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Urban Studies

Status of the World Heritage City — a «kiss of death» or resource in a conflict of interest? The case of Stralsund and Wismar

Eremenko Yuliya Andreevna

Postgraduate student, Saint Petersburg State University, University of Bamberg (Germany); Junior Scientific Associate, Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, branch of the Federal Scientific Research Sociological Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences

190005, Russia, g. Saint Petersburg, ul. 7 Krasnoarmeiskaya, 25/14




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This article examines the transformation of urban space associated with the status of the World Heritage City, as well as the conflicts arising in this regard. The author faces a question whether the status of the World Heritage City does not allow any changes or they are possible, and the status is the resource in a conflict of interests. The two German cities Stralsund and Wismar with shared status of the World Heritage City were selected as the cases for this work. The research material contains the collected by the author expert interviews with the municipal administration, local activists, employees of the museums and tourist centers, and representatives of the local business. The article also analyzes the material from the two groups on Facebook belonging to the municipal government and the Green Party of Stralsund. The study demonstrates that the status of the World Heritage City imparts strict limitations upon the transformations of the urban space, but does not make their implementation completely impossible. There are times when different actors, such as municipal administration, use the status in diverse ways, depending on their interests.

Keywords: Federal Republic of Germany, Cultural Heritage, World Heritage Sites, World Heritage Cities, urban space, conflicts, UNESCO, ICOMOS, Wismar, Stralsund


In the second half of the 20th century, there was a surge of interest in the opportunities for cultural objects to obtain the international status of UNESCO. Today there are more than 800 World Cultural Heritage sites. Obtaining the status of the World Cultural Heritage (WCH) is a laborious process but, most importantly, this status imposes several restrictions on the use of the objects themselves and the territories around them. In the case of World Heritage Cities (WHC), these restrictions apply to a large part of the historic center and the "buffer zone", which includes many houses owned by the ordinary citizens.

This article will examine how urban space changes in light of acquisition of the WHC status and what conflicts arise thereof. In this article, we seek to find out whether the status of the World Heritage city is indeed, as Starin [Starin 2008] put it, a "kiss of death" for the city, meaning the inevitable stagnation.

Two German cities in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania were chosen as the case study. These two cities share the status of WHC, with no conventional territorial boundaries. However, these cities have a common history, urban planning, and architectural style of a medieval city. The data for the study stems from the expert interviews and qualitative analysis of materials in two Facebook groups: the official Stralsund city administration group and the Green Party group in the same city.

At the beginning of the article, several theoretical approaches will be considered. This will be followed by a description of the specifics of WHC and the data. Further on, the analysis of each of the hypotheses will be presented based on the data collected in Wismar and Stralsund. Last but not least, recommendations will be made regarding the nuances one should consider when applying for the World Heritage City status.

Theoretical approach

At the heart of our theoretical approach to studying the impact of the WHC status on urban space is the idea of the "political right to the city." This concept is based on the work of Henri Lefebvre, "The Production of Space" [Lefebvre 1968]. Lefebvre defends the idea of the need to restructure the current social order within the city in favor of the rights of citizens to form public space. For him, society is inextricably linked to the concept of space, and changing one means changing the other. In view of this direction, the right to manufacture space is realized. According to Lefebvre and his theory of the three spaces [Lefebvre 1968], at the essence of the "right to the city" is the aim to restore the rights of the citizens to make decisions that form the perceived and desired living space. The author considers the citizens as a real active force for the transformation of the city. Based on this theory, we hypothesize that it is the citizens who change the city, whereby the status of World Heritage City does not affect their activities. If the interests of citizens diverge from those of the administration within the World Heritage area, the interests of citizens will have a more significant impact.

We also consider the concepts like the "kiss of death" [Starin 2008] and the "glass box" [Gravari-Barbas 2019] in order to understand more thoroughly how the WHC status affects urban space. The historical centers of cities and their surrounding areas are placed in/turned into a "special zone" [Barron 2017], where the basis for decision-making is not the needs of citizens but the desire to preserve the city without making changes to it. "Magnificent, rich, restless, for centuries, sometimes for millennia, they have experienced the vicissitudes of history: wars, epidemics, earthquakes. However, now, one after the other, they fade, desolate, turning into theatrical scenery, against which the bloodless pantomime is played" [D'Eramo 2014]. Following this perspective, it is hypothesized that the city's acquisition of the World Heritage city status blocks all transformations in the city.

The third approach used in this study relies on the theory of rational action [Arrow 2012]. All actions and decisions taken by actors are rational, aimed at maximizing certain benefits (and minimizing costs, respectively). From this point of view, we can consider the status of WHC as a particular resource in the fulfillment of interests. However, not all actors have the opportunity to use this resource equally. The city administration has better chances, as they have expertise in the field of World Heritage and they have more direct access to the benefits that WHS can offer. According to this approach, the city administration rationally uses the WHC status to promote its interests in situations where the status allows minimizing costs. Based on this theory, it was hypothesized that the city administration has a desire to minimize its costs and therefore uses the WHC status as an argument as to why it cannot fulfill the wishes of its citizens.

As a result, the following hypotheses are put forward: (1) Citizens change the city, and the status of World Heritage Cities does not affect their activities. That is, if the interests of citizens diverge from those of the administration within the World Heritage area, the interests of citizens will have more significant influence; (2) WHC status blocks all transformations in the city; and (3) the city administration has a desire to minimize its expenditures and therefore uses the WHC status as an argument as to why it cannot meet the wishes of citizens.

The specificity of World Heritage Cities

Defining the entire city as a World Heritage site is an exception rather than the rule. To do so, a city must meet the rather stringent conditions of "universal" value. In this case, the nomination in the World Heritage List merely sounds like a "historic city," e.g., Toledo, Guanajuato, or contains the whole name of the city, without specifying the site, e.g., Bath, Bamberg, etc.

The formation of World Heritage Cities dates back to 1977 when a group of heritage sites was first officially designated and included in the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List. This was done based on an agreed international procedure, in the course of which the objects were recognized as having "outstanding and universal significance" for the whole world [Molchanov 2003].

The Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [United Nationals General Assembly 1972], serves as the conceptual and legal basis for the formation of the lists and actions related to the activities for the preservation of historical heritage at the intergovernmental level. Among other things, it formulated the principle of non-derogation of the rights provided for by the national legislation in respect of the heritage. However, the protection of the heritage is the duty of the entire international community [United Nationals General Assembly 1972, Article 6].

Around the same time, the concept of obtaining status for sites of a much larger scale than individual monument buildings began to evolve. The aim behind that was to preserve historic settlement areas as life-long formations, which reflects the values of urban civilizations and, at the same time, creates normal, modern conditions for residents [Bouchenaki 1995].

There is also a system of that classifies properties, which can be included in the World Heritage Cities category "inhabited historic towns": (1) towns which are typical of a specific period or culture, which have been almost wholly preserved and which have remained largely unaffected by subsequent developments. Here the property to be listed is the entire town together with its surroundings, which must also be protected; (2) towns that have evolved along characteristic lines and have preserved, sometimes in the midst of exceptional natural surroundings, spatial arrangements and structures that are typical of the successive stages in their history. Here the clearly defined historic part takes precedence over the contemporary environment; (3) "historic centers" that cover exactly the same area as ancient towns and are now enclosed within modern cities. Here it is necessary to determine the precise limits of the property in its widest historical dimensions and to make appropriate provision for its immediate surroundings; (4) sectors, areas or isolated units which, even in the residual state in which they have survived, provide coherent evidence of the character of a historic town which has disappeared. In such cases surviving areas and buildings should bear sufficient testimony to the former whole [World Heritage Convention 2005: 86].

Among the cities with the WHC status, Wismar and Stralsund stand out for their joint status [Eremenko forthcoming]. The historic centers of Wismar and Stralsund are the single World Cultural Heritage site with no shared borders, i.e., about 1,500 structures in each of the cities with the WCH status share a standard status based on two criteria: (1) they have "contributed to the development and spread of brick building technologies and building types, the characteristics of the Hanseatic cities in the Baltic region, and the development of defense systems in the Swedish period"; (2) they "are essential in the development of the building techniques and urban form that became typical of the Hanseatic trading towns, well documented in the major parish churches, the town hall of Stralsund, and the commercial building types, such as the Dielenhaus" [Thomas et al. 2000].

Methods and materials

This article examines the place of the World Heritage status in the situation when the city administration tries to commercialize the historic center of Stralsund (Germany), which was included into the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List in 2002 together with the city of Wismar. During January and February 2019, a series of semi-structured expert interviews (n=40) were conducted with informants from the city administration, local activists, employees of museums and tourist centers, and local business representatives. Also, a qualitative analysis of materials in two groups of social network "Facebook" was conducted. One of them is the group led by the press service of the city administration "Stadt Stralsund" ("Stralsund City") and publishes the official position, while the other belongs to the green party "Grüne Fraktion Stralsund" ("Stralsund Green Fraction").

The cities of Wismar and Stralsund were chosen for this study because they share the similar urban layout, history and status, but do not share a common territory. This is important for this study as we can observe and compare the actions of, for example, the city administration and identify whether this is specific to that city alone or whether we can assume that a similar situation exists in other World Heritage cities.

Empirical research results

Let us consider the situations related to our first hypothesis: the citizens change the city spaces, and the status of World Heritage City does not affect their activities. The most frequent conflicts in both cities are those between the owners and the city administration. In both cities, based on the interview data, the most common conflict situations around the WHC status arose then, when window frames were replaced and the houses were painted against the official regulations. All these procedures are strictly regulated in the WHC zone, and any changes require a special permit from the city administration. The owner's choice is also limited to a particular color scheme developed by the administration and specific models of windows: "Most often disputes arise about the color of the house. We have developed a special color palette that can be used to preserve the uniform appearance of the city but there are always people who want to paint the house, for example, in acid lemon" [Representative of the city administration, Stralsund 1].

The most discussed examples of such conflicts in the urban environment are related to investors from other cities who bought buildings in the city and changed something in them without the permission of the local administration, which led to litigation. "A big businessman from Frankfurt buys a house in the city center from us and decides to break one of the walls for his purposes. We are beginning to understand this situation and explain to him that it is the World Heritage city, and we cannot do that here. He does not understand, and then he drives his expensive car into the city and sees what we have been telling him. However, not everyone understands our value. We have to freeze their construction works" [Representative of the city administration, Wismar, 1]. In such situations, public opinion is on the side of the local administration: "These people [investors] are trying to destroy our city! The city administration stops them correctly" [Local activist, Wismar, 1].

Initially, it seems that there is no impact of the status of the WHC on these conflicts, as regulations regarding restoration and construction work of houses of historical value had existed before the status was obtained. However, today, after obtaining the status, these norms apply not only to old houses but also to all houses in the city center, even if they were built in the 21st century.

In situations when citizens do not try to change the urban public space in a single way, they also "run into the wall" of the city administration. For example, in the case of Stralsund residents who wanted to build a dedicated bicycle lane through the historic center but were rejected by the city administration because of the need to preserve the historic look of the WHC and not to change the cobblestone pavement. "We have bicycle lanes but they bypass the city center, which is very uncomfortable for me because I have to make a big hook to get to school. So I'm not the only one" [Local activist, Stralsund, 1].

Let us consider the second hypothesis: obtaining the status of a city as the WHC blocks all transformations in the city. The above examples seem to confirm it. However, if we look at the architectural structures in the city, we will see that not all the buildings in the historical center are preserved in both cities. Some of the buildings in the centers of Wismar and Stralsund were also destroyed during the Second World War or during the GDR times when no funds were allocated for the restoration of the buildings. New buildings are being built on the site of the destroyed ones but the boundaries of the buildings are preserved. In this respect, the city administration controls all the plans of houses that are going to be built and responds by refusing projects where houses are designed as an imitation of the 17th century style: "Our task is not to make a decoration but to keep the city in the form that it was given to us and pass it on to our descendants. We refuse projects that imitate buildings of the past centuries" [Local administration, Wismar, 2]. To date, the historical urban layout of medieval cities has been preserved in both Wismar and Stralsund but in the city center we can see the buildings of the 21st century, which are built taking into account a large number of restrictions but do not copy the medieval buildings that are adjacent.

There are also cases of change made by individual citizens, such as in the federal solar panel installation program. Conflicts have arisen between the citizens who wanted to install them and the city administration. This is due to the general view of tiled roofs (Fig. 1), which are one of the "trademarks" of Wismar and Stralsund as the WHC. In several cases, citizens received permission to install solar panels (Fig. 2) on the wall of the house by the court order (the map shows the location of this building in the yellow hall, i.e., in the World Heritage area (Fig. 3)).

Fig.1. Stralsund. Bird's eye view of the historic center Stralsund. Tile roofs. Source: Home Website Hanseatic City of Stralsund https://www.stralsund.de/en/city-profile.html (accessed 10.08.2019).

Fig. 2. Solar panels on the wall of the house. Stralsund (January 2019).

Source: Iuliia Eremenko.

Unititled:Users:yeremenko:Dropbox:Скриншоты:Скриншот 2019-06-28 14.32.59.png

Fig. 3. World Heritage Site Map of Stralsund.

The solar panel installation area is marked in purple.

The area of the White Bridges is marked in blue.

Source: Thomas F., Volksdorf D., Kuhlow L., Markfort U., Richter C. (2000) The historic center of Stralsund and Wismar: World Heritage nomination. Adapted by Iuliia Eremenko.

In this situation, why not consider the impact of the World Heritage City status within the view of a rational action theory? That is, the fact that the city administration has a desire to minimize its costs and therefore uses the World Heritage City status as an argument as to why it cannot meet the wishes of its citizens. The hypothesis of a rational use of the status is well illustrated by the situation around the White Bridges in Stralsund. The city administration decided to cut down trees in the White Bridges in November 2018. Citizens were not invited to participate in the discussion of this decision. The first opposition to the decision arose immediately after the publication of the report of the meeting of the local administration. In winter, when publishing the negative attitudes of citizens to this decision in newspapers did not yield anything, the organized groups of activists started picketing. The participants were both members of the Green Stralsund Faction, a German non-profit environmental organization, "BUND" (German Environment and Nature Society), and city activists who were not members of any official associations.

The initial decision of the administration to cut down trees was not justified in any way but then the administration's press service voiced two arguments: (1) part of the trees were sick, which was shown by the expertise; (2) historically, there were no trees in this area. It is necessary to return to the original appearance of this territory, as well as other objects in the World Heritage city, if possible.

There is also a third argument, not used by the press service but voiced during the interview by the representative of the tourist center, which is partially funded by the city administration. Based on this, tourism is of paramount importance, and in order to get the attention of tourists, the urban environment can be changed without taking into account the opinion of residents. "We need to show World Heritage in all its glory so that tourists can come back to us. Trees are preventing us from taking photographs now [Representative of the Tourist Center, Stralsund 1].

Here, we see the administration's rational use of the WHC status. All references to the World Heritage town status in this tree-cutting situation were a type of attempt to justify the administration's decision, which caused protests among residents. This is since the abolition of tree felling would have had consequences for the local administration, as they would have had to terminate the contract with the company they hired for this activity. The area of the White Bridges is not a World Heritage site if we look at the map (Figure 3). However, the administration uses this as an argument in this case. Moreover, none of the activists pay attention to the fact that this territory is a territory of the buffer zone only. This is because the administration is an expert on the World Heritage issues: "There are special people in the city administration who know everything about World Heritage. No one knows more about it than they do" [Museum Officer, Stralsund, 1].

Conclusion and recommendations

The status of the World Heritage city influences changes in urban space. The hypothesis that citizens can change cities according to their interests has not been confirmed. The status of the WHC imposes restrictions on the entire World Heritage area and the area around it; as a result, many changes in the city become impossible. However, as demonstrated by the reviewed conflict situations directly related to the status of the WHC, this status does not stop all changes within the city. The idea that UNESCO is giving the "kiss of death" to the historical center is not real. The city is changing under the influence of time, these changes require a lot of effort and time, but the city is gradually transforming.

This study has some limitations, the most important of which is the fact that, based on the expert interviews, we are often unable to talk about the underlying motives behind the actions of certain actors. Expert interviews and analysis of official groups give us only an idea of the official rhetoric. Besides, the cases studied do not give us an idea of all the situations in which the status of the WHC is used. In the future, it seems necessary to examine whether the situation is similar in other World Heritage cities and how rational the decision to obtain the status is.

The study showed that the local administration rationally uses the status of the WHC for its interests. This can be explained by the fact that the administration has a monopoly on expert opinion on the World Heritage issues. It was them who initiated the application for the status and prepared all the documents without involving local activists. In this regard, it should be noted that the involvement of local activists could contribute to the distribution of this expertise, which in turn can help both to preserve the city and use its territory in a way that is responsive to the contemporary needs of urban dwellers. Also, it would be better for local activists to verify the arguments concerning the status of the WHC, as the city administration may manipulate the opinion of citizens based on sometimes unreliable facts about the impossibility to change the urban space.

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