunditjmara story and emphasising the continuous nature of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape despite physical changes due to colonisation. The project highlights the importance of preserving cultural heritage through a cultural heritage management plan, adaptable design and strict construction guidelines. Additionally, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape project embraces sustainability, creating a circular economy that employs Traditional Owners in land care. The focus on eco-friendly principles, off-grid designs, water harvesting and recycled materials reflects a holistic approach to climate adaptation aligned with Indigenous values.” 

Emilia’s testimony and experience are encouraging to hear. It is a positive experience to learn from projects that are committed to nature, the planet, climate resilience, climate adaptation and indigenous rights. I certainly feel that in conservation we are increasingly more committed to practices that tackle climate change and ensure the relevance of the profession. 


Author bio

Marina Herriges is an object and textile conservator based in Glasgow, Scotland and holds a position as Regional Programme Manager at the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC). Marina is a PhD researcher at the College of Social Science, School of Education at the University of Glasgow. She investigates the interrelation between heritage conservation, climate change and colonialism from an anti-disciplinary viewpoint. Marina is a guest visiting lecturer at the MPhil Textile Conservation, University of Glasgow. She has worked in a range of different heritage and conservation organizations in Brazil, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.


(Read the article in the April-May 2024 "News in Conservation" Issue 101, p. 44-47)