Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An Albatross?


UNESCO Headquarters
Paris, France
Hello Everyone:

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.

Edinburgh, Scotland
Take the case of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. The city's World Heritage Site status has recently been the subject of many negative news reports. David Black, a reporter for The Guardian, wrote an article titled, "Why Edinburgh should be stripped of its Unesco world heritage status," demanding UNESCO de-list the city.  While most of the story comes across as a romantic ode to Edinburgh, Mr. Black writes, "It's easy to see why Edinburgh, one of Britain's most beautiful cities, is a magnet to visitors from across the world...Yet, this is a city that consistently undervalues its best asset: its historic centre."  (http://www.theguardian.com, Feb. 11, 2015) UNESCO designated the Scottish capital World Heritage Status in 1995 and in the twenty years hence, the very buildings that compose its historic fabric have been demolished without so much as an eyelash bat from the organization.  Thus, Mr. Black asks, "So what has Unesco world heritage status done for us?  Frankly, it's been an unmitigated disaster, and we'd have been of without it." (Ibid)  Edinburgh is only one case study of whether or not World Heritage Site status is worth the paper it is printed on.  Aylin Orbasil discusses other examples around the world.

Philippine Rice Terrace
The Stampede

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.

Lijang, China
The rationale

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)
Liverpool, England
In Great Britain, it is a different situation, since World Heritage status is not a major factor in the tourism industry.  This is partly due to heritage tourism centering on Bath, Edinburgh, York, and Oxford, regardless if they are designated or not.  For the record, Bath and Edinburgh are designated Heritage Sites; York and, oddly, Oxford are not designated sites. Ms. Orbasil cites a "recent comparative analysis showed that visitor numbers in Bath, York, and Oxford retained a similar and comparable trajectory that did not single out Bath's special status.  A 2012 study on Liverpool, a site since 2004, cited a sense of local pride and brand identification as more prominent benefits than a surge of cultural heritage tourists."  Blogger speculates that in Liverpool's case, a certain sixties-era quartet may have had something to do with Liverpool's brand identification.  Be that as it may, the nearly "£500,000 cost of preparing a nomination estimated by Pricewaterhouse Coopers in 2007 has not acted as a deterrent to applicants."

The bridge that got Dresden de-listed
The Dresden Bridge
Dresden, Germany
The view from within

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
Bath, England
Cities aren't archaeological sites

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?

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