An urban street scene of people and shops on a high street in Lincoln, UK.
General view of the north end of Sincil Street in Lincolnshire, from the north-west. © Historic England Archive. DP393441.
General view of the north end of Sincil Street in Lincolnshire, from the north-west. © Historic England Archive. DP393441.

Heritage as a Medium for Civic Engagement

Part of the Heritage Counts series. 3.5 minute read.

Members of the public often describe themselves as custodians of heritage. This custodianship inspires people to take actions to conserve the historic environment and historical artefacts and to promote the value of heritage. Civic participation is vital for the future of the heritage sector and can provide a range of benefits for those involved.

People are actively involved in protecting heritage

Evidence shows how members of the public want to build on their relationships with historic places and sites by being more actively involved through community activities such as campaigning, participating in decision making or offering their spare time:

  • More than a third of adults (38%) in England say they have taken action to protect a historic place by signing a petition, joining a membership group, fundraising/donating for local heritage or attending a public meeting (Historic England, 2015)
  • People living in a Conservation Area are twice as likely to engage in development or planning decisions in their local area compared with the general population (24% and 13%, respectively). This is based on survey evidence of over 2,400 adults residing in England, including adults who were identified as living within a Conservation Area (Historic England, 2017)
  • According to the DCMS Community Lives Survey, 5.5% of adults who volunteered in 2022 did so in the heritage sector (just over half a million people in England)

Threats to heritage can motivate people to take action

People care about heritage and think it is important that it is looked after. The prospect of loss can heighten feelings of emotional attachment and motivate people to protect what they care about (Manzo and Perkins, 2006; Daryanto and Song, 2021).

People are motivated to seek, stay in, protect, and improve places that are meaningful to them.

Manzo and Perkins, 2006
  • 81% of people surveyed during August 2022 as part of the Heritage Fund’s strategy development research said that ‘looking after historic buildings, monuments and archaeology to safeguard the places people love’ was of personal importance. The sample included 2,215 members of the public designed to be nationally representative of UK adults (Britain Thinks, 2022)
  • The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research reports that civic action often emerges from feelings of loss and threat to heritage: “a community organiser spoke of the anger felt by local people at the neglect of a town’s architectural heritage” (Dobson, 2022)
  • A study of volunteers in Heritage at Risk projects found that the ‘at risk’ status of sites and the prospect of saving something from disrepair was a key factor in motivating people to get involved (Lewis et al, 2021)

Knowledge of heritage can empower people

Knowing about our history and the past may empower people to become active citizens:

  • A detailed study of 1,328 participants’ routes into civic activity found that a person’s interest in their roots and the history of where they live is a predictor of civic engagement (Lewicka, 2005)
  • Learning about local history has a role to play in developing civic engagement and, in turn, place attachment. One study looking at two interventions reported that participants in local history workshops were more prepared to get involved in activities in their local community (Stefaniek et al, 2017)
  • Having knowledge of the past can spur people into action to educate others, particularly in relation to social justice issues (Mitchell and Elwood, 2012)

Civic engagement can have benefits for individuals and communities

  • A rapid evidence review of 22 studies (Attree et al, 2011) found that participants' involvement in community engagement initiatives report positive outcomes, including benefits for physical and psychological health, self-confidence and esteem, personal empowerment and social relationships (1)
  • More recently, a systematic review which identified and included 29 primary studies concluded that joint decision-making initiatives can have a range of beneficial impacts. For example, enhancing the quality of the local environment and increasing levels of trust and reciprocity (Pennington et al, 2018)
  • Civic agency has been linked to having a sense of optimism for the future (McElroy et al, 2021). This is based on network analysis and wellbeing data from a large sample of 4,319 adults from a socioeconomically disadvantaged region of the United Kingdom
  • Heritage volunteering is evidenced to enable people to meet new people and strengthen their social networks, gain skills and increase life satisfaction (BOP Consulting, 2011; Christidou and Hanson, 2015; Power and Smyth, 2016)


  1. However, the picture is complex and evidence shows that participating in community engagement can have adverse/negative effects


  1. Attree, P., B. French, B. Milton, S. Povall, M. Whitehead, and J. Popay (2011) ‘The Experience of Community Engagement for Individuals: A Rapid Review of Evidence.’ Health & Social Care in the Community 19 (3): 250–260. Available at: (Accessed on: 20.03.23)
  2. BOP Consulting (2011) ‘Assessment of the social impact of participation in HLF-funded projects: year 3 - Final report.’ Available at: (Accessed: 25.04.23)
  3. Britain Thinks (2022) National Lottery Heritage Fund Strategy Development Research. Available at: National Lottery Heritage Fund Strategy Development Research ( (Accessed 05.05.23).
  4. Christidou, D. and Hansen, A. (2015) ‘Volunteers in museums in Denmark, Sweden and Norway: a comparative report.’ Available at: Survey-rapport_final.pdf ( (Accessed 05.05.23)
  5. Daryanto, A. and Song, Z. (2021) ‘A meta-analysis of the relationship between place attachment and pro-environmental behaviour’. Journal of Business Research, 123, pp.208-219. Available at: (Accessed 12.05.23)
  6. Dobson, J. (2022) Community businesses and high streets: ‘Taking back’ and leading forward. Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University. Available at: (Accessed 20.03.23).
  7. Historic England (2015) ‘Press release: New Evidence Shows Surge in Enthusiasm for Heritage’. Available at: (Accessed 20.03.23)
  8. Historic England (2017) ‘50 Years of Conservation Areas: Public Opinion on Conservation Areas’. Available at:  (Accessed 20.03.23)
  9. Lewicka, M. (2005) ‘Ways to make people active: The role of place attachment, cultural capital, and neighborhood ties’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25:4, pp. 381–95. Available at: (Accessed 12.05.23)
  10. Lewis, C., Siriwardena, N., Laparidou, D., Pattinson, J., Sima, C., Scott, A., Hughes, H. and Akanuwe, J. (2021) Wellbeing in volunteers on Heritage at Risk projects. Available at: (Accessed 12.05.23)
  11. Manzo, L.C. and Perkins, D.D. (2006) ‘Finding common ground: The importance of place attachment to community participation and planning’. Journal of planning literature, 20(4), pp.335-350. Available at: (Accessed 12.05.23)
  12. McElroy, E., Ashton, M., Bagnall, A.M. et al (2021) ‘The individual, place, and wellbeing – a network analysis’. BMC Public Health 21, 1621. Available at: (Accessed 20.03.23)
  13. Mitchell, K. and Elwood, S. (2012) ‘Engaging students through mapping local history’, Journal of Geography, 111:4, pp. 148–57. Available at: (Accessed 12.05.23)
  14. Pennington A, Watkins M, Bagnall A-M, South J, Corcoran R (2018) ‘A systematic review of evidence on the impacts of joint decision-making on community wellbeing’. London: What Works Centre for Wellbeing. Available at: FINAL - Joint Decision-making SR technical report 31-09-18_.pdf ( (Accessed 12.05.23)
  15. Power, A. and Smyth, K., (2016) ‘Heritage, health and place: The legacies of local community-based heritage conservation on social wellbeing.’ Health & Place, 39, pp.160-167. Available at: (Accessed 12.05.23)
  16. Stefaniak, A., Bilewicz, M. and Lewicka, M. (2017) ‘The merits of teaching local history: Increased place attachment enhances civic engagement and social trust’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 51:1, pp. 217–25. Available at: (Accessed 12.05.23)