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Environment / Climate change

“Urbanicide”: Is Unesco’s World Heritage status stifling cities?

As urban accolades go, becoming one of Unesco’s 250-odd World Heritage Cities seems like a pretty good deal. What it means is that the country’s government has agreed to preserve and protect certain historic or cultural sites; in exchange, under the Geneva Convention, invading forces have to do the same.

However, in the most recent issue of the architecture and design magazine Domus, Italian journalist Marco D’Eramo argues that awarding the status to cities stunts their development. He writes:  

 “Whenever the UNESCO hallmark is applied to a city, the city dies out, becoming the stuff of taxidermy. This veritable urbanicide…is not deliberately perpetuated. On the contrary, it is committed in all good faith and with the loftiest intentions….but, as the word says, to preserve means to embalm, or freeze…. it means to halt time and fix it in a snapshot, to prevent it from changing and evolving.”

This tension between cities’ development and the preservation of its cultural sites has not come about by accident. Previously, the heritage stamp applied only to specific sites or groups of buildings within the cities. In 2011, though, the UN agency introduced a new recommendation for countries to expand the status to what they call the “broader urban context” in World Heritage cities.

Why? Because, the recommendation states, “conditions have changed” and cities are now “subject to new development pressures and challenges”. In other words, cities are under more pressure to build and develop, and Unesco wants to protect the cities from changes that could ruin the historical or cultural landscape.

But this can be a problem in smaller cities, where pretty much the whole city could be considered a “heritage site” under this new recommendation. D’Eramo uses the example of San Gimignano, a small walled city in Italy, to illustrate his point:

 “Within its walls there is not a butcher, not a greengrocer, nor genuine baker to be found. Why so? …Within the city walls, everything has become a set for medieval costume movies, with the inevitable products of “invention of tradition” for commercial uses.”

You can read the rest of D’Eramo’s piece in Domus magazine here.
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