Urbanicide
August 22, 2014 11:02 AM   Subscribe


 
This is pretty seriously overblown. Being listed as a World Heritage site doesn't mean that blue helmeted myrmidons are going to descend upon the site and start shooting anyone who dares to open a bakery. It's true that it is tricky balancing the claims of the extant built environment and the needs of a growing, changing city and culture--and it's true that an absolute privileging of the past over the future would lead to stagnation; but we're a very long way from that being the case and the UN World Heritage classification is a pretty minor player in the debate.
posted by yoink at 11:14 AM on August 22, 2014 [18 favorites]


Ok, so this sounds fairly reasonable to me. Over-preservation is bad for the other thing that UESCO is supposed to care about: development and human rights. In that sense, urban development and urban preservation are opposites. It's not clear what mechanisms are in place to enforce World Heritage rules, but clearly there are some effects or else it would be truly meaningless.

But I always worry when a theoretical physicist is the one making political arguments outside his field; are he and I missing something that all good preserverationists know?
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:16 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yet another good reason to live on the West Coast of the US- so little structural heritage to preserve!

I have often felt sorry for the places with thousands of years of history, ever since I read about how densely packed with history Jerusalem was. Every bit of construction was potentially destroying some priceless archeological site (and the same goes for parts of China.)
posted by small_ruminant at 11:19 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


I notice this in microcosm in my city. Eighty year old "heritage houses" are defended to the death in a proxy war against urbanization.

Similarly, I found it much more enjoyable visiting Berlin, where it feels like the historical elements blend in well with the living city, than Rome and Venice which feel sometimes like historical Disneylands.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:22 AM on August 22, 2014 [4 favorites]


The hysterical verbiage and nakedly tendentious assertions make this almost unreadable. The only thing I take away from it is that the writer probably has some shadowy, pecuniary motive for this overblown screed.
posted by clockzero at 11:27 AM on August 22, 2014 [27 favorites]


Just need a good war to clear out some land for new development.
posted by smackfu at 11:28 AM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Similarly, I found it much more enjoyable visiting Berlin, where it feels like the historical elements blend in well with the living city, than Rome and Venice which feel sometimes like historical Disneylands.
posted by no regrets, coyote


Well, Berlin does have the "advantage" of having a lot of its historical architecture more or less leveled by the red army within living memory, unlike stuffy old Rome and Venice.
posted by COBRA! at 11:29 AM on August 22, 2014 [25 favorites]


I think the first few commentators didn't read the article or skimmed it for cherries.

There's no doubt that World Heritage will create a museum-like effect, and that cities are dynamic changing places, and these two things are in conflict. Personally I think it will be fascinating over time to see a town that hasn't changed much, like Williamsburg, VA. Maybe for those living there it's not so great, particularly young people. It's inherently conservative. Williamsburg, other than the University, is a bastion of conservative-type organizations.
posted by stbalbach at 11:29 AM on August 22, 2014


I guess the author has a point but then you see places where they tore down entire blocks of buildings to replace them with something demonstrably worse (like much of Toronto's east end, Jamestown, etc) and you think, yeah, maybe we should have done a little preservation. That would have been a good idea.

Maybe it seems different in Europe than in the US and Canada where ghettoization and housing projects are an ongoing thing.
posted by GuyZero at 11:30 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Here's the meat of the article, for anyone unwilling to wade through a pile of douchey filler to get to it:
A balance needs to be struck between constructing and preserving. We want to live in cities that include museums and works of art, not in mausoleums with dormitory suburbs attached. It is an inhuman punishment to spend one’s life in the guest-quarters of an endless museum. I recently went back to San Gimignano after a 30-year absence. Within its walls there is not a butcher, not a greengrocer, nor genuine baker to be found. Why so? After the bars, restaurants and souvenir shops have closed, you won’t find the locals sleeping in the city centre any more – they all live outside, in modern condos. Within the city walls, everything has become a set for medieval costume movies, with the inevitable products of “invention of tradition” for commercial uses. The smaller the city the quicker its demise.

Not only in Italy. In Laos, Luang Prabang has suffered the same fate, and its historic centre is now a tourist trap, its houses all converted into hotels and restaurants, with the usual street market – identical the world over – selling the same old necklaces, canvas handbags and leather belts. To find out where the Laotians really live, you have to pedal a couple of kilometres out to Phothisalath Road, beyond Phu Vao Road.
It's an okay argument--preserving buildings without regard to the people who use them is indeed worth a rethink--but it's more than a little self-contradictory. He seems to think he's arguing in favour of progress, but in reality he's arguing against economic prosperity (tourist dollars) and development (building of vibrant new cities outside the heritage site) and advocating for...what, exactly? Bulldozing the heritage sites bit by bit to gradually build the new cities that are already being built at a much faster pace anyway?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:31 AM on August 22, 2014 [6 favorites]


Rome and Venice which feel sometimes like historical Disneylands.

What's the alternative? Letting someone tear down the less popular half of Venice? To what end? You only get to tear down an old building once and if you replace it with something that turns out to be shit, oh well.
posted by GuyZero at 11:31 AM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]


Here is the list of World Heritage Sites in the USA - and World Heritage Sites in Spain.

Please tell me - which items on either of these lists should be knocked down for a new shopping mall?
posted by Flood at 11:34 AM on August 22, 2014 [7 favorites]


I don't think the World Heritage designation does this; it's more that places where this is happening are likely to be the ones that get listed. San Gimignano was always going to be a tourist trap whether it was designated or not.
posted by Segundus at 11:34 AM on August 22, 2014 [6 favorites]


I've been wondering about UNESCO. Recently I've been watching a bunch of NHK broadcasts and it seems Japan has a bunch of UNESCO sites (they'll mention a place being a UNESCO World Heritage Site with as much enthusiasm as they mention Japan's seemingly uniqueness in having four (count them four) distinct seasons.)

I can't help but think that making an old silk factory a UNESCO World Heritage Site is not a good thing, even if it was Japan's first foray into industrialization. So now I guess the old factory is doomed to be a museum for eternity.

I don't remember the other UNESCO sites in Japan, I just remember thinking WTF? about a bunch of them.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:35 AM on August 22, 2014


I guess the author has a point but then you see places where they tore down entire blocks of buildings to replace them with something demonstrably worse (like much of Toronto's east end, Jamestown, etc) and you think, yeah, maybe we should have done a little preservation. That would have been a good idea.

In many areas, "urban renewal" was seen as a last resort. Entire communities were deemed to be unsalvagable, and were torn to the ground.

In hindsight, these plans almost never worked, and produced communities that were bland, sterile, and frequently dangerous. However, let's not automatically assume that this was any worse than what came before. Not every building from the 1800s was an architectural gem, and in many cases, it made no sense to try to retrofit those buildings with modern conveniences.

Note that we're still doing this. In troubled cities such as Detroit and Camden, the current logic is that empty lots are unambiguously better than derelict buildings.

Both extremes are bad. Overpreservation can lead to stagnation, while urban renewal can lead to the widespread deployment of untested planning paradigms.
posted by schmod at 11:38 AM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


I remember a discussion with a economic development officer who regarded tourist economies as the lowest form of development: the jobs are badly paid, fluctuate wildly both throughout the year and year on year, are relatively few in number, and lead to all kinds of baggage (such as holiday homes) that push prices up for locals. Tourism development is what you do when you're all out of ideas.

Historical places need to be conserved, but often this means an uncreative and unimaginative, "let's make this for tourists!"
posted by Thing at 11:39 AM on August 22, 2014 [5 favorites]


Please tell me - which items on either of these lists should be knocked down for a new shopping mall?

How about: "Cultural Landscape of the Serra de Tramuntana"
posted by smackfu at 11:39 AM on August 22, 2014


I was just in both Rome and Berlin, and while I think I'd have a better time living in Berlin, I absolutely loved Rome specifically because it was bursting at the seams with ancient architecture and history. There are no skyscrapers! You can stand at the top of a hill and look over the entire city. You actually feel connected with the past instead of searching for bits of it. The people I know that live there love it as well.

Not every city needs to be a paragon of progress.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:40 AM on August 22, 2014 [6 favorites]


Seems like an upside-down thesis. These cities don't turn out this way because of UNESCO. They become that way because certain (if not many) people derive some benefit, or potentially stave off some perceived harm, by doing so.

Some cities prosper when they trumpet their history in this way. Other cities do much better when they don't. Other cities do much worse when they don't. In conclusion, the world is a land of contrasts.

What happens when we ask the residents of these cities what direction they would prefer?
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:42 AM on August 22, 2014


Yet another good reason to live on the West Coast of the US- so little structural heritage to preserve!

Lol.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:43 AM on August 22, 2014 [4 favorites]


How about: "Cultural Landscape of the Serra de Tramuntana"
We are talking about cities, right?
posted by Flood at 11:44 AM on August 22, 2014


Being listed as a World Heritage site doesn't mean that blue helmeted myrmidons are going to descend upon the site

The hysterical verbiage and nakedly tendentious assertions make this almost unreadable.

Metafilter: You should probably get your thesaurus.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:49 AM on August 22, 2014 [12 favorites]


Yet another good reason to live on the West Coast of the US- so little structural heritage to preserve!

Yes, well, I think they could be doing a little better with the various missions outside of San Juan Capistrano.
posted by GuyZero at 11:49 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


There's no doubt that World Heritage will create a museum-like effect

"There is no doubt" is not an argument. It is a phrase which almost always means no more than "I refuse to examine the good reasons to doubt..."

To demonstrate the claim you would need to compare comparable sites, some of which have receive the World Heritage designation, some of which have not. One would need to examine exactly what enforcement mechanisms the designation puts into effect. One would need to show that hollowing out of a town like, say, San Gimignano was actually caused by its World Heritage designation rather than it's World Heritage designation being a result of forces which also caused the town to decay as a real, living community etc.
posted by yoink at 11:52 AM on August 22, 2014 [13 favorites]


It does seem like an unending desire to have a UN committee add more places to the UNESCO list every year will eventually get out of hand. We're not adding new heritage sites very fast. I'm not sure if we've reached that point yet, but some of the recent additions are pretty iffy.
posted by smackfu at 11:54 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


By the time UNESCO gets involved the locals have already done work preserving the site, generally. All they're doing is putting a stamp of approval on it, more or less.
posted by empath at 11:56 AM on August 22, 2014 [10 favorites]


But all these world heritage sites - it wouldn't mean anything if the global economy wasn't changing. If the economy itself wasn't becoming more and more dependent on financialization, more and more unequal and more and more services-for-the-well-off oriented, you could declare all the World Heritage sites you liked and people could still afford to live in the city center. I mean, Minneapolis sure isn't a World Heritage site, but huge chunks of it are ossifying in the same way, becoming interchangeable with any loft-and-trendy-restaurant-heavy area in any part of the country. And that's because of economic polarization. It might still be mitigated by changes in zoning, but the zoning is the way it is because it's in the service of the wealthy.

It's no coincidence that all this World Heritage stuff started right at the end of the seventies, which was basically the start of the end of the post-war boom/end of the trente glorieuses, etc. That's when the economy really began to financialize, right before we got Thatcher and Reagan and so on.
posted by Frowner at 11:56 AM on August 22, 2014 [8 favorites]


Before anything in your country is put on the World Heritage list, you have to 1) sign a convention, and 2) nominate objects in your country that you think belongs on the list. UNESCO doesn't do anything on their own.

Italy signed up in 1978. San Gimignano was nominated in 1990. Both the nomination and decision documents explicitly mention heavy tourism as a concern. Arguing that UNESCO forced this upon them is just plain silly.
posted by effbot at 12:01 PM on August 22, 2014 [12 favorites]


"Yet another good reason to live on the West Coast of the US- so little structural heritage to preserve! ... Every bit of construction was potentially destroying some priceless archeological site (and the same goes for parts of China.)"

I have some alarming news for you about pre-1492 residents of your area and United States legal protections for their buildings, burial sites, artifacts, and remains, and the number of priceless archaeological sites that were destroyed before those protections.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:03 PM on August 22, 2014 [5 favorites]


Here is the list of World Heritage Sites in the USA - and World Heritage Sites in Spain.
There are only three US sites that are in urbanish areas. The rest are in sparsely populated areas. Spain seems to have nearly half of its sites that are urbanish (Old town of X or Walled city of X), many of them in larger cities and covering several buildings or entire neighborhoods. This is not because Spain did it wrong and the US did it right, it has more to do with history than anything else. Countries submit their own sites, so they just made different choices.

which items on either of these lists should be knocked down for a new shopping mall?

I think it would be funny if we tried to knock down the Grand Canyon. Expensive, but funny.
posted by soelo at 12:04 PM on August 22, 2014


But who does the nominating?

You have to jump through like a thousand hoops and bribe a bunch of people to get the Olympics or World Cup to come to your country. But it's still a terrible waste of money for the people who live there. If it's anything like getting an international competition hosting, then these kinds of designations will usually end up being sought by politicians who care more about international prestige and tending to the interests of specific connected friends and developers than their people.

Most of the places with large numbers of urban World Heritage sites aren't particularly democratic, either. So it may well be that the affected citizens would prefer otherwise.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:08 PM on August 22, 2014


I notice this in microcosm in my city. Eighty year old "heritage houses" are defended to the death in a proxy war against urbanization.

Here in Victoria BC, the use of heritage designation in the 1970's was part of "New Urbanism" and actually preserved the city core and made it the livable place it is now.

In the 1950's and 1960's, the "Urban Revival" movement, where large tower blocks ("machines for living in") and massive, massive "redevelopment" schemes were popular, saw the eradication of low-income housing. But tower blocks and housing projects caused massive social problems and urban decay.

Preserving heritage buildings promoted a sense of community and neighbourhood identity. Not everyone likes heritage homes, and Victoria's one tower block does provide a significant amount of low-income housing in the heart of the city, but downtown Victoria is the only place I would want to live in Canada (maybe Saskatoon or Regina if they weren't so cold).

And we had out choice of places in Canada to live after relocating from Japan, which, thanks to bombing and postwar "redevelopment" has destroyed many of its heritage properties.
posted by Nevin at 12:10 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Most of the places with large numbers of urban World Heritage sites aren't particularly democratic, either. So it may well be that the affected citizens would prefer otherwise.

When O when will the English, the Irish, the Scots, and the Italians get a say in their own heritage?
posted by octobersurprise at 12:14 PM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]


This is pretty seriously overblown. Being listed as a World Heritage site doesn't mean that blue helmeted myrmidons are going to descend upon the site and start shooting anyone who dares to open a bakery.

I live in Banff, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and I'd give my left ski boot to have a proper bakery in town (a coffee shop doesn't cut it), or a butcher (le sigh). Seriously, “within its walls there is not a butcher, not a greengrocer, nor genuine baker to be found." was the first line I highlighted and tweeted to my friends.

There's doesn't need to be a blue-helmeted army to prevent a bakery, you just need shop owners that realize they can make more money catering to the tourist population than to the local population, and there's no doubt that a UNESCO World Heritage title will help to bring in the tourists, and that's the crux of the article, the designation is great at highlighting the beauties of civilization and nature, but it's also a curse.

To this day whenever my grandmother talks about Jasper she still says "Shhhh, it's a secret." knowing that if word got out that Jasper is just as good as Banff, and just as deserving of a World Heritage Site attribution, that it would suffer a similar fate.

I've been to Luang Prabang can confirm that much like Banff, and as described in the article, culture gets replaced by hotels and gift shops. All we have left is gift shops that sell products identical to the shop immediately next to it, (coincidentally the same products I saw when I went into a tourist shop in Denver), a smattering of bike/ski rental shops, high end clothing boutiques, probably the highest ice cream/candy store per capita in the world, and restaurants that I can't afford to eat at.

It has gotten to the point that if we ever wanted a bakery or butcher that we'd have to ask town council to buy some shop space and set up something like you might see in a heritage village.

(And to anyone Googling, please, JK Bakery and WildFlour are both glorified coffee shops, six loaves of $8 sourdough does not a bakery make).
posted by furtive at 12:16 PM on August 22, 2014 [6 favorites]


Downtown In my city is turning into a pod people modern "exclusive"(they love that term) luxury condo paradise. Where these people work and shop is a fucking mystery, and it sure isn't anywhere near where they live. I'm glad for the heritage building I live in; otherwise I'd be relegated to living in suburban hell.

Also, heritage status has been a treat for Quebec City. Best Canadian city I've ever been privileged enough to spend time in.
posted by Yowser at 12:18 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Shhh... Jasper is our little secret.
posted by Yowser at 12:22 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


and there's no doubt that a UNESCO World Heritage title will help to bring in the tourists

Back to this "there's no doubt" business again. I didn't visit Rome because it had a UNESCO World Heritage Title, nor the Cornish tin mines, nor Stonehenge, and it's not the reason I hope to visit the others that I look forward to seeing. Economic pressures are preventing bakeries. UNESCO is just today's fall guy.
posted by forgetful snow at 12:24 PM on August 22, 2014 [5 favorites]


Compare a few missions and some pueblos along 900 miles of coast with just about any place else in the world, and you'll see the west coast is getting off easy.

Places like New Mexico have it slightly harder, but still.. be grateful you're not in Egypt or someplace.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:28 PM on August 22, 2014


To this day whenever my grandmother talks about Jasper she still says "Shhhh, it's a secret." knowing that if word got out that Jasper is just as good as Banff, and just as deserving of a World Heritage Site attribution, that it would suffer a similar fate.


Excellent point - the incredible tourism demand in Banff, combined with the restrictions on the townsite's size, have driven out low-value services for residents and replaced them with high-value services for tourists. In Japser, with lower tourism demand, there are still services for locals as well as tourists.

The problem, of course is that Jasper was declared a World Heritage Site in the very same declaration that declared Banff a WHS and hasn't suffered nearly the same fate. It just has a lower tourist load, is all. But how would you propose to remedy it, other than telling people to stay away from Banff? If the townsite was allowed to expand, the larger area would mostly fill up with more tourist-oriented stuff -- look at Canmore -- while actually valuable park area would be destroyed.

You are also not talking about cities that are actually declared WHS; Banff the town happens to be located in Banff the park, which is what UNESCO actually gives a shit about. The reason Banff is a WHS has everything to do with the beauty and degree of preservation of the Rockies, and fuck all to do with a small town full of candy stores.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:31 PM on August 22, 2014 [12 favorites]


Every time I see the name Banff I think of Nightcrawler.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:37 PM on August 22, 2014 [5 favorites]


...Jasper was declared a World Heritage Site in the very same declaration that declared Banff a WHS and hasn't suffered nearly the same fate.

Touché. I guess I just really want a bakery and a butcher shop and so the article struck a chord. You are right, there are a lot of other forces at play, Jasper is 4 hours from the nearest city and Banff only 90 minutes away from Calgary. The Weekender Effect: Hyperdevelopment of Mountain Towns does a good job at touching on some of those forces.
posted by furtive at 12:42 PM on August 22, 2014 [6 favorites]


Maybe their secret agenda is greater funding for space exploration by filling up our planet with so much "history" we have no choice but colonizing other planets.
posted by sexyrobot at 12:42 PM on August 22, 2014


Banff is a bigger attraction than Jasper because it is much closer to a major city and its international airport.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:50 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


The danger I see is that it places the welfare of these cities in the hands of people who believe that profit is the only motive, as the entire economy becomes based upon tourism. The stores may be owned by local merchants, but the buildings become owned by large conglomerations. When the tourism dollars fade below a certain threshhold, those conglomerations will argue for a more profitable arrangement and, since they'll be in power, whatever decisions need to be made will be made in their favor and the next level of profitable city development will occur, entrenching the political and economic benefits even further.

The historical nature of those old buildings will only matter as much as they can be preserved for a profit. Every other brick will fall, to be replaced by something new and more financially enriching. Maybe some art will sneak in there, too.

Perhaps it's just a longer-term method of acquiring capitol. (sorry)
posted by Revvy at 12:55 PM on August 22, 2014


The danger I see is that it places the welfare of these cities in the hands of people who believe that profit is the only motive

The whole point is that it saves cities from such people, who would happily replace a Gothic cathedral with highrise condominiums.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:05 PM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]


The whole point is that it saves cities from such people, who would happily replace a Gothic cathedral with highrise condominiums.

The point of the article is that that inflexibility is what's killing these cities. They're replacing one form of civic irresponsibility with a different, longer-term version.
posted by Revvy at 1:26 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Bad news, people who are bemoaning the lack of bakeries and butchers in heritage sites: they're in trouble all over. I just checked my city (population in the low six figures) and, excluding chain restaurants such as Panera and supermarkets (and places that do very specialized baking, such as wedding cakes or cookies only), there are a grand total of... two. And one I've never actually seen (despite having lived here for over a decade) and I have no idea if it's a wedding cake mill, too.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:27 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Most of my current house was paid for when the tiny little house in Saltaire that I bought for 18k when I was 21 was sold. Amazing luck for a dumb kid who just wanted to live closer to work.

Thanks UNESCO. I'm allowed double glazing now too. Bezzin'.
posted by vbfg at 1:31 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Personally I think it will be fascinating over time to see a town that hasn't changed much, like Williamsburg, VA.

Williamsburg has changed plenty. Most of "Colonial Williamsburg" was built after 1930, and to make room for the new buildings they knocked down a bunch of 19th century buildings that weren't exciting enough to preserve.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:32 PM on August 22, 2014 [5 favorites]


Wow, that was a lot of babble, aimed at the wrong target. UNESCO has zero enforcement power; if the writer wants to whine about cities becoming tourist traps, then he should critique the governments in charge of them. I doubt construction in Warsaw is being crippled by being a World Heritage City. In fact, there's this weird thing where he is complaining about development... and then complains that development will be stopped, that things are overpreserved.

Cities become tourist cities primarily because a) there are interesting things to see and do there and b) the locals are interested in catering to them because it gives them better lives than they would have otherwise. When there isn't much other local sources of income, this tends to convert a city to primarily dependent on that, and yes, that can turn them into somewhat of a museum. However, that's not because of UNESCO.

Basically, the guy hates tourists, and doesn't actually care what the locals think or do. And yeah, I can understand being grumpy if your secret 'authentic' getaway spot suddenly has high end restaurants and souvenir shops appearing, but be honest about that, don't try to put on a high-falutin' face of how the world is over-preserved.
posted by tavella at 1:34 PM on August 22, 2014 [7 favorites]


small_ruminant: if you say Banff by its real name, Bamf, only about 50% of people will correct you even here in Canada.
posted by Zack_Replica at 1:38 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


The point of the article is that that inflexibility is what's killing these cities.

Maybe so. What's being viewed skeptically here is A) the proposition that this so-called inflexibility is the result of a World Heritage designation, B) the belief that abolishing the designation would make these places any less inflexible, and C) the word "inflexibility," given how quickly it's likely to become a synonym for "raze the past."
posted by octobersurprise at 1:44 PM on August 22, 2014


I think my big concern isn't what UNESCO has done so far, it's what they might do in the future. A bureaucracy has been created for the sole purpose of identifying "World Heritage" sites, and no bureaucracy has ever said, "OK, we're finished. We've done them all. Let's shut down and we'll all go home."

UNESCO will keep finding ever more sites to declare, until they have declared the entire planet, or until some outside force kills the agency.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:45 PM on August 22, 2014


The point of the article is that that inflexibility is what's killing these cities.

That's the point, alright--it just fails to provide a shred of evidence to support the claim. And it fingers a laughably absurd suspect. If Italy decided tomorrow that it wanted pave over San Gimignano and build a giant modern casino there there would be pretty much nothing Unesco could do about it other than issue a sad-face communique. Of course Italy won't do that because they know that that would be a bad business proposition. San Gimignano is good for Italy's bottom line.

That's what's really so frustratingly incoherent about this article. It's all "get your stinking government regulations off our cities so the divine forces of the marketplace can take over" and then it's all "ewww, who let these filthy tourist-driven businesses in here?"

There are real, interesting issues to discuss when it comes to balancing development against preservation--this article just adds nothing but noise to the discussion.
posted by yoink at 1:46 PM on August 22, 2014 [4 favorites]


or until some outside force kills the agency.

So, Glenn Beck or an alien invasion—which one are you pinning your hopes on?
posted by octobersurprise at 1:48 PM on August 22, 2014


The UNESCO World Heritage designation is a proxy for the shifting forces that Frowner discusses above. The re-shaping of cities for virtual (what will the tourists think!) or part-time residents (the closest high-rise condo to me has only 19% owner occupancy). The expansion of desired amenities to include historic architecture as well as swanky penthouses. Heck, now even streetcars are back!

Though come to think of it, the rise of historic preservation began at the beginning of the 20th century in the U.S. Andrew Hurley's book Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities is a great primer for people interested in the interplay of market forces and cultural priorities.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:48 PM on August 22, 2014


UNESCO will keep finding ever more sites to declare, until they have declared the entire planet, or until some outside force kills the agency.

Or, y'know, if countries stop submitting them. The part where this is entirely voluntary seems to have passed you by.
posted by tavella at 1:50 PM on August 22, 2014 [8 favorites]


If Italy decided tomorrow that it wanted pave over San Gimignano and build a giant modern casino there there would be pretty much nothing Unesco could do about it other than issue a sad-face communique.

Yeah, see Anna Somers Cocks, The Coming Death of Venice? for more on that kind of thing.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:53 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Good piece, octobersurprise. Here's a crucial point re UNESCO's 'powers':
The most UNESCO can hope to do is keep watch, and if it sees gross abuse of a site it can protest, make formal representations to the nation involved, put the place on its List of World Heritage in Danger, and, as a last resort, strip it of its title.
Oh yeah, that's what's "destroying the world's cities." "Oh no, it's terrible, we've been declared a World Heritage Site and now, if we don't do what the big bad UNESCO tells us to do, they might remove the World Heritage Site designation!!!! Oh, what can we do?"
posted by yoink at 2:00 PM on August 22, 2014 [8 favorites]


zengargoyle, I actually visited that old silk factory to do research on a (as-yet-unpublished) novel I was writing at the time -- it wasn't especially exciting, as tourist sites go, but I was really glad to be able to walk around it and get a feel for the dimensions and lighting and layout of the place. That by itself is very slim justification to keep around an old silk factory, I guess. But I thought it was pretty neat.
posted by Jeanne at 2:02 PM on August 22, 2014


Or, y'know, if countries stop submitting them. The part where this is entirely voluntary seems to have passed you by.

The point that this is a bureaucracy seems to have passed you by. If countries stop submitting them, UNESCO will decide they don't need nominations.

No bureaucrat has ever decided there is no more work to be done by his agency.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:05 PM on August 22, 2014


No bureaucrat has ever decided there is no more work to be done by his agency.

I'm trying to think of an occupation that the analogue to that wouldn't be true for.
posted by Gygesringtone at 2:11 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Underlining things makes them true.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:11 PM on August 22, 2014 [15 favorites]


I can't help but think that making an old silk factory a UNESCO World Heritage Site is not a good thing, even if it was Japan's first foray into industrialization. So now I guess the old factory is doomed to be a museum for eternity.

Like the article author, you've got the causality backwards. It's not like this site was sitting there, ignored, about to be knocked down and replaced by something cool and new when UNESCO forced its preservation upon the Japanese people. The reason it became a World Heritage Site is because the Japanese thought it was important to their history and their culture, thought it was important enough that they wanted to preserve it for posterity and therefore they petitioned to have it declared a World Heritage Site. It was already "doomed to be a museum forever" before it got the UNESCO designation, and would not have received that designation were it not.
posted by yoink at 2:12 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


If countries stop submitting them, UNESCO will decide they don't need nominations.

A: that's hilariously paranoid nonsense, and shows an amazing ignorance of the way UNESCO works.

B: if it were true then so what? Even the designations that are explicitly sought by countries are unenforceable by any other means than moral suasion. What force would a non-voluntary designation have? Do you think all new construction would stop in, say, New York tomorrow if UNESCO declared it a World Heritage City?
posted by yoink at 2:16 PM on August 22, 2014 [5 favorites]


Huh. I would have guessed "The Olympics."
posted by gottabefunky at 2:20 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Man, the author really missed the target with this article, at least where Italy is concerned, completely ignoring all of the factors of current financial crisis in Italy. High rents in the big cities, unemployment and shitty wages for short term jobs all over, and smaller towns should be so lucky as San Gimignano to have a stream of revenue from tourism; lord knows those that don't die a slow death as their youth head for the big cities (or to another country) to find work.


But no, by all means continue to blame UNESCO for problems caused largely by those elected to office. Let's cut off our noses to spite our face and send all those tourists waving their money around back home. Then you can have your quaint little town allll to yourself. Literally.
posted by romakimmy at 2:20 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


And yeah, I can understand being grumpy if your secret 'authentic' getaway spot suddenly has high end restaurants and souvenir shops appearing, but be honest about that, don't try to put on a high-falutin' face of how the world is over-preserved

If the article's biography is accurate the author was born and raised and lives in Rome. I can understand how it could be frustrating as a native living in that city without bringing in unnecessary epithets about hipsterism and elitism - it was frustrating enough to live and navigate for a few weeks as a visitor. It's an intensely commodified and commercialised place, and has been for hundreds of years. But the fact is that Rome's status as the West's historical hub is not dependant on its UNESCO status. It's a parasite of its own success, and there are worse things to be, and more relevant things to blame it on.
posted by forgetful snow at 2:24 PM on August 22, 2014


Yes, but his criticism was not "it sucks living in a tourist city as a resident", which still wouldn't be UNESCO's fault but at least is a genuine issue. He goes off on things like this:
If you walk through Porto, Portugal, you will immediately perceive the invisible frontier of the declared World Heritage area: the variegated and heterogeneous humanity of its urban fabric gives way as if by magic to a monotonous monoculture of innkeepers, bar-tenders and waiters touting for customers recognisable by their hiking boots worn in the city, by their hideously short shorts and hairy legs (why on earth do human beings on a tourist mission feel authorised to dress as they would never dream of doing at home?).
Frowner managed to pack a more interesting and relevant critique of tourist cities into a paragraph than this guy did in the whole article.
posted by tavella at 2:55 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


I just popped out to the shops at 11 o'clock on a Friday night right in the centre of this world heritage city and saw no stagnation or ossification, just lots of people having nights out. But maybe that's because this is a world heritage city based on the fact that the mediæval city was flattened and replaced in the 18th century to become a spa town, so everything's at a scale which is more amenable to modern life. Quite possibly the problem with mediæval cities is that you can't run a modern bakery when everything's built at that scale.
posted by ambrosen at 3:03 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


"There is no doubt" is not an argument. It is a phrase which almost always means no more than "I refuse to examine the good reasons to doubt..."

To demonstrate the claim you would need to compare comparable sites, some of which have receive the World Heritage designation, some of which have not. One would need to examine exactly what enforcement mechanisms the designation puts into effect. One would need to show that hollowing out of a town like, say, San Gimignano was actually caused by its World Heritage designation rather than it's World Heritage designation being a result of forces which also caused the town to decay as a real, living community etc.


Ugh, yes. Thank you. I was a geography major in college, and for a while my concentration was in social/human geography. I switched because this kind of undemonstratable posturing was so prevalent in that subsection of the field. Several social geography classes consisted of professors making a string of claims about urban systems without any evidence or data—you know, actual research—to back them up. This article felt like something that might've been assigned reading in those classes.
posted by rensar at 3:03 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well, Berlin does have the "advantage" of having a lot of its historical architecture more or less leveled by the red army within living memory, unlike stuffy old Rome and Venice.
posted by COBRA! at 9:29 PM on August 22 [10 favorites +] [!]


That is quite ahistorical. Berlin was bombed by the US Air Force and the RAF as well for years before the red army moved in.
posted by ts;dr at 3:49 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm a big big believer in preserving history, and emphasizing it to residents and visitors. It's been my thinking for a long time now that "preserving" can be as simple as recording and documenting an important building (or district) and then tearing it down/rebuilding as needed, with provisions that a marker/museum space be installed to let people see what was there before.

My city, Pontiac Michigan, is a horrible example of 1950-1980 "urban renewal". For over a century it was a thriving center to one of Michigan's most important counties, with a six figure population and a very successful downtown. With the huge growth after WW2, the city coped with it by encircling the downtown with a one way 4 lane highway, not a freeway, a highway. It destroyed traffic patterns and made the downtown area inaccessible unless you were looking for it. They tore down entire city blocks and replaced them with big, ugly white concrete structures and parking decks. They buried the river 30 feet down in a culvert. They leveled neighborhoods to build a horribly inefficient, ugly, unprofitable stadium. And no one took any pictures of what was lost, decrepit though it might have been.

After the city had become a disaster zone (it still is in a lot of ways), the city tried to revitalize again in the 90's but went the OTHER way, ie. "Nostalgiaville". They transformed the downtown into a failed appeal-to-the-young environment with lots of bars and art galleries and whatnot. All good, except that renovating anything was completely stymied by preservationists that blocked damn near anything that didn't match a paint sample from 1850. You had to keep original windows and window glass. Renovating a brick storefront meant "return it to how it looked 75 years ago" - even if that storefront was under wood for 50 years and under concrete for 25. They look like shit. There a re some buildings that LOOK wonderful, but if you kick a brick wall, you're gonna shake loose the bricks. It's ridiculous.

Within the last few years, a local historical society has been dredging up pictures of the old downtown and putting them in the storefronts of the buildings that are still there, or the ones they replaced. They're pushing for markers too, and a plan to revamp that 4 lane highway and represent the flow of the river in the pavement has some traction.

Preserving doesn't HAVE to mean "keep it forever". Record a monument or building, photograph it, celebrate what was there, and then move on. You can't keep EVERYTHING.

Edits: stupid autocorrect
posted by disclaimer at 5:42 PM on August 22, 2014


We get a lot of flack in Atlanta because it seems like there's nothing we won't knock down in the name of "progress". We're also known for turning what was unique and interesting into something bland and boring. Of course people forget the city was burned to ashes only 150 years ago, so despite some people's fond memories, there's not a hell of a lot of history worth preserving.

All of which is to say, I'm sure that UNESCO World Heritage designation is not an unalloyed good thing, but that doesn't mean there aren't buildings, places, and perhaps whole cities that are actually worth preserving. Although, like I said, Atlanta isn't one of them.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:35 PM on August 22, 2014


when I look at obituaries in the paper, I usually consider the photo that accompanies the narrative. Some are older, some are younger. Some show their service picture. To me the implication is: this was the best they were, or this is the most representative peak period in their life. But I mostly doubt that is the case. And I doubt that the deceased would have seen it that way as well. They might have thought they were still pretty stud or vampish up to the end. I guess there is comfort in establishing a stasis. my mother always said "I don't care how old the silverware is, just use it."
posted by wallstreet1929 at 6:54 PM on August 22, 2014


When people start talking about old stuff needing to get torn down because what our economy really needs is New Stuff, I start thinking about Kelo again.

The reality is that if the population really wants new stuff, if they really don't care about the old stuff, how could the designation matter?

It's the countries themselves that have made up the nominees for the World Heritage List. If it started being seen as a bad thing, they would stop doing that. But where is the bad thing? Yes, the shopping malls are now being built somewhere that is not on top of current historical sites. The argument that we wouldn't have the Parthenon--well, no, we wouldn't have it exactly as so, but with today's infrastructure and so on, why can't we build new remarkable things in places that aren't on top of the old remarkable things?

How much of why the citizens of the area can afford to live in new condos outside of town is because of tourism from people visiting the old places, people who would not want to go see a bunch of office buildings and stores that looked exactly like the office buildings and stores back home?

People lost their homes to the New London redevelopment plan that was supposed to be so fantastic, and it got turned into a dump for storm debris a few years later. I'd hate to lose the Parthenon to something someone claims is going to be the next Parthenon, only for it to end up going over-budget and abandoned.
posted by Sequence at 7:03 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Tangentially related:

The Citadel of Arbil, in Erbil, Iraq has been proposed for a UNESCO World Heritage site. The tell (mound) is probably one of the oldest inhabited places in the world (Older than Jericho? Older than Catal Huyuk?). Nobody's really sure because there's never been any extensive archaeology carried out there.
posted by General Tonic at 8:43 AM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


There is no doubt that preserving the past is depriving us of bread. And obviously, why would anyone choose to live in a city choked with musty old villas or crumbling silk factories when they can live in this?

I promise you, when we replace those old buildings with properly designed tower blocks in a brutalist style, oh such bread you will have.

bread courtesy of Wal-Tesco Central Bakeries, DeMoins IO. Flavors other than WondaWjite subject to pricing and availability fluctuations
posted by happyroach at 11:30 AM on August 23, 2014


I'd rather local governments have one more hoop to jump through when dealing with the fate of historical sites than try to avoid a touristy areas being too touristy.
posted by stp123 at 3:36 PM on August 24, 2014


Another problem with preserving medieval cities is that they're not built to code.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:06 AM on August 25, 2014


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