2 Mar

Geographical Review Preview: Does local rural heritage still matter in a global urban world?

By: Serge Schmitz and Lauriano Pepe

What is the main purpose of your study? 
In a time of rapid change in the countryside and lifestyle (including the increasing mobility, the demand for new leisure activities, the use of new technologies and social media), we question the role of local heritage in rural areas and its relevance for villagers.

What are the practical, day to day, implications of your study? 
Citizens are essential actors of heritage and should be the first beneficiaries. They are essential to recognize and sort heritage, to preserve it, to manage it, and even to give new functions of these elements of the past. However, they are not all aware of their role, so that we may fear the loss of the sense of heritage. It is therefore important to raise their awareness, and to promote their role in heritage policy, notably in rural development policies. Effectively, if rural people don’t see the possible uses of local heritage, they may not have any interest in it, causing a loss of the villages’ identity.

“Each village has its own identity and the feeling of belonging to a village, to a community, it is also important for people to think that we have this thing in our village and maybe there is no such thing elsewhere.” (Delphine, 16 years with NGO “Qualité Village Wallonie”)

It should also be noted that tangible heritage is not limited to physical objects, but includes also the relationship that people have with these objects. While a monument or even a place can deteriorate over time, this relationship changes also because the interest in heritage varies. Today, in any heritage-based development project, it is important to consider the present relationship and the present values transmitted by the heritage, in other words, to ask the question “does this heritage, in its current state, still have an interest for the present and the future of the community?”

How does your study relate to other work on the subject?
The international literature about heritage shows increasing interest in heritage of local value which receives less attention from official authorities. Accordingly, the participation of the population is essential to preserve this local heritage, considering therefore the construction of heritage as social process. In view of this, we study more particularly the local heritage in rural context where heritage elements have often been limited as tourism resources. Is there a hope for local heritage outside the commodification?

What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study? 
Villages and rural landscapes incorporate elements from the past, but their meanings and their uses are being forgotten by a large part of the inhabitants. This observation points to a loss of interest in local rural heritage.

“People have everything at their fingertips via internet, social networks. Even for contacts, they no longer need to see each other. It’s so easy with the different technological means. Before, when they lived in a closed society, they all knew each other, they had activities within a tight geographical area. Heritage is also no longer necessarily one of the points of interest, they are no longer obliged to have a local hobby, so heritage is no longer a compulsory step to know his village.” (Marie, 15 years with NGO “Qualité Village Wallonie”)

Nonetheless, certain rural people acknowledge that they should more pay attention to their heritage because it still provides some services: it contributes to the identity of the village, it allows the community to bond, it enhances the living environment, and it allows the inhabitants to better know and appreciate their village. Moreover, the present practices of the inhabitants can construct heritage implicitly, leading to take “new” forms of heritage in account. It is notably the case of the paths inherited from medieval times that used today as places of outdoor recreation.

Not all people care about heritage in the same way. Younger generations and newcomers may have less time to commitment in or have less interest. On the contrary, older generations seem to be more concerned about their local heritage. This is probably a way to both recall memories and transmit a part of their identity to the next generations. This different interest in rural heritage reflects the diversity of society’s representations of the countryside, and raising some rural concerns: the current function of the former village centers, the place of traditional agricultural activity in modern countryside, the relations between new and old inhabitants.

What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study? 
From a more theoretical point of view, we define the sense of heritage through a triangular diagram where the apex represents three dimensions of heritage: the level of attachment (the attachment), the level of responsibility for its preservation (the charge) and the usefulness of heritage (the resources) (Figure 1). Depending on people’s view and their way of living, the sense of heritage for an object may move through this triangular space, giving more or less weight to each of the dimensions.

Figure 1. The three dimensions of the sense of heritage.

How does your research help us think about Geography? 
The study of heritage allows geographers to see how today’s society uses elements of the past for economic, social and even political purposes. In particular, the approach to local heritage is important for a Geography that is interested in the meanings of place. Indeed, heritage reinforces the idea of distinguishing the tangible and intangible aspects of a place. Effectively, beyond its physical resources, a place can be the source of various representations and values. Through the lens of heritage, various representations of the countryside exist, which may then influence the way in which the rural spaces are managed and inhabited, and finally may differ from the global urban world.

Momalle, A Belgian village center around the catholic church and its churchyard (Laplec, 2021)

The inauguration of the monument to recall the millers ‘activities in Awirs (Belgium) (Laplec, 2015)

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