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

Vatican City: one giant heritage site. Image: Diego Cambiaso via Flickr, reused under Creative Commons.

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.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.