Beneath our feet: conservation and empowerment of Europe's underground heritage


Have you travelled into the depths of Europe’s most enchanting caves at the Caves of Han-sur-Lesse, or immersed yourself in the lunar-like landscape of Göreme-Cappadocia‘s ancient rock cones and historic cave dwellings? These remarkable underground sites have captivated countless visitors and stand as testaments to our rich heritage. However, their conservation is more than preserving the past; it is a gateway to knowledge, a catalyst for local prosperity, and a bridge to sustainable cultural and economic transformations.

The COST Action Underground Built Heritage as catalyser for Community Valorisation (Underground4value) aimed to promote the preservation and valorisation of Underground Built Heritage. At a recent COST Academy event in Brussels, Giuseppe Pace, Chair of Underground4value from the Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean, shared insights on the significance of conserving the underground heritage and the Underground4value options to empower local communities.

Get ready to unearth the hidden treasures beneath our feet and embark on a journey of discovery and preservation.

Opportunities of Underground Built Heritage valorisation for urban and rural development

The Underground Built Heritage encompasses various underground structures and landscapes such as caves, tunnels, mines, settlements, and associated objects and practices with historical, cultural, architectural, ecological, and archaeological significance. These sites offer valuable insights into past communities and civilisations, contributing to a better understanding of our shared human history and heritage. At the same time, they are connected to the above-ground communities as part of the same ecology. Their preservation contributes to environmental protection and the conservation of biodiversity. It also allows people of all ages to engage in experiential learning and interact with history, science, and culture, serving as valuable educational resources. By safeguarding these sites, we not only ensure that future generations have access to these educational assets, but also drive economic development by attracting tourists and creating employment.

The Caves of Han, for example, have a rich Bronze Age history and have attracted over 23 million visitors. Another successful example is Naples, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and celebrated for its touristic routes, where the underground heritage includes the restored S. Gennaro Catacombs managed by a local cooperative, which exemplify the potential of bottom-up valorisation policies.

Underground spaces also serve as commercial areas, such as underground shopping malls, restaurants, and bars. They also host transportation and infrastructure, helping to alleviate surface congestion and environmental issues. The Göreme-Cappadocia region exemplifies the successful implementation of underground valorisation. With its unique landscape of rock cones and historic cave dwellings, it has become a popular tourism destination, driving economic development. The conservation and development efforts in the region have led to the establishment of hotels, wineries, restaurants, pottery workshops, and other tourism-related facilities.

However, it is crucial to carefully manage the diverse uses of underground spaces, as they can sometimes conflict with each other. Planning and decision-making processes should involve local communities to ensure their quality of life, cultural heritage, and economic opportunities are considered.

Portrait photo of a man

Participatory approach to urban and rural regeneration can lead to more livable, sustainable, and economically vibrant communities, concerned about their past, but open to co-create new cultural spaces, combining community’s sense of identity and pride with innovation in economy, society, and culture.

Giuseppe Pace, Chair of Underground4value

Challenges to underground valorisation

There are several challenges to making use of underground spaces. One is that we often lack sufficient knowledge of these sites. Additionally, clear laws and regulations governing their use are not always in place. It can also be difficult to find funding for projects related to underground heritage. Also, some people may not be aware of their value. Finally, there can be differences in perspectives between local and global communities about the importance of these sites. All of these challenges require careful consideration and planning to overcome.

Contribution of Underground4value to balanced and sustainable approaches for the conservation of underground heritage

Underground4value has made significant contributions to balanced and sustainable approaches for valorising underground heritage. Since April 2019, over 200 experts from 30 countries have collaborated, sharing methodologies, case studies, and best practices with an interdisciplinary focus.

The Underground4value network has developed a step-by-step methodology called the Strategic Transition Practice. This approach is flexible and adaptable to different contexts and levels of maturity. It considers the value attributed to heritage by local cultures, planning regulations, and community empowerment. The Action has collected national planning legislations and organisations related to underground heritage, along with approaches for engaging communities and involving them in the conservation process, including management, financing, and required skills and technologies.

This methodology has been tested and implemented in twelve case studies, establishing living labs. For example, Underground4value examined sustainable and responsible tourism in underground built heritage. It focused on managing visitor numbers, minimising environmental impacts, and ensuring local communities benefit from tourism.

The knowledge gathered has been used to develop three primary outcomes. Firstly, a multi-language platform called provides information on underground heritage objects and routes. Secondly, a digital toolbox will support local communities, private and public actors, and promoters in the valorisation, development, and management of cultural landscapes. Thirdly, an e-learning platform will offer training on underground built heritage and community engagement for monitoring, valorisation, and conservation.

Underground4value has been productive in terms of publications, releasing two handbooks and various books on its case studies. Additionally, a Sustainability Special Issue titled ‘Going Underground. Making Heritage Sustainable’ has published multiple papers, with more to come.

Additional information

View the Action webpage

View the Network website

Underground4value radio broadcasts

Underground4value case studies on YouTube Channel