Photo: Javier Ballester/Shutterstock

When a City Gets Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Here Are the People Who Lose

by Mark Hay Apr 28, 2016

IT’S ALMOST OBLIGATORY FOR travelers to pay tribute, wherever they go, to at least one UNESCO World Heritage site. The 1,031 cultural and natural treasures that carry the UNESCO brand — iconic places like Angkor Wat, Machu Pichu, the Great Barrier Reef, Iguaçu National Park, and more — are a deliberate roster of the world’s greatest gems.

But while many of us gawk and gape at the grandeur of the World Heritage List, there’s one group of people who aren’t always so keen on UNESCO designation: the people who actually have to live in the circumscribed reality of a protected yet inhabited World Heritage City.

When the UNESCO World Heritage program started, no one (or at least no large, established communities) lived in the first sites it sought to protect. The project kicked off with a charter back in 1972, riding on the coattails of a UNESCO endeavor to culturally aid Egypt and Sudan. As those countries completed the Nile’s Aswan High Dam, UNESCO identified historic sites that would be flooded by its reservoir and helped to save as many of them as possible. UNESCO then followed up their Aswan interventions with a few more swoop-in-and-save-the-day ventures around the world, like helping with flooding issues in Venice, assisting in the restorations of Indonesia’s Borobudur temple complex, and protecting Pakistan’s Mohenjo Daro from degradation. Their efforts boosted the profile, integrity, and security of everything they touched.

But soon enough — actually as soon as the project translated into an actual list in 1978 — the World Heritage project began including not only forgotten monuments and national parks, but also cities with living, breathing residents. In the case of cultural sites, that inclusion came with an obligation for local governments to maintain a certain level of historical integrity in structures. Locals in Heritage cities then found themselves limited in what they could do with their homes and streets.

For some developed locales, this wasn’t a huge problem. For example, most residents in places like Old Tallinn in Estonia, Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina and Sinta in Portugal, likely already had access to basic amenities — think insulation or plumbing. And in exchange for minor concessions to history when they did renovations, they were flooded with tourism money and support from bodies eager to help.

The same logic was meant to apply to sites in the developing world: the influx of visitors and cash would incentivize governments to develop infrastructure and provide amenities, and would ultimately help people improve their own lives. Instead of the historical norm of development running roughshod over history in low-income areas, UNESCO would help usher in development that worked in tandem with historical preservation.

Yet this is not always how it has worked out in practice. Harar, a city of about 150,000 in southern Ethiopia with a UNESCO-listed city center, is a good example. The old city — a 2-mile circle marked by the magnificent Jugol walls — is home to the unique cultural tradition of the Agrobba peoples. The old city has five gates, 82 mosques, 102 shrines, and 1,000 of the city’s 5,000 homes. After it was listed as a national heritage site in 1974 and slowly worked its way up to a UNESCO inscription in 2006, the old city saw an influx of preservation and pro-tourism development money that helped improve civic services and the quality of life.

But for the approximately 8,000 people living in traditional houses, these benefits have been offset by a sensation, which locals constantly described to me during a recent visit, of being watched, judged, and limited in their own homes. Forced to flash-freeze their interiors and exteriors, they also feel constricted in what they can do to improve their lives, from repairing damage to a façade to installing some new appliance. That can be a big issue when you’re trying to do something invasive but vital like totally revamping your plumbing or weatherizing your home, which can potentially be done with an eye to history, but often at an unpalatable premium or via circuitous means.

Harar’s not the only Heritage City where you can feel this tension. In Djenné, Mali, for instance, the requirement to use traditional mud-and-rice-husk plaster and mud bricks to rebuild homes places a heavy burden on locals, who might want to stay where they are, but no longer wish to live in mud alone — a material which started to die out in part because it was expensive to work with.

Other sites feel this pressure even more acutely than those who just feel constrained. The old city of Agadez in Niger lost French Embassy funding for development when diplomats told locals they thought their fidelity to historical standards wasn’t up to snuff in recent renovations.

Preservation is necessary. It’d be a shame to see Old Harar or Old Djenné covered with tin roofs and painted over with cheap junk just because it’s a bit cheaper. But at the same time, when the imperative to maintain history is a stress or limitation upon the rights of locals to navigate their traditional homes, we must rethink the way preservation works.

Preservation experts have told me that they believe heritage projects can balance local needs against historical integrity with good forethought and clever incentives and accommodations. They argue that there should be buy-in and thus a sense of benefit, ownership, and liberty when living in a heritage context. And in theory they’re probably right. But on the ground, it’s often harder than you’d think to build this kind of consensus or figure out the right calculations amidst complex local dynamics and through evolving needs, desires, and conceptions. They’re moving targets.

Perhaps this just means that we need to give low-income nations more resources to financially support balanced changes in Heritage cities and launch proactive campaigns to better involve all locals in such decisions. Perhaps that translates to tourists paying a pittance more for the pleasure of visiting these sites. But one way or another, we need to make sure that preservation goes hand-in-hand with comfort for people living at the epicenter of it all, and to make sure that our voyeuristic appreciation of history doesn’t negate living humanity.

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