Long on the periphery of environmental policies, cultural heritage is today a prime asset for the ecological transition. Focus on sustainable heritage.


Cultural heritage has its place in the ecological transition, and it intends to make it known loud and clear. This is, among other things, the ambition of the 2022 European Heritage Days, an event designed by the Ministry of Culture, which takes place on September 16, 17 and 18 throughout France, to show the thousand and one realities of “sustainable heritage”.

However, the desire to protect cultural heritage and to promote ecological transition have not always been in harmony, far from it. While environmental issues have become major, the ecological transition constitutes today a positive challenge » for the cultural world, Rima Abdul Malak, Minister of Culture, said on September 6 at the 7th edition of «Think Culture», detailing the five axes of its action, two of which concern the heritage sector.

With its own characteristics, the virtues of which are rediscovered (sustainable materials, thick walls, climate stability, etc.), as with the challenges of today and tomorrow (installation of photovoltaic panels, soil artificialization, etc.), heritage has undoubtedly become a considerable asset for the ecological transition.

With their particular insight, three practitioners of the Directorate-General for Heritage and Architecture at the Ministry of Culture, which we interviewed, discuss the challenges of a sustainable heritage policy, an area where «standardised» solutions can hardly flourish and where it is necessary to call, first of all, on proven skills. Interview with Judith Kagan, General Curator of Heritage, Jean-Michel Sainsard, Heritage Gardener, and Roland Petelkian, State Architect-Planner.

This year’s European Heritage Days will be held under the banner of “sustainable heritage”. How can we understand this theme?

Judith Kagan: The inscription of cultural heritage in society has always been done from the point of view of sustainable development: to preserve buildings and works of art is to preserve them, to transmit them from generation to generation, to highlight them by means, sometimes, new uses.

Thus, abbeys have been reused in prisons (Clairvaux, Fontevraud) or, even today, abbey palaces in town hall (Caen, Rouen), and a palace or station in museums (The Louvre, Orsay). As much as beauty (art interest), its use and its place in society through time (history interest) are decisive criteria for recognizing the public interest of a historical monument.

Moreover, the spirit of European Heritage Days is there: opening the doors to the public of places that are sometimes inaccessible, and thereby strengthening the presence and permanence of cultural heritage within the national community.

Jean-Michel Sainsard: As for the gardens, I would add that we are not always aware of their sustainability: it is extraordinary. So much so that gardens without gardeners do not disappear. Of course, trees grow, they are no longer pruned, but we still find, if we know how to look, the modeled, the landscape structures, thirty, forty years later.


Roland Peltekian: Les notable heritage sites (there are 900 in France) and the properties listed on the world heritage (UNESCO label, 49 sites in France) are also, of course, already very successful. In our discussions with the Ministry of Ecological Transition on the issues of thermal renovation, we defend the idea that the assets of the old city must be taken into account when choosing suitable solutions.

Today, however, is the worsening of the degradation caused by global warming creating a new situation?

Jean-Michel Sainsard: When I was a young gardener, we wondered if we were going to plant frost-resistant species. That was the climate issue. Today, more and more diseases and water stress complicate our thinking: how and what to replant?

What we are advocating above all is the conservation of the soil, the care for what is called “plant dynamics”, which is essential for the adaptation of plants to climate change.

In this respect, our first experience with the management plan was the domaine de Champs-sur-Marne. The garden groves were destroyed by the 1999 storm. It was a simple natural regeneration. The groves had been there for three hundred years. Everything was left as the storm had devastated it. It was then enough to work the edges in palisades, to restore meaning to these groves while preserving biodiversity.

Another emblematic example: the boxwood embroidery of the Vaux-le-Vicomte castle, disappeared because of the pyrale. Replace boxwood with plants that imitate it without giving the same result? Vaux-le-Vicomte’s answer is more elegant: the restoration of the parterre has been the subject ofan ephemeral gesture of contemporary art.

In this case, standardized actions are more worrisome than anything. What we are advocating is to improve the skills of gardeners, which will allow us to avoid the biggest mistakes.

Bosquet du drapeau anglais à Champs-sur-Marne après la tempête de 1999 et après régénération naturelle en 2016 - credit photo jms.jpg

Judith Kagan: The question of soil artificialization can contribute to significant damage in case of storms and rains, abundant and sudden, which create devastating floods: . Vaison-la-Romaine, Nîmes, Nemours, Montargis… Since 1992, there have been many examples of disasters affecting historic monuments.

Roland Peltekian: Soil is a real urban issue. We have to protect it as much as possible, also in cities. It is certainly a good policy to want to densify urban areas, but it is imperative to avoid doing so at the expense of urban areas which are still open-ground soils and which deserve to remain so. We invite cities to consecrate soils where there is a body of plants and large trees.

Judith Kagan: Cultural heritage is not a contradiction of the defence of nature. In the case of the restoration of the ecological continuity of rivers, the challenge of studies to be carried out upstream is, for example, to allow fish to go up the rivers, while taking into account the historical development of heritage interest: the rods, the mills, bridges or hydraulic developments in gardens.... Restoration projects take into account respect for biodiversity.

Interdepartmental policy to promote sustainable development is constantly being strengthened. The Ministry of Culture contributes through its expertise. Concretely, what does it contribute to the common cause?

Roland Peltekian: In heritage sites, the architects of buildings in France give a assent that allows to accompany a project. This represents almost a thousand territories located in cities and on the outskirts of historic monuments, which is only about 6% of the French territory.

However, in old centres, we cannot comply with the injunction to isolate all the houses from the outside, under the pretext that it would be a safe way to avoid thermal bridges. Thus completely encapsulating the buildings means that they no longer breathe, that they deteriorate accordingly and will have to be restored in the medium term.

Moreover, contemporary double glazing is not the best solution in heritage buildings. For example, instead of a double or triple glazing in dissonant carpentry, two windows can be installed in the bay. By working more closely with the characteristics of a building, it will be given a longer-term sustainability.

As for photovoltaic panels, they are welcome in old centres, but only if they «meet» the site. The order that preceded them obeys precise rules. And to respect these rules, we can work on the colour of the panels, and their shape. We can consider inserting them into the roof. Companies must be able to reorient the industrial product to adapt this specific approach to heritage preservation. They understand very well the value of developing these “niche products”, whose production is local and likely to win them new markets.


Jean-Michel Sainsard: Recalling techniques is fundamental. Not by traditionalism, but by concern for economy, efficiency and common sense. Today, for example, we see plant fibre agglomerates, stamped «bio», used as material for garden aisles. We are being proposed to replace driveways that have been there for three hundred years. These sinters last about ten years. At the scale of a garden or a city, ten or even fifteen years is nothing. Heritage expertise has a role to play here, by reminding, for example, that the alley of Apollo, to Versailles, made in 1680, is still in place.

Judith Kagan: Hence our recurring theme: for each project, it is necessary that men and women of art are brought together, that they measure the impact of an intervention with skilled tradespeople, trained in a global consideration. Study before taking action, document what we have studied, identify several solutions, make decisions in a collegial manner.

To achieve this, we must ensure that specialists in each trade are recruited, retained and continuously trained.

Within the Ministry of Culture, several training institutions have addressed the issue of sustainable development. See the INP training offer (research seminar on sustainable development) or the City of Architecture and Heritage (Energy and environmental improvement of buildingsOur 2021 Annual Conservation and Restoration Professional Day focused on the theme “ Conservation-restoration and environment. Let’s adapt our practices! »… All these events bring together state or community staff, companies and their professional associations (GMH -Group of companies historical monuments, FFCR - Federation of Conservation Professionals Restoration, Grouping of organ builders)… and backup associations, very present on the subject (Sremarkable cities & cities, Heritage and Environment Federation, Peasant houses in France…). Practical guides for everyone have blossomed on the web…


Cities are also involved in very ambitious greening projects, which the recent heat waves make even more pressing. What impact can an urban forest have on cultural heritage?

Jean-Michel Sainsard: There is already a lot of time that we do not plant trees of first size in the city, (that is to say large trees) and it is very damaging. Pear or cherry trees are a short-term vision (a tree is planted for 200 years) and lack of understanding of the urban struggle against heat and drought…

Roland Peltekian: Today, the government and the communities are reflecting on the role the city can play in preserving biodiversity and responding to heat waves. Only establishing a vegetal canopy on the roofs, raising vegetal walls is very difficult technically, due to the lack of open ground soil.

The regional ecological coherence schemes set up by the Ministry of Ecological Transition are interesting and relevant. They identify large corridors (wooded “green frames”, “blue frames” around a river) on which many animal and plant species circulate that induce large flows of biological diversity. When these corridors arrive in urban areas, the challenge is to maintain these continuities on strong landscaped structures, up to the heart of the city, if possible.

Now, in these urban areas, a heritage has been inherited. Sometimes, covering it with plants doesn’t make much sense, when these spaces have experienced a very strong cultural and historical sedimentation. The quays of the Seine in Paris, for example, include mineral environments that ensure the survival of ruderal plants (a “ruderal” space is a modified environment due to human presence and activity). These plants cling to walls and include protected species. There is no reason to sacrifice them.

Jean-Michel Sainsard: Reintroducing nature in the city remains a very technical gesture that can not always be enough. The cultural and artistic aspect is too often lacking. Regarding gardens, we are not just waiting for a horticultural response, but a landscaped response on these spaces. And there is no contradiction, on the contrary! The recent studies carried out in Versailles and Villandry, French gardens, regular, have highlighted their great richness in biodiversity.


Judith Kagan: Cultural heritage, whether movable or immovable, has qualities to meet the challenges of climate change. However, it is necessary to have the appropriate skills to reveal and magnify its qualities, hence the challenge of having trained professionals in sufficient number in the long term. The construction sites can be showcases, where we come to see what has been done successfully, to try to reproduce it elsewhere, in order to develop local resources.

Roland Peltekian : Thermal renovation of old centres will not be done indiscriminately. The stakes here are not only tourist and economic. It is mainly a question of anchoring, the very question of living together. In territories that retain a certain character and a socio-historical dimension, social life takes root.

JEP 2022: at the heart of a subject that concerns us all


Prepare your visits this weekend by surfing on our interactive map ! And to dig a little deeper, don’t hesitate to consult the visitors area of our dedicated website.

Don’t hesitate to be inspired by the school public, who, with the operation «Raise your eyes!» (Friday, September 16, in partnership with the Ministry of National Education) , together with the professors, will be interested in this exciting aspect of heritage: its exemplary character from the perspective of sustainable development.

Indeed, this year, from 16 to 18 September 2022, the European Heritage Days have at heart to highlight to the public the environmental and sustainable dimension of heritage conservation : reflection on practices, conservation and optimization of know-how, reuse and natural materials, enhancement of intangible heritage, economic and tourist development of territories, revitalization of old centres and reflection on the conditions of living together…

A wealth of valuable information: the Ministry of Culture makes its portal available to the public and heritage professionals «Monuments and sites», which devotes several important pages to environmental themes in heritage buildings and sites: energy performance, energy savings, photovoltaic panels, wind, biodiversity, stream. It will contain all the information, guides and actions carried out by professionals of historical monuments in the conduct of construction sites.