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What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Pre-COVID, when we used to be able to roam around the world and the country freely, many of us have probably stumbled into a UNESCO World Heritage Site at some point. The UK itself contains 32 UNESCO sites, and now having started going to university in a place where there is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Durham Cathedral, Castle and the buildings of Palace Green), finding out what these sites are is particularly important and may even encourage you to go and visit one, when we finally can.

What is UNSECO?

It’s important to start with what the organisation that recognises these sites is. UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization which is an arm of the United Nations, and seeks to promote peace and security. It encourages global reforms in education, science, communication and culture whilst fostering respect for human rights and freedoms.

Its impact is broad as, alongside preserving 1073 World Heritage sites in 167 countries, UNESCO also helps coordinate Tsunami early warning systems, help global efforts to allow education for all and protects around 10 million squared kilometres of designated sites – which is the same size as China.

What is a World Heritage Site?

Whilst the influence which UNESCO may have is wide ranging, it is most commonly known for its protection of heritage sites. However, whilst we may be aware of the term it does not necessarily mean that we know what these Heritages Sites truly are.

Broadly speaking, World Heritage sites fall into three categories – cultural, natural and mixed sites. For example, in the UK, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire is an example of a cultural site. Comparatively, the Dorset and East Devon Coast is an example of a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in the UK. Whereas the only mixed site in the UK is St Kilda in Scotland which is recognised by UNESCO for its cultural and natural importance.

Sites are chosen to be considered as a World Heritage Site via the criteria which are explained in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. The site must meet at least one of the ten selection criteria laid down by UNESCO, the selection criteria includes:

  • To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius
  • To exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, tow-planning or landscape design;
  • Bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
  • To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;
  • to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
  • To be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria);
  • To contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
  • To be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
  • To be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
  • To contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

Once selected, these sites are then added to the World Heritage List where they will be monitored and looked after. The title not only brings prestige but also a boost in tourism and also the ability to be recognised on a global stage alongside other great culturally and naturally important sites.

Next time you go off on your adventures, you’ll be a little wiser to what an UNESCO World Heritage Site is and even wiser to appreciate its importance.

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