How cultural heritage contributes to the green, digital, and social transition

10 April 2024

“Cultural heritage is driving positive change and making a valuable impact,” says Julie Hervé, Head of Culture at Eurocities, referring to the good practices selected by the European Heritage Hub project. From transforming industrial heritage into a sustainable hub for cultural activities to restoring a medieval vegetable garden using techniques and seeds from the time, the chosen initiatives illustrate how cultural heritage contributes to our society’s green, digital, and social transitions.

“They serve as inspiring responses to local challenges, with the potential to influence policy solutions and provide transferable case studies for other regions. We are extremely pleased, alongside our project partners, to emphasise cities’ impact through the European Heritage Hub project. The green, digital, and social transition can only accelerate through multi-level collaboration,” added Hervé.

Stockholm’s gas production site hosts the city’s cultural scene

The former gasworks area in the Stockholm Royal Seaport, Gasverket, has significant historical industrial importance, with much industrial activity taking place for around 100 years. The major site was instrumental in moving gas around and bringing energy to the city. In 2011, gas production at the site ceased while some minor industrial activities remained.

However, most buildings are being transformed, preserving their classified high cultural and historical values. “We’re not removing old rust stains and stuff that have run down the walls – we want to keep all that, so people get a sense of the building’s past,” explains Palle Gustafsson, an expert in stage technology for the City of Stockholm. “At the same time, we’re creating a fully-equipped state-of-the-art stage facility.”

In fact, one of the most iconic buildings, the Gasklocka 2, is becoming a new cultural scene hosting up to 1,700 people. Throughout the renovations, the city has reused and kept the original structures and materials whenever possible. Due to contamination, not everything could be kept, but most of the facades, bricks, doors, stairs and other furnishing are original.

These efforts aim to preserve the building’s historical value and promote a sustainable and circular approach to heritage. In addition to recycling as many materials as possible, the refurbishment considers energy use. The completed buildings have good energy performances that meet the city’s sustainability goals by a good margin.

In addition to the concert hall, the site hosts the Berghs School of Communication, the Stockholm Transport Museum, and a rock-climbing facility. Around 200 new homes will also be built in a few years, bringing new life to this old brownfield.

Community building through restoring Barcelona’s nuns’ garden

If Stockholm honours its industrial past, Barcelona decided to dig into its Medieval roots. The Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes boasts a walled compound of almost 3,000 square metres that used to feed the convent’s community from 1327, the year of its foundation, until the end of the 20th century.

In 2017, the Monastery Museum, with the help of specialists from several disciplines, decided to restore the original use of the garden using medieval agricultural techniques. The project builds on the place’s heritage by respecting the initial distribution of the plots – ensuring the coexistence of the green space, the architectural structure and the history of the monastery and its museum – and through an exhaustive study to determine the species to be planted. As a result, the garden uses traditional irrigation facilities and grows native and local species currently unused or in danger of extinction. At the same time, it doesn’t include species imported from the Americas from 1492 onwards.

Resorting to medieval and organic techniques not only preserves the site’s heritage but also avoids the misuse of natural resources, which would otherwise compromise the needs of future generations. “Everything that is used in the vegetable garden is from the vegetable garden itself, and everything is organic and renewable,” reads the good practice submission. Techniques such as polyculture, alternation and crop combination, the use of organic nutrients and fertilisers, the selection of local species adapted to the local climate and the effective use of irrigation ensure a fertile and resilient soil. This type of agriculture is one of the cornerstones of what is now known as ecological farming.

In addition to striving for sustainability and heritage preservation, the revitalised garden proposes educational and social projects involving local schools and organisations working with groups at risk of social exclusion. They are engaged in maintaining the vegetable garden and promoting values such as caring for the environment, local consumption, and equity between all members of society, developing and transforming the community.

Cultural heritage driving change all over Europe

From north to south, East to West, European cities are showing the way towards using cultural heritage as a driver for positive change. Glasgow and Ljubljana are both investing in restoring and reusing historically symbolic buildings.

The Scottish city is working on redeveloping the Stables and Sawmill in Pollok Country Park both in terms of heritage by reintroducing the Clydesdale horses to the park and creating a world-class heritage centre and by developing educational facilities, providing opportunities for training and employability and spaces for events, community building and meetings. Like Stockholm, Glasgow ensures the renovation reuses existing materials and aims to create a “net-zero carbon living heritage centre,” reads the submission.

In parallel, the Slovenian capital is tackling the transformation of the Rog bicycles factory, the city’s most iconic industrial cultural heritage site of the 20th century. Instead of bikes, the premises welcome manufacturers, urban artisans, artists, designers, architects and engineers.

The new centre organises public tenders and open calls to assign creative spaces that are rent-free and with running costs covered. It also hosts the new unit of the Ljubljana City Library, residential areas for visiting creators or researchers and a space for events and lectures. As part of this project, the city also designed a new public park and revitalised the area along the Ljubljanica River, creating more space for pedestrians and cyclists.

Voices for and from the community

Marking the 20th anniversary of Guimaraes’ designation as a heritage site by UNESCO, the city launched the District C pilot within the Net Zero Cities project. District C is “a social experiment for neighbourhood development based on culture, knowledge and creativity as a testing ground for zero-carbon policies,” reads the project description. The project’s foundation rests on a citizens’ pact involving different stakeholders – like universities, companies, and cultural and arts associations – to co-create strategies for carbon-neutral actions in various areas, such as energy, mobility, circular economy, waste and land use. District C also embodies Guimaraes’ commitment to the EU Mission for 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030.

People’s engagement is also at the heart of Nantes’ Patrimonia, an online platform “reaffirming the right for everyone to express what constitutes heritage,” reads the submission. While the site is managed by the Department of Heritage and Archeology and the Nantes Archives, locals feed into it and start conversations on the platform, creating a living encyclopaedia and a rich and diverse space for discovery and exchange.

Similarly, the Belgian coast city of Oostende designed an online platform offering educational material, podcasts, audio walks, events, guided tours, and discussion spaces to learn about, discuss and engage with its colonial past.

More inspiration to come

These inspiring projects are only a few of the ones selected by the European Heritage Hub, which received 40 high-quality applications from 33 cities and regions across Europe. “We were very encouraged to see the enthusiastic response to this initiative,” says Carla Toffolo, Programme Manager of the European Heritage Hub.

For Toffolo, the ongoing transformations in Europe – green, digital and social – “require a true cultural transformation which starts at the local level. Cities are strong allies, and their proximity and direct engagement with citizens is essential for the success of our pilot project.”

As a co-beneficiary partner of the European Heritage Hub project, Eurocities will contribute to designing future capacity-building activities. For example, thematic webinars and two peer-learning visits will be organised in 2024 based on the good practices received by the project.

Read about all ten selected good practices.
Follow the European Heritage Hub to get involved in upcoming capacity-building activities.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer