World Heritage City? Not Exactly


Independence Hall was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1979, one of only 25 in the United States, thus adding it to an international list of protected buildings. Philadelphia’s induction as a World Heritage City by the Organization of World Heritage Cities, not administered by the U.N., is misleading and does not include protection or any funding whatsoever for the city’s historical assets | Photo: Michael Bixler

It’s been nearly six months since Philadelphia became the first U.S. city inducted into the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC), an announcement that generated a great deal of media attention, but much less public understanding of exactly what the apparently momentous occasion signified.

“I’ve been to three talks in the last three months where people involved with historic preservation have said, ‘We are now recognized by UNESCO.’ That’s where it’s going in terms of the misrepresentation and delusion around this,” said Bill Bolger, a historian for the Nation Park Service, which oversees Philadelphia’s UNESCO World Heritage site–Independence Hall. “It was advertised in a way that clearly made it seem like the city was on some world heritage list.”

But that’s not what actually happened.

Bolger said there was now a widespread misconception that the entire city of Philadelphia had become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That unique distinction would have entailed support from the international community in protecting the city’s many historic assets.

In reality, Philadelphia became a member of a Quebec-based nonprofit that is not administered by the U.N., but instead represents about 250 cities that have UNESCO World Heritage sites. Founded in 1993 by a former mayor of Quebec City (the entire Vieux Québec neighborhood is a UNESCO site), the OWHC sometimes works with UNESCO, but is a separate organization.

The historian said city leaders spun the less prestigious membership in “a kind of support group for cities with UNESCO” sites as a much higher honor than it actually is.

“Getting publicity is a good thing, but I don’t think Philadelphia needs to make stuff up to get publicity,” Bolger said.

Since 1979, Philadelphia has been home to an actual UNESCO site, one of 23 in the U.S., that encompasses just a single building–Independence Hall–and that is as true today as it was before the November announcement. Bolger said he had explored expanding the UNESCO area in the past to encompass more of Old City (to be something like Vieux Québec), but found little local interest. Some smaller cities, such as Savannah, GA, have been stymied for decades seeking citywide designation.

Independence Hall’s World Heritage designation results in an added international layer of protection for the site, the birthplace of American democracy, but, because it is already safeguarded and maintained by the National Park Service, it receives no additional funding from UNESCO.

UNESCO designation is particularly useful for small, culturally rich, but vulnerable places, like Jerusalem’s Old City and Cuzco, Peru’s historic centro. These kinds of designations often lead to special project funding for restoration and infrastructure.

The only citywide UNESCO World Heritage designated city in the United States is the ancient town of Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. There, the U.N. provides funding for the restoration and maintenance of Taos’s historic earthen structures.


Taos Pueblo was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992 and the only “city” with this designation in the United States. 95,000 acres of reservation land are attached to the pueblo with a population of 4,500. The adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years | Photo: Elisa Rolle (Own work) – [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Conversely, Philadelphia’s membership in OWHC doesn’t entail any special historic protections or funding for restoration.

Nevertheless, much early reporting appeared to confuse membership with the Quebecois nonprofit and the notion that the entire city was on the cusp of becoming a UNESCO site.

“Philadelphia is on track to receive a World Heritage City designation this year,” wrote the Philadelphia Business Journal. “There are about 270 cities on [UNESCO’s] World Heritage Cities program.”

To be fair, the Global Philadelphia Association, the local group that spent several hundred thousand dollars and three years securing the OWHC membership, was clear about the distinction.

“UNESCO doesn’t actually designate World Heritage cities. They designate lots of things, at sites big and small. For example, the interior of the walled city of Dubrovnik, [Croatia] is a World Heritage Site,” said John F. Smith, III, a local lawyer and chair of Global Philadelphia. “So it’s kind of easy to confuse some of the UNESCO designations with the [OWHC] designations. But that’s not what UNESCO does.”

But the differences seemed to have gotten lost in much of the hype in the wake of Philadelphia’s induction into OWHC. Conde Nast Traveler trumpeted, “Philadelphia Named First UNESCO World Heritage City in US,” while Travel and Leisure noted that the City of Brotherly Love would join “266 world cities on the UNESCO World Heritage city list.”

Some of the public confusion might be chalked up to the extraordinary economic figures attached to the new designation, which Global Philadelphia says is still momentous regardless of its relationship to the official UNESCO organization.

A study by the firm Econsult commissioned by Global Philadelphia (view it HERE) said OWHC membership could contribute to an increase in foreign visitation by as much as 10 to 15 percent, translating into upwards of 100,000 new tourists annually. That would mean around $150 to $300 million more of new tourist spending per year, according to the study.

University of North Carolina professor Brent Lane, who studies the effects of World Heritage designations, said that both official UNESCO designations and OWHC membership status were often preceded by rosy economic predictions. He found that inscription in either program rarely translated into dramatic benefits, but ironically, local boosterism promoting the international recognition efforts often made for a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The amount of increase of tourism and economic impact is largely the result of marketing,” Lane said. “But the effect is a rather minor one that will be very difficult to discern from other macro effects.”

In a lot of ways, that’s exactly what’s already happened–major international publications regard Philadelphia, for better or worse, as even more historic than they did before November. And the local tourism industry was happy about the news.

| Photo: By Gugganij - Own work (own photography), CC BY-SA 3.0

Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage District in 1981. The holy city for Judaism, Christianity and Islam contains 220 historic monuments including the armenian catholic church, Our Lady of the Spasm, in the foreground and the golden Dome of the Rock, built in the 7th century, as seen at left in the background | Photo: By Gugganij (Own work) – [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

“We think the designation is going to be pretty important in the context of a number of other things that have enabled Philadelphia to rise onto the world stage. It’s is another piece of that,” said George Stafford, president of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, referring to the recent visit from Pope Francis. “I think the designation will generate more international visitation. We don’t know how much, but we think it will be significant.”

More marketing is exactly what Global Philadelphia says it intends to do, in order to capitalize on Philadelphia’s status.

“The marketing campaign is gearing up now,” said Scott. “We’re working with…a communications and engagement firm and have already started the branding effort. And a fair amount of work has gone into creating a more thorough marketing campaign that will take place over the next several years.”

No such thing as bad press, right? Much of the coverage of the announcement and the majority of Global Philadelphia’s report focused on these economic aspects. Yet, what about the city’s historic assets that form the basis for the OWHC membership? Can it spur preservation efforts?

“It absolutely has to start there,” said Scott. “This is a little bit a part of Philadelphia’s DNA anyway, we understand the terrible importance of looking after, monitoring, of preserving the historical and cultural assets that got us to this point. So, the designation is fundamentally important for strengthening the hand of people who want to make sure those assets are well taken care of.”

Scott said one of the steering committees for Global Philadelphia had been assigned to examine ways membership could protect historic sites in Philadelphia, and that he hoped that increased communication with the other 250 historic cities would yield benefits as well.

Lane said that if the OWHC designation spurred more historic advocates into action or led to the nomination more buildings for historic protection, that would go much further towards preservation than the membership itself.

But he wasn’t sure that those were the main reasons cities sought out these kinds of plaudits.

“It’s a civic pride, cherry-on-top for Philadelphia’s self-image,” he said.

But Bolger said he was concerned that the perception that Philadelphia had earned some sort of U.N. protection would contribute to a false sense of complacency around the dire need for more historic preservation efforts locally.

“The problem to me is that while all this was going down, people were talking about scuttling the Olympia,” he said, referring to a historic cruiser docked in Old City that was nearly mothballed due to lack of funds. “The [OWHC] membership is a denial of reality. I’d rather see Philadelphians ask serious questions about historic preservation needs in this city.”

About the author

Ryan Briggs is a journalist who lives in West Philadelphia. A veteran of several economic development agencies in Philadelphia, Ryan has contributed to the Philadelphia City Paper, Next City and other fine, local publications. Follow him on Twitter at @rw_briggs.

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  1. There may be something a little darker going on here. The OWHC membership does not require significant vetting so its import is more about marketing than recognition of historic character through the city’s preservation efforts. On that front, Philadelphia has less to show than many similar cities leading the front on historic church demolition, loss of its last movie palace, a low local designation record, and a renewed vigor in sanctioned economic hardship cases related to historic assets. So if the OWHC designation is ultimately good for projecting the city’s historic image, perhaps it is so as a counter-strategy for the other half of the equation.

  2. Fishtown is seeing both sides of preservation/demolition of churches.

  3. Very illuminating. Thank you.

  4. From the article it seems that only the Independence Hall Building is a UNESCO Heritage site. That would leave out Congress Hall where the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution was ratified. That bill of rights served as a model for the UN Charter of Rights. Also it seems to leave out the Liberty Bell as a UNESCO Heritage something or other.

  5. This article is very helpful. I came across the Organization of World Heritage Cities as I was researching filing a complaint with UNESCO about the demolition of historic buildings in Philadelphia.

    While the designation of “World Heritage City” may not be worth the paper it’s written on, we have to be watchful lest elected officials and others use it for taxpayer-funded junkets.

    Faye Anderson
    All That Philly Jazz

  6. Incredible! Frank, I’m with you. Ryan’s article is a revelation that leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Local marketers and national press who pushed PHILADELPHIA as a newly designated World Heritage Site, the one and only in the country, have not only misrepresented the truth, they’ve consciously deceived local, national and international audiences. I bought it! Now I have mud on my face thanks to a handful of wishful thinkers and Barnum Bailey-esque promoters. I can’t track the number of times I’ve whispered that World Heritage City lie down the lane. My entire career is based on promoting Philadelphia – revealing the endless creative talent and surprising gems – to a national audience. We are unique and extraordinary, definitely NOT New York’s sixth borough, as the NYTimes proclaimed years ago! So what’s with those who shall remain nameless pumping out damaging non-truths that ultimately wreck Philly’s reputation? We have plenty to crow about without making stuff up!!

    • Don’t confuse World Heritage *Site* with World Heritage *City*. That was the point of the article.

      None of the people who promoted Philadephia’s receiving this OHWC/OVPM designation said anything about the city becoming a (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, for it already was one: Independence Hall was one of the earliest US sites addeed to the UNESCO list, at the third international UNESCO conference on World Heritage Sites in 1978 (I think); it was also the first man-made structure in the US to make the list, as the others placed on it up to that time were national parks or natural features.

      Nobody misled anyone about what World Heritage City designation meant for Philadelphia, as far as I can tell. I don’t recall any of the Global Philadelphia folk saying it came with anything other than bragging rights.

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