Of Culture & Nature

17th June 2016

Deborah Mulhearn explores the pros and cons of being a World Heritage Site

The English Lake District, Chatham Naval Dockyard in Kent and the old slate mines of north Wales: on the surface, these places have little in common. But along with ten other UK sites, they are all hoping to achieve world heritage site status. Each is on the UK government’s ‘tentative’ list, waiting to be nominated for consideration by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, aka UNESCO, the international body that confers the status.

It could be a long wait. The twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow in the North East are ahead of them in the queue, having already been nominated, and since the government slimmed down the process a few years ago and agreed with UNESCO to nominate no more than one a year, moving up the list can be a slow process.

Even then there is no guarantee that UNESCO will approve the listing. The most recent UK location to be inscribed as a world heritage site, in July 2015, is the Forth Bridge, which had been on the tentative list since 2011. That was comparatively quick, however; the one before that, in 2009, was the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal in North Wales, which waited over ten years before receiving its status.

UNESCO set up the World Heritage Convention in 1972 to protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage. Since then, around a thousand properties across more than one hundred and ninety countries have been inscribed onto the World Heritage List, ranging from the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt to the Taj Mahal in India and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

World heritage site status is conferred for ‘outstanding universal value’ and brings recognition and kudos for either unique natural phenomena or cultural, industrial and historical significance. It’s a promotional asset that brings no direct financial gain, but helps to protect heritage, increase tourism and make it harder to demolish buildings for inappropriate development.

“Countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention pledge to protect their natural and cultural heritage through nomination proposals for properties on their territory,” explains Dr Mechtild Rössler, Director, Division for Heritage & UNESCO World Heritage Centre. “The World Heritage Committee decides to include such places on UNESCO’s World Heritage List if they are of outstanding universal value. By doing this they share their heritage with the whole world and these properties are preserved as part of the world heritage of all of humankind.”

The UK currently has 28 world heritage sites, as diverse as city centres and uninhabited islands. The Giant’s Causeway, Ironbridge Gorge, St Kilda, Stonehenge and Avebury, Durham Cathedral and Castle, and the frontiers of the Roman Empire at Hadrian’s Wall were among the first batch of UK sites to be inscribed in 1986.

More recent UK inscriptions include the Dorset and East Devon Coast (2001), Kew Gardens (2003), and Liverpool (2004). Liverpool’s inclusion may have raised some eyebrows, but the status – which describes it as ‘Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City’ – recognises the city’s outstanding Victorian and Edwardian waterfront and parts of its historic centre, its pioneering dock technology and significance to the development of global trade.

One of UNESCO’s greatest achievements has been the relocation of a complex of Nubian monuments and temples threatened by the construction of the second Aswan Dam from 1959. But in more recent years the organisation has come under fire for failing to protect sites suffering from neglect or attack, or, bizarrely, for encouraging too much tourism and endangering sites almost from too much love.

The status can certainly be a double-edged sword and sites can become victims of their own success. Machu Picchu, in Peru, inscribed in 1983, has so many tourists that paths have been badly eroded. While tourism is essential for the local economy, conservationists want opening hours reduced to protect the site. The caves at Lascaux in France, inscribed in 1979 as part of the prehistoric sites and decorated caves of the Vézère Valley, have not been open to the public since 1963 because the paintings were being damaged by exposure to the breath of thousands of visitors. What visitors see at Lascaux nowadays is a faithful reproduction.

Historic sites can also be particular targets in wars and conflicts. Two 150ft statues of Buddha carved into a mountain in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan, and dating from the 6th century, were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. UNESCO chiefs branded the destruction of Palmyra by ISIS in 2015 a war crime, but there is little they can do to protect sites in conflict zones, except to highlight their plight. All of the Republic of Congo’s five sites, for example, remain on the danger list.

Sites must fulfill UNESCO’s world heritage site criteria to retain their listing and can be put on the ‘in danger’ list if they flout this, for example with inappropriate development. Only two sites have ever had their status deleted: Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany was delisted in 2009 for building a four-lane bridge through the city in an attempt to relieve traffic congestion, and two years before that The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary (Oman) had its status withdrawn because the sanctuary area was reduced by 90%.

In the UK, world heritage sites work with English Heritage to protect their historic environments but controversies often arise – world heritage site status is currently threatened, according to the some of the heritage lobby, at both the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and in Edinburgh St James because of plans to build, respectively, a golf resort and a hotel.

However, Liverpool is the only UK site on UNESCO’s ‘heritage in danger’ list, because of planned development. Conservationists are concerned about a planned high-rise waterfront development that will tower over the famous Edwardian ‘Three Graces’ (the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool building). Others argue that it’s an impossibility to keep a bustling contemporary city such as Liverpool in aspic.

“World Heritage Site status is an accolade that the city council values highly, and it remains in discussion with all the relevant parties, including UNESCO, so that the inscription remains,” says Councillor Malcolm Kennedy, cabinet member for regeneration at Liverpool City Council. “There is no underlying reason why the continuing need to evolve and regenerate the city can’t be achieved in a world heritage site context.”

The reason that the world heritage site is on the danger list is not because the heritage of the city is not being cared for generally, nor is it because all new development is damaging, he explains. “UNESCO have concerns over just one element of the Liverpool Waters development scheme in the northern docks, and whilst they recognise that the re-development of these redundant docks is needed, they remain to be convinced that a group of six towers proposed on one part of the site is appropriate for the world heritage site. It is this particular concern that the city council is trying to address in ongoing discussions with UNESCO.”

Kennedy points out that a new shopping area and waterfront developments were delivered after world heritage site status was awarded. “Liverpool City Council has a strong record on regenerating its historic buildings, such as the recently restored Stanley Dock warehouse – the world’s largest brick warehouse – and the Royal Insurance Building in the city centre, now both operating as hotels. The combination of restoring the best of the old and providing new build is a successful formula, and in Liverpool this has created a special place with a unique identity.”

Controversy can also arise when the dark history behind some sites is not acknowledged. The Meiji industrial site in Japan, for example, one of the most recent sites to be nominated, had to concede that the old industrial buildings were the site of forced labour for Koreans. Families of British Prisoners of War were aghast at the application, and complained that their relatives’ suffering was not acknowledged in the bid.

“Once the decision is taken to include a site on the World Heritage List, it is the duty of all of us to preserve these places, and as the Convention states, the ‘duty of the international community as a whole to co-operate’,” says UNESCO’s Rössler. “That means we have to work with all stakeholders to make them fully understand the beneficial provisions of this unique international legal instrument and ensure its implementation.”

A number of sites have been included on the World Heritage List precisely for their associations with slavery, such as the Senegalese Island of Gorée, for example. Apartheid is acknowledged at Robben Island, South Africa, and the holocaust at Auschwitz Birkenau, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp that the Germans operated between 1940 and 1945 in Poland.

“These sites are key places of memory for the whole of humankind on racist policies and barbarism; places of our collective memory in the history of humanity, of transmission to younger generations and a sign of warning of the tragic consequences of extreme ideologies and denial of human dignity,” says Rössler.

The City of Bath is the only complete city in the UK to be designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO. As well as the glorious Georgian architecture, Bath has the mysterious and fragile hotsprings, which emerge at a temperature of around 45 degrees from deep below the city. (The water at other UK spa sites is less than 30 degrees). No one knows for sure how the water gets there but it’s constantly flowing, and Bath is the only place in the UK where bathing in the thermal water from the natural hotsprings is possible.

Bath has successfully allayed the concerns of local people about modern interventions to its Roman baths with Grimshaw Architects’ Thermae Bath Spa. This caused a lot of angst during the design and construction process ten years ago, but has been immensely popular, despite, or perhaps because of, being made of plate glass. It’s a clever use of a new material because it reflects and sets off the venerable old buildings and the warm Bath stone.

“The conservation versus development debate is a brainless one,” says David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, several of whose museums are located in the midst of the world heritage site. “The site is not a group of old stones but a city centre, so you have to find a way to balance everybody’s needs and concerns. It’s about the quality of design – we don’t want corrugated tin sheds.

When the new Museum of Liverpool was planned, some elements of the conservation lobby said it shouldn’t be built at all because it was too close to the listed Edwardian Pier Head buildings. “But the museum wasn’t a money-making venture,” Fleming continues. “It was a new public building, and as such would always demand an architectural premium with quality design and materials. It’s also a public space, and people don’t want this over-preserved.”

The Museum of Liverpool is a bold contemporary design but one that respects its historic environment, he says. “It’s a balance between commercial and cultural interests, and sometimes it seems as though neither position is wholly sustainable.”

The designation is definitely worth having though, believes Fleming. “People need to be alerted to the importance of their surroundings in places like Liverpool, which is the best surviving example of a Victorian port city in all its aspects. These wonderful edifices are assets to drive an intelligent compromise, not to be used as a tyranny of preservation.”

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