Valuing heritage in cities

Cities are increasingly viewed as living, dynamic and complex systems comprising rich layers of history and collective memory. As an intricate fabric, woven from threads of the past and present, cities reflect not only our histories, but our plans, projections and desires for the future. In this context, culture is a ‘powerful strategic asset’ capable of creating cities and urban futures that are more ‘inclusive, creative and sustainable’. [1]

Through its client work and independent research, SGS explores and assesses the value of heritage assets in Australia. To value heritage, it is essential to have a clear understanding of what is meant by the term heritage, as well as the social and economic values associated with it. Choice modelling is an innovative methodology which has been widely used to appropriately measure the value of cultural and heritage assets.

What is heritage?

While definitions of heritage vary, heritage is generally taken to mean that which we inherit and what society keeps of this inheritance.

The Australian Government Department of the Environment defines heritage as ‘all the things that make up Australia’s identity—our spirit and ingenuity, our historic buildings, and our unique living landscapes. Our heritage is a legacy from our past, a living, integral part of life today, and the stories and places we pass on to future generations’. [2]

In recent years the concept of heritage has evolved to reflect a broader awareness of built heritage as part of a ‘cultural ecosystem’. Aligning built heritage with sustainability discourse has also resulted in a greater emphasis on sustainable urban development, corporate ethics and social responsibility. [3]

Cultural value and significance

The value of a heritage place, site, landscape or object is commonly referred to as its cultural significance. [4] Cultural value or significance is a comprehensive term comprising the aesthetic, historic, scientific, symbolic and social or spiritual value of cultural heritage for past, present and future generations. [5]

The values embodied in the term ‘cultural significance’ reflect a number of benefits that are often intangible. Current trends observed in the literature point to a typology of sociocultural values as outlined in Table 1.

Table 1. Sociocultural values of urban heritage

Source: SGS Economics and Planning, 2017

Economic value of heritage

There are a range of well-established economic values with regards to historic heritage which encompass both use and non-use values. These are described in Table 2.

Table 2: Economic values of urban heritage

Source: SGS Economics and Planning, 2017

Choice Modelling

Various forms of consumer research is often required to gauge the value of a built heritage asset by assessing the willingness of members of a community to pay (WTP) to retain or preserve these assets. Choice modelling is a particularly useful form of market research for this purpose.

Already widely applied in environmental economics, the use of choice modelling in the evaluation of cultural heritage assets is still relatively new. [7] Choice modelling has been described as having a ‘powerful and detailed capacity of evaluation’ for cultural heritage assets. [8]

Choice modelling uses a number of survey based methodologies for the measurement of preferences for non-market goods. Respondents to surveys are typically asked to do one of the following: [9]

  • Rank the various alternatives in order of preference
  • Rate each alternative according to a preference scale
  • Choose their most preferred alternative out of a set

A price is attached to one of the attributes of a good and therefore WTP can be deduced from respondents’ ranks, ratings and choices. [10]

Through better understanding the value of heritage assets to communities, more informed decisions can be made regarding the nature of development in our cities.



[1] Bokova, Forward to Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Development’ United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), (2015). ONLINE SOURCE
[2] Australian Government Department of the Environment. ‘ Plan for a Cleaner environment’ , (DoE, Canberra, 2016)
[3] UNESCO (2015) 40
[4] The Allen Consulting Group, (2005): 1
[5] Ibid;
[6] Randall Mason, ‘Assessing values in conservation planning: methodological issues and choices.’ Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage, Ed. Marta de la Torre, (The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, 2002): 5-30.
[7] Choi et al., (2010): 215
[8] Mourato et al., (2002): 64
[9] Ibid;
[10] Ibid;