Unesco impotence takes shine off world heritage status

Organisation faces criticism for not only failing to protect sites from fanatics and planners but also accelerating their destruction by encouraging tourism

The Forth bridge is likely to join the wine cellars of Champagne and the Uruguayan birthplace of Fray Bentos tinned pies in being welcomed into the hallowed ranks of Unesco world heritage sites, following the 39th session of the UN’s heritage committee in Bonn this week.

The 18 sites recommended for approval by experts at the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature range from the Tusi tribal villages of south-west China to the Christiansfeld Moravian settlement in Denmark.

The new list of Unesco world heritage sites

The ancient Roman harbour city of Ephesus in Turkey – home to the ruined temple of Artemis, one of the original seven wonders of the world – is also likely to join the list, after a series of failed attempts since 1993.

“We have finished the reconstruction plan for protection and the land-management plan has been approved,” said the region’s mayor, Zeynel Bakıcı. “Unless something very important goes wrong, the 22-year-old dream of Ephesus will come true this year.”

The example of Ephesus might appear to show what exacting standards Unesco enforces in assessing the worthiness of sites seeking to make it on to the list, which now counts 1,007 places in 161 countries. But after 43 years of bestowing its sought-after seal on the world’s most precious landscapes, to many Unesco is beginning to seem more ineffectual than ever.

The gleeful destruction of ancient sites across Syria and Iraq by Isis may have brought home quite how powerless its committees are in the face of sledgehammer-wielding religious fanatics, but its impotence can also be felt closer to home, in battles of a less visible kind.

The unbridled eruption of towers along London’s South Bank, from the thicket of stumps emerging in Vauxhall and Nine Elms to the steroidal plans for the Shell Centre and Elizabeth House in Waterloo, prompted Unesco to issue a warning that the world heritage site of the Palace of Westminster was becoming gravely compromised.

It threatened to add the site to its endangered list last year, but its warnings had precious little effect and the decision was dropped after intense lobbying from the UK ambassador to Unesco.

“Pressure from a world heritage body can make a lot of difference to the protection of the historic heritage in this country,” said Richard Tamplin, of the Twentieth Century Society, speaking in a personal capacity. “Conversely, when such a body gives in to pressure and does not undertake its responsibilities seriously, then not only does it fail the heritage but it also loses its own credibility and authority.”

Only two sites have ever been struck off the list, adding to the impression that Unesco’s warnings ring hollow. In 2007 an antelope conservation sanctuary in Oman was removed after the government slashed the park’s size by 90%. Two years later, the magnificent prospect of baroque palaces in the German city of Dresden was deemed to have been destroyed by a new bridge and the city was duly stripped of its status.

Beyond failing to protect existing sites, the Unesco world heritage machine has also been criticised for accelerating the destruction of the very places it seeks to preserve. As the international gold standard of both natural and manmade preciousness, its stamp of approval has become hotly courted by tourist boards and city marketing organisations around the globe, keen to lure the crowds that the title inevitably brings. But the status comes with a price.

Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Beijing’s Forbidden City. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Beijing’s Forbidden City was ushered into the world heritage ranks in 1987, shortly after which the municipal government began wholesale clearance and demolition of the area immediately around it in the name of historic conservation. Swaths of traditional hutong alleyways and courtyard houses were demolished and rebuilt as swollen versions of their former selves, with the existing residents displaced to make way for restaurants and private clubs frequented by Communist party cadres along with newly built “heritage streets”, which stand as flimsy stage sets for tourists’ rickshaw tours.

“You have to ask what are you conserving,” said Zhang Jie, professor of architecture and urban planning at Tsinghua University, who has spent the last two decades fighting to preserve Beijing’s historic buildings. “Is it the townscape, or the real history, or the social fabric, or what? If you canʼt distinguish these things then youʼre in great trouble, because youʼre probably going to make the whole thing very homogenous. The whole city is in danger of being flattened.”

The Great Wall of China, another Unesco site, is facing similar pressures. Entire sections have been rebuilt in a Disneyfied incarnation of the original, while others have been damaged by environmental erosion or dismantled by locals to build their homes. According to a recent analysis by the Chinese Association of Cultural Relics, a third of the wall has now disappeared.

Where Unesco treads, the tourist bulldozer is sure to follow. The backdrop of Niagara Falls is now punctuated with towering hotels and casinos topped with revolving restaurants. The pressure of more than two million annual visitors to Angkor Wat in Cambodia has turned the nearby town of Siem Reap into a mini Las Vegas.

As mayors and marketing managers compete for recognition in the heritage hall of fame, they should be careful what they wish for.


Oliver Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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