Published on Sustainable Cities

Innovating with the past: How to create resilience through heritage

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Source - World Bank.
Demonstration of the firefighting system in the Ninna-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, by the temple staff and the R-DMUCH professors. (Photo: Barbara Minguez Garcia / World Bank)
Bosai ( 防災 ) means disaster risk reduction or management, and it became our word of reference. As a group of professionals from disaster risk and cultural heritage management backgrounds visiting Japan, we used it in activities, as nicknames, and shouted in unison every time a group photo was taken. It represents a lesson that Japan has learned very well. Disasters have been part of the Japanese experience since the beginning of history. The Kobe Earthquake in 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 are just two recent examples of disasters from which Japan recovered under the motto “build back better.” On November 5 we will be marking the World Tsunami Awareness Day, and I cannot think of a better word than Bosai to capture its significance.

In an environment rife with natural disasters, Japan recognizes that climate change is a tangible reality that increases the intensity and frequency of these disasters. The country knows very well the threat they pose not only to its people, economy, or infrastructure, but also to its cultural heritage.

Intangible culture is equally important, especially helping people in the recovery process and ensuring that we learn from the past. Take for instance the example of ancient local knowledge used around the world, and ask yourself: are we listening to our ancestors’ warnings?

As such, Japan has important knowledge it can share with the rest of the world, and for a few weeks in September, our group became privy to this expertise, as part of the International Training Course (ITC) on Disaster Risk Management of Cultural Heritage in Kyoto. 

Organized by the Institute of Disaster Mitigation for Urban Cultural Heritage at Ritsumeikan University ( R-DMUCH), the ITC celebrated its 10 th anniversary this year with a symposium, which brought together experts from 26 countries in five continents. This gave us the opportunity to share our experiences and demonstrated that, despite each of us having a very different cultural heritage to a greater or lesser extent, we are all threatened by the same hazards. We soon realized that we can connect our hazard maps, that we all share similar problems, and that we can all learn from other experiences to preserve our heritage and to protect what makes each of our cultures unique.
In a world of vertiginous urbanization, urban heritage protection against disaster risk is fundamental to creating resilient cities.  The heritage of every city, just as for every country, forms the identity of the people. In post-disaster reconstruction, it is crucial to recover the character and integrity of the place, and therefore, preparedness and mitigation strategies should incorporate consideration of cultural heritage, in order to avoid irreplaceable losses. Just as archaeology is not about the remains, but about the people who created them, cultural heritage is about the people who identify themselves with that culture. 

Cultural heritage is especially vulnerable to disasters , not only because of the damage an event can cause to structures, but also because they remain at risk of possible erroneous post-disaster assessments. For example, historic buildings do not react the same as new ones, and sometimes, engineers today do not fully understand how certain damaged historic structures can behave. Following the initial emergency response, which obviously focuses on rescuing and saving lives, specialists should take specific measures to protect cultural heritage and ensure that important historic legacy is not lost forever.
Photo by Barbara Minguez Garcia / World Bank
While in the West the reconstruction of damaged historical structures focuses on the preservation of the “original” to the extent possible, in Japan the emphasis is also on the conservation of the knowledge, techniques, and materials used to build that structure. The photo shows a traditional Japanese reconstruction of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto. (Photo: Barbara Minguez Garcia / World Bank)
Our voice is being heard. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 explicitly mentions the importance of protecting cultural heritage from disasters, and not only natural: the international community is denouncing an increasing number of cases of heritage destruction by people, as in Syria, Mali, or Afghanistan.

Thanks to the R-DMUCH initiative, supported by a number of international organizations (such as UNESCO, ICOMOS/ ICORP and ICCROM), there is a growing network of professionals around the world, connecting disaster risk management and cultural heritage conservation, two disciplines that still remain separated in most countries. The ITC is a great example of this and provides an opportunity to expand this network further.

Here at the World Bank, the Japan-World Bank Program for Mainstreaming DRM and the Tokyo Development Learning Center work to connect developing countries with lessons learned from Japan on key development issues. The World Bank DRM Hub in Tokyo is now engaging Japanese experts to capture key solutions for resilient cultural heritage. 

Facing an increasingly uncertain future, it is time for our historic cities to adapt their heritage conservation strategies to disaster risk plans. Preserving historic legacy for future generations is an important way to consolidate urban resilience.


Barbara Minguez Garcia

Disaster Risk Management and Cultural Heritage Consultant

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