Within the Walls: Heritage Values and the Historic City

A Collaborative PhD project in the Historic City of York, UK

Edward Freedman

Project Strand: World Heritage

City of York Council applied for inclusion on the UK’s Tentative List for inscription on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2010, principally on the basis of the exceptional extent and state of preservation of the City’s below-ground archaeological deposits. Although unsuccessful, the Independent Expert Panel to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport recognised that York was a city of great importance, with excellent evidence for its development from its Roman foundation, through the Anglian, Viking and medieval periods to modern times, and recommended that York’s World Heritage Steering Group considers making a more holistic application for the nomination of the whole historic city above and below ground for a future Tentative List.

There would be many potential benefits to the City that could accrue from inscription as a World Heritage Site, including international recognition and prestige; enhancing the priority given to conservation and development in the City; and increasing the attraction of the City to visitors and businesses, with concomitant economic advantages. Potential benefits to local people could be considered to include an enhanced pride in place and sense of belonging; a higher quality of environment; and access to  a larger labour market.

Nominations for World Heritage Inscription, however, must fulfil internationally agreed criteria for possessing “Outstanding Universal Value” (OUV), rather than reflecting the values local people may apply to the place they live in. Contemporary discourse on heritage questions the effectiveness and legitimacy of expert-led, international and national systems of assessing and recognising heritage value.  Such identifications of heritage are shaped by the values and agendas of governments and expert groups, but heritage is innately subjective: one person’s heritage may mean little to someone else, because people’s identification of and with heritage is influenced by multiple factors. The recognition that identification of heritage value is not of qualities that are intrinsic to the object, but an attribute awarded by government and people, has led some to question the legitimacy – or at least the compass – of heritage designations on the national and international stage.

Other concerns have been expressed with regard to the nature of the benefits that might accrue to local people from Inscription, including such questions as how the internationally-ascribed value of the place relates to the values of local people; the effect on local decision-making; and the effect on the nature of economic development and quality of the tourist-sector economy.

The United Nations’ ‘World Heritage project’ emerged from the global political, environmental and cultural climates of the 1960s and ‘70s. Is the concept of a World Heritage list, with an expertly-defined Outstanding Universal Value, still relevant or legitimate, globally or locally, in an increasingly plural and culturally diverse society? How relevant is World Heritage to the communities who ‘own’ and live with it? My strand of the Within the Walls project focuses on a critical engagement with the UNESCO concept of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), using York and other comparable historic cities as a case study.


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