Development, tourism and neglect endanger sites as much as conflict and natural disasters

Does Unesco have the power to stop the decline of crucial heritage sites?


The fact that a trio of English industrial sites is included on the World Monuments Fund’s 2014 watchlist of vulnerable heritage is revealing. After lying roofless and empty for decades, the Art Deco Battersea Power Station is now the subject of a vast regeneration scheme that will save the ruined structure but see its place on the London skyline largely vanish behind a development of hundreds of apartments and office blocks. Further down the Thames at Deptford, the derelict dockyard founded by King Henry VIII is now having a clump of residential skyscrapers foisted on it by the Mayor of London to help satisfy the capital’s voracious housing market.

By contrast, the world’s oldest and largest ice factory complex, in the fishing port of Grimsby, is neglected and decaying with no sign of a viable commercial use in sight. Such is the north-south divide of the British economy; heritage sites in London are snapped up while those at the country’s poorer margins often lie mouldering. (A fourth UK entry on the fund’s somewhat capricious list is Sulgrave Manor, the historic but decaying home of George Washington’s ancestors in the English Midlands; its inclusion says more about the New York-based organisation’s patrons than about the importance of the Tudor manor house.)

Historic homes apart, it’s a situation that reflects the polarity worldwide in the most serious threats to heritage. Alongside the perennials of warfare and natural catastrophes, the major forces imperilling heritage across the planet are split between, on one hand, neglect—whether due to austerity and budget cuts or plain poverty—and, on the other, pressure from development, urbanisation and tourism.

Italy is illustrative of the types of pressures felt across the world: central government has almost halved its culture budget since the global financial crisis in the face of a national debt that is running at some 130% of GDP—amounting to trillions of euros. Further spending cuts have been announced for the next two years.

Tourists are having near misses with stonework falling from Pompeii, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain. Luxury-brand advertising hoardings are swathing monuments in exchange for taking up the financial slack. The Italian shoe company Tod’s has pledged millions to help repair the cracks in the Colosseum while the fashion house Fendi is throwing thousands of euros into the Trevi Fountain to secure its future. At the 1,200-room Royal Palace of Caserta near Naples, chunks of marble are falling off the sculpted façades. It is expected to cost around $9m just to fix the iron clamps that hold the carving in place.

The European Union pledged millions in 2013 to help put Pompeii back together but little has been spent. Of wider significance might be new proposals by the Italian government to offer tax breaks to individuals and organisations donating to cultural heritage causes. Private support has, however, declined by almost 40% since 2008 just as the pressures from global tourism are rising. By some counts, 8% of Italy’s GDP is tourism-related but visitors are coming for shorter stays and spending less while their absolute numbers are growing, literally wearing away history with their feet while giving less back.

Venice remains blighted by giant cruise ships. In June, the city’s mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, resigned after being arrested as part of a general investigation into corrupt funding of many aspects of Venetian life by the builders of the as yet unfinished flood ­barriers. A ­recently proffered solution to the cruise ship problem—dredging a ­different channel through the lagoon—raises the possibility of further environmental damage.

Famous heritage sites across the world are experiencing similar pressures. For instance, a proposal this summer to extend opening hours at Machu Picchu in Peru, together with a planned regional airport, could double tourist numbers at the already-crumbling site, despite an agreement with Unesco to limit visitors. The continued tourist-driven growth of Angkor Wat’s gateway town Siem Reap in Cambodia threatens to drain the water table and so undermine foundations at the temple complex.

Yet none of these places—Venice, Pompeii, Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu—was added to the list of sites in danger when Unesco’s World ­Heritage Committee met in Qatar in June this year. Thirty-six sites were nominated but only two were added to the 46-strong list, the first being the historic mining town of Potosí, Bolivia, which sits on one of the world’s largest lodes of silver and is threatened with collapse from renewed and rampant digging.

Other sites such as London’s Palace of Westminster, its setting endangered by the many skyscrapers planned in its buffer zone, escaped with a telling-off. A judicial review this December could yet put a spanner in the development works but it often feels that Unesco is a paper tiger whose only sanction is a long, hard stare of disappointment.

Like Italy, Unesco is broke and enfeebled. The US, always a laggardly payer, has withdrawn its substantial contribution since 2011 when Unesco recognised Palestine as a member state. At the same time, a spirit of internationalism, a notion of the collective patrimony of humankind, is fading. Most obviously and destructively this is seen in a raft of sectarian wars where the fate of culture has become a pawn to be promoted or destroyed, but even in peacetime it is demonstrated by the relative levels of care taken with different aspects of heritage.

China, Turkey and other countries in the developing world are becoming more assertive in reclaiming their scattered material culture from auction houses and museum collections, and using the withholding of international gallery loans as leverage on the issue. National identity is an equally important factor when decisions on heritage are filtered by its perceived value to a national story. Brazil’s architectural idea of itself, for example, rests on the Baroque and Modernism rather than 19th-century Neo-Classicism, and the latter inevitably suffers when ­resources are allocated or sites protected from ­redevelopment.

Surprising then that Unesco chose 2014 to add the entry “Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines—Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir” to its World Heritage List and, at the same time, to place it among sites in danger, alongside the Old City of Jerusalem. The clumsy name refers to a pattern of ancient terrace farming called widian that is threatened by the barrier separating Israel from ­Palestinian territories in the West Bank. It blocks farmers from fields they have cultivated for centuries.

One could hardly get a more political addition to the lists, or one that ­embodies all the issues of 2014 in a single location: nationalism and sectarianism, conflict, neglect and development pressure. The same is true of Jerusalem itself, where partisan construction and demolition affecting holy sites could cause a new intifada to erupt. There are a few roars left in the Unesco tiger yet—if precious little bite.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'No war, but still at risk'