Discover the social soul of adaptive reuse projects within circular economy framework

Successful adaptive reuse has to be grounded in the recognition of the social value of cultural heritage sites and landscape. Latest qualitative studies revealed the importance of sentiment to the site (shared among community members) as important impulse for mobilizing to save the cultural heritage and initiating the adaptive reuse process. The spirit of the place that influences the emergence of common meaning among the local residents is a vital motivation for community members to self-organize.

The cultural heritage holds different roles for local communities. It can be perceived as a tie between present and past, a kind of interlink between generations. Buildings that witnessed the important moments of history are considered by the community to have a special symbolic value. Sites that shaped the lives of past generations remain meaningful even after they fall into disrepair. They convey the understanding of the past of the given community and its role in forming the present; it affects the community’s identity and strengthens the feeling of sharing the same roots. It helps to form unity and solidarity, because it offers a meaning that all can refer to. In time, such built heritage or landscape become a reference point for many people, both in terms of physical space as well as local history or identity.

At the same time, cultural heritage tends to also evoke a strong non-rational transcendental sentiment (like belief or faith). The strength of a sentiment is related to the importance of the place for the local community, the ability of the place to satisfy emotional or transcendental needs of their users, especially the need of being connected to something bigger than here and now. Because of that, built heritage remains a tangible medium of human values that used to be cherished in the past and still seem to be relevant in the present, which is especially visible in the case of religious or ceremonial objects or sites. The magnitude of spiritual value – going beyond economic, historical or aesthetic one – often reflected in people’s emotional reaction, informs us about the significance of the place. The feelings that the place evokes often transmits into creating a sense of identity, connectedness to a local community, but can be also experienced by sensitive visitors or tourists. This also means that the adaptation of cultural heritage with strong spiritual value can be a challenging endeavour, requiring a deeper understanding of the intangible values the place possesses.

If the adaptation of cultural heritage is performed without the acceptance of local residents, it may have negative effects on the local community, i.e., decreased sense of belonging to the place and decreased sense of responsibility for the place.

Many built heritage sites have the quality of “drawing in”, gathering people and encouraging social interactions. It’s because the place that offers interesting, open and welcoming space in which people can interact and exchange ideas freely, has a high social value. Such places facilitate the emergence of collective awareness in a community, which in turn enable the cooperation in order to influence reality through collective actions. Social value can be generated only if the place is open to all (accessible) and allows different behaviours or functions that can appeal to various members of the community (openness). This way, cultural heritage gains value as a meeting place, but also a context for local debates and space to enact social roles – contributing to social cohesion and stability. If the place offers gathering space just for selected people, its social value is narrowed just to this particular group. On the other hand, the diverse use of built heritage can generate potential for building trust and enabling self-organization of residents.

Importantly, the adaptive reuse projects of cultural heritage sites have a high innovation potential. Since communities with higher diversity and level of trust are more likely to adapt well to change, places with high social capital such as adaptive cultural heritage sites can be used as hubs for implementing circular economy ideas on a local level. Recognizing the needs of particular communities can also help when suggesting and introducing solutions that are more ecological and circular. By understanding the community value of cultural heritage sites – buildings, public spaces and landscape – we can enable a deeper socio-economic change on the local level, driven by the ideas of waste reduction and closing the loops. Adaptive reuse grounded in social values allows to connect the novel idea of circularity to tradition, local history and heritage, making the changes more sustainable and directly linked to communities’ wellbeing.