Is UNESCO really killing our historic cities?
In his polemical article ‘Urbanicide in all good faith’, the esteemed Marco D’Eramo blames the heritage agency of the United Nations for committing crimes against historic cities. He argues that, in spite of its lofty ideals, UNESCO is responsible for the tragedy that has befallen cities that were inscribed onto its World Heritage List which are becoming homogenous tourist traps.
In his hyperbolic rant D’Eramo echoes the alarming statements made by Rem Koolhaas and his office OMA in the Cronocaos show at the Venice Biennale in 2010, where they claimed that around 12 percent of the planet now falls under various regimes of natural and cultural preservation. Preservation is the kiss of death for city centres, which will end up being nothing more than over-regulated open-air museums.
Already back in 2007 the Italian philosopher and writer Umberto Eco proposed an alternative, consisting of full-scale mock-ups of ancient monuments that should be created in the vicinity of age-old cities. He coined the word “Uffiziland” for these special historic theme parks, which would draw away the masses that are currently occupying the narrow streets of most tourist hotspots and would isolate them on the outskirts.
For a while, I happily cheered the chorus of UNESCO critics, writing that ‘People Can’t Live in Museums’ and comparing the rapid growth of the World Heritage List to the aggressive expansion of Starbucks, losing its exclusivity with each new branch added. But after having lived in Amsterdam throughout the nomination process of the Canal District and its inscription in 2010, I personally witnessed that a World Heritage status is not the equivalent of a Trojan horse that smuggles restrictive legislation into a city.
In Amsterdam there has always been a strong support for revisionist ideas, from digging up filled-in canals to the reconstruction of long-gone buildings. However, since the inscription of the Canal District, the city has retained its creative power. The construction of a new subway line that crosses the Canal District is well under way. Increasing tourist numbers and rising real estate prices are not caused by UNESCO, but by the Dutch government who invested heavily in cultural venues and city marketing.
Ironically, only heritage sites that are already well protected make it to the List
Most critics ignore the fact that heritage protection regulations in most European countries are stricter than those advocated by UNESCO. Fears that regulations will be progressively tightened to the point where public authorities interfere on every level have no real foundation. It is not UNESCO, but national governments who nominate new sites. Ironically, only heritage sites that are already well protected make it to the List.
UNESCO’s rules leave a lot of space for interpretation and specification per case. Even the claim that World Heritage status will cause a rise in the number of tourists is false. The PwC consultancy has calculated that, on average, UNESCO recognition had a very low impact on tourist numbers, causing an increase of only a few percentage points. Only relatively unknown sites experienced a modest growth in visitor numbers.
Sometimes, locals react to and take control of their own situation. Last week, the Turkish Council of State ordered three luxury apartment blocks in Istanbul to be bulldozed due to widespread outrage and following repeated threats by UNESCO to put the historic areas of Istanbul on the notorious Endangered Heritage list. The soulless towers were the result of a dodgy real-estate deal and destroyed the city’s skyline with its iconic spires and domes. The landmark court ruling was applauded by large parts of the population and will have far reaching effects for other developments.
In Venice, the prototype of the open-air museum, where mass tourism has caused the number of local residents to drop by more than 50%, UNESCO has kept calling on the Italian government to restrict access of large cruise ships to culturally and ecologically important areas. Recently, Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi announced the decision that large tourist vessels will be barred from Venice's historic center, much to the satisfaction of numerous celebrities, environmentalists and local residents who voiced their concerns.
If anything, the hallmark of UNESCO’s direct impact on the management of heritage sites is an ambiguity that leaves plenty of scope for interpretation. You have to do something truly monstrous or cheat on virtually all of the rules to lose UNESCO heritage status. Dresden’s Elbe Valley was removed from the List in 2009 because of the construction of a bridge that was approved by the majority of voters in a referendum.
Currently, the World Heritage is a system tailored for state action, and it is getting stuck when states turn their backs on heritage. But with terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS), formerly ISIS, and Boko Haram brutally destroying heritage sites without remorse and with no end in sight, UNESCO remains one of the few positive forces and collective efforts to directly address the destruction and its aftermath.
The claim that World Heritage status will cause a rise in the number of tourists is false
Instead of holding UNESCO responsible for the alleged death of our great historic cities, D’Eramo could instead help to improve the vitality and relevance of the organization. One way to rectify the shortcomings of the current system, which inadvertently but systemically favours certain types of heritage from only a small part of the world, is by adopting new ways to select and manage properties. Although national governments are encouraged to prepare their nominations with the participation of stakeholders such as local communities and NGOs, in the end only official States Parties can make new nominations. With grassroots initiatives and popular movements emerging all around the world, UNESCO should open the nomination process to more parties, increase their transparency, improve their communication and actively promote public engagement.
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Michiel van Iersel (1978) is an Amsterdam based urbanist and curator. He is co-founder of Non-fiction and the Failed Architecture research foundation. In recent years he has curated exhibitions and festivals and worked on research projects and publications at the intersection of the arts, urban issues, heritage and technology. He was co-author of a publication for the World Heritage Centre in Paris. In 2013 he was appointed as the first guest curator of the World Heritage Podium in Amsterdam, for which he wrote the World Heritage Now pamphlet with Rafe Copeland.