Today we move on from fighting climate change through better planning to considering the positives and negatives of World Heritage Site status. The United Nations Economic, Scientific, and Culture Organization defines World Heritage Sites as, "works of man or the combined works of nature and man, and areas including archeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view" (whc.unesco.org) They may sound all well and fine but sometimes it can be a real albatross around the neck of a city. Thus, Aylin Orbasil, in a recent post for The Conversation titles "World Heritage status can be a poisoned chalice for cities," asks the readers if World Heritage Site status is helpful or a hinderance.
|Philippine Rice Terrace|
World Heritage Site status can be a real benefit to a country's tourism industry. Ms. Orbasil writes, "Cities worldwide are launching bids to gain the coveted status. On a recent visit to Oxford, a delegation of high-level officials from China's Sichuan province appeared most intent on finding out how their respective cities could gain it." While a historic town in China may seem a likely candidate for nomination, "...authorities in Dubai are reconstructing an entire historic quarter in hopes that a revised bid to the World Heritage Committee will be successful." Great Britain has joined Dubai with its recent call for applications to an updated tentative list, attracting bids from historic cities previously of little interest such as York, Blackpool, and Lincoln.
Why are municipal officials so keen on gaining landmark status for cities? Ms. Orbasil observes, "Alongside more altruistic motives and the pride of global recognition, form many the perception is one of improved economic activity." While civic leaders should not expect UNESCO to part with every hard pinched penny, World Heritage listing is recognized as a significant tourism generator-so much so, that the organization's guidelines now require a tourism-management plan as part of the application process. However, the perceived improved economic activity that comes with designation can also be a serious cause for concern. One example is the former little-known town of Lijang, China. Since its formal designation in 1997, that very same welcomed tourism has become a genuine threat to the assets the town was hailed for.
|Penny Lane (Blogger couldn't resist)|
|The bridge that got Dresden de-listed|
The Dresden Bridge
The coveted World Heritage Sites title is fraught with problems for cities, if the David Black article in The Guardian is any indication. A few years ago, Liverpool was listed as an endangered site, threatened with de-listing. The cause for it was a series of major projects including "...the Fourth Grace, a tall mega-development planned for Liverpool Pier that was later dropped." Then there is the case of the infamous Dresden Bridge. The city was also placed on the endangered list when municipal officials decided that an eyesore bridge connecting two sides of the city was key to development than World Heritage status. Needless to say, World Heritage Site was withdrawn in 2009.
|Aerial of the Royal Crescent|
Aylin Orbasil asks, "But what really is the cause of such conflicts, and indeed is World Heritage status worth it for cities?" One source of angst is the nomination process, evaluation, management guidelines, and monitoring of the sites set down by UNESCO is, for better or worse, a one-size-fits-all package. Upon further examination of the designation process of historic town and the organization's expectations for their management presents a infrastructure that is best suited for a fenced off archaeological sites than a living breathing city. Ms. Orbasil points out, "This becomes more apparent in the UNESCO follows its procedures in collaboration with the relevant local authorities, and in how it reviews and monitors major major planning applications with site boundaries..." A small group of experts sent by UNESCO has requested a review of a proposed scheme and report back any potential affects. Their briefing document was limited, but so are the opportunities to establish a long-term understanding of a place.
Another issue complicating matters are management plans that currently required for WHS application are a lost opportunity. Management plans are great for archaeological sites or managed sites but not so great for urban sites. Ms. Orbasil writes, "Historic urban areas require different strategies that fit a city's development plan. While setting out limitations, these would be more attuned to the area's development aspirations." Flexibility in a WHS management plan would acknowledge the fact that a city's historic character is constantly evolving as well as the complexities involved in the decision making process. Thus, "Such a framework established at the outset, agreed at city level and then with UNESCO, would provide clearer direction to property owners, developers and UNESCO-appointment monitors. This in turn would provide a greater transparency to the process that could ultimately allow historic areas to evolve within their broader urban context without losing the characteristics that them special in the first place."
Thus, Edinburgh must decide what is more important, preserving the historic characters of the Old and New Towns or tearing down the very places that drawn visitors annually and putting high-rises and retail/commercial developments? Can Edinburgh find a better way? Can UNESCO require site management plans that recognize the evolving nature of cities? Or is World Heritage Site status simply an albatross around cities's necks?