Purpose This paper aims to address the issue of the conservation and management of rural cultural heritage, with the aim being to gain an understanding of current problems and needs through a participatory approach, in recognition of the uniqueness of the relationship between nature, humankind and the built environment as an area of study. To this end, a comprehensive case study - Kemer Village in Turkey - focusing on the social sustainability and participatory approaches for the sustainable development of rural settlements is given. Accordingly, possible conservation, management and sustainability strategies are put forward considering the priorities and perspectives of different stakeholders. Design/methodology/approach This paper approaches the subject of rural heritage conservation and management from a social sustainability standpoint, involving an on-site investigation to understand the physical and social context of Kemer Village in Turkey, which has links to different periods in history, and contains significant examples of vernacular architecture and that has maintained its cultural characteristics. Tools and criteria for participatory planning approach were applied ensuring the involvement of the local community and stakeholders. Findings The findings of the present study reveal rural settlements to be important factors in the cultural heritage conservation and indicate the importance of prescient management and the adoption of a sustainable development model. Achieving the desired level of sustainability in historical villages through conservation of the built environment with the involvement of the local community is possible, as can be seen in the case of Kemer Village in Turkey, where the villagers and the local authorities worked in cooperation to ensure the preservation of the village's integrity. Originality/value This study will describe possible long-term strategies and actions aimed at involving the local community in the sustainable conservation of the rural cultural heritage while also embracing change. It is important that the concept of sustainability is realized with participatory planning methods. In addition to that, rural heritage and social sustainability together incorporate a widespread but rarely considered set of issues addressing local needs in conservation.