What Does Sustainability in Heritage Look Like?

Published on 12 November 2021

As part of our climate change themed #TakeoverDay, we interviewed English Heritage’s Ruth Knight, Head of Climate and Sustainability. Read on to hear the latest on English Heritage’s sustainability strategy, and what Ruth enjoys most about her role…

Hi Ruth, welcome to the Shout Out Loud corner of the internet!

Could you briefly outline your role, and what you do day-to-day?

“I’m Head of Climate and Sustainability for EH, it’s an entirely new role and one I’ve been in for just under 4 months. At the moment my day-to-day is drawing together an ambitious strategy across the organisation to help us take action on environmental sustainability, answering questions from staff, volunteers and members, getting to know my colleagues and our amazing EH sites.”

That sounds really exciting. What do you find most interesting about your role?

“It covers such a wide range of areas from biodiversity to heat pumps, from visitor engagement to funding opportunities and creative projects. Plus the incredible range of sites and really dedicated people involved.”

What sustainability campaigns are you working on at the moment?

“I’m going to be focusing on carbon reduction, getting a net zero carbon target and actions in place for the whole organisation, an adaptation plan and toolkits looking across our sites and also developing engagement approaches which I hope will include Shout Out Loud!”

We would love that! What’s the most successful sustainability measure that English Heritage has already implemented?

“We’ve already identified that more than 60% of our energy use comes from just 10 properties, we’ve made lots of energy efficiency measures and switched to a green tariff.  We’re hoping to follow this up with a big programme of work at the top 10 sites to reduce their carbon impact even more.”

That sounds really promising, but it must be tricky implementing these changes…What are the biggest challenges for English Heritage in meeting its sustainability aims?

“Money and time are always challenges, especially given the huge number of things we need to get done as a charity. There are so many opportunities we need to prioritise where we can make the biggest impact.  We’re also dealing with really significant sites so we need to bring everyone with us on the journey to show why tackling climate change is important and urgent.”

Bringing everyone on the journey is really important… What do you think the role of English Heritage is in engaging the public with climate change?

“We have such an exciting opportunity to tell England’s story through our sites, we can chart human impact on the environment from pre-history to modern day showing how people shaped the world around them.  The conversations around climate change can feel removed from everyday life but our heritage provides a way in, a chance to engage people in a way that is local and personal. Our buildings often look extremely resilient, especially the castles, but by showing how the changing climate has impacted on them and how they have adapted in the past we can talk honestly about what this means for us all in the future.”

Re-foresting and replanting has been a hot topic over the past few years. Are you planning on re-wilding any spaces?

“Although we don’t have much land we are already looking at how we can enhance what we have for biodiversity, for example adjusting landscape management at sites to leave areas of longer grassland. This may include tree planting where suitable but will also look at how we improve our meadows, grasslands and soils to capture more carbon and provide better habitats.”

Considering that some English Heritage sites are quite inaccessible, is there any scope for providing electric charging options on-site?

“Yes, absolutely, this is something we are looking at now. We’re also working on how we improve links and encourage visitors to use public transport where possible, we want our sites to be accessible to everyone despite the challenges of location.”

English Heritage sites are obviously extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but they’re also contributing to the causes…It must be difficult to reduce the environmental impact of these English Heritage sites (eg. implementing new heating systems) whilst also preserving them, as they can be fragile. What’s that process like?

“Given the significance of our sites it can be time consuming to make changes as we need to think carefully about the best approach, but our sites can also tell us a lot about how people adapted to their location in the past, for example using local materials and building features that conserve energy like shutters.  Often making changes can involve lots of other people and different professions like engineers, architects, contractors, site staff, engagement leads but we all care about the sites and know how urgent it is to take action on climate change so it results in a better and more resilient solution.”

Thinking about extreme weather and potential sea level rise in the coming years, are there any risks to English Heritage buildings? And what adaptation measures are you putting in place?

“Yes, we are already seeing the impact of climate change on our buildings, archaeology, landscapes and collections. This is true across the heritage sector so we’re working with other organisations like the National Trust, Historic Environment Scotland and Historic England to share knowledge and research on how we adapt our sites. We have a sustainable approach to our conservation which includes identifying what the climate hazards are, and are likely to be, and the vulnerability of each site which helps us prioritise and take the right adaptation actions.”

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Ruth!

For more information on English Heritage’s sustainability aims, visit the English Heritage website.