Liverpool has never struggled for bragging rights: be it the Beatles, Liverpool FC or Europe’s oldest Chinatown, travellers have swarmed the English city for reasons their own. However, July 21 was a minor blow to its reputation with the city’s historic waterfront, being removed from the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. At a session held in Fuzhou, China, UNESCO stripped it of the prestigious tag, citing loss of its original maritime-mercantile character, which once made Liverpool a pioneer in global trading and a major port of trade and commerce in the British empire.
In the late 19th century, the docks stretching along the Mersey waterfront would expand every year, and magnificent steamships connected the city with world’s major ports. Vessels arrived regularly, ferrying cotton, sugar, spices, indigo, ebony, wine, the finest of muslins, and plenty else from around the globe. In 2004, when UNESCO designated Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City as a World Heritage Site, it was for being “the supreme example of a commercial port at a time of Britain’s greatest global influence”. The waterfront, stretching from Albert Dock to The Pier Head and Stanley Dock, included historical commercial districts, a cultural quarter comprising shipping institutions and utilitarian structures, and the RopeWalks zone, all of which existed as the palimpsest of a truly prosperous English city. An upcoming large-scale redevelopment project, almost a decade in the works, ultimately led to the city’s delisting.
In most cases where loss of or threat to heritage status are concerned, it is understood that the site has failed to sustain its “outstanding universal value as inscribed”. According to Mechtild Rossler, director, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the tag is largely permanent, but State Parties’ commitment to protecting them, addressing threats, and avoiding materially altering them, is central to its status as such.
While violation in any form of this unspoken agreement is the eventual reason for the deletion of a site (only two other sites have the ignominious distinction of a delisting to their name: the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman and Dresden’s Elbe Valley), a few noticeable patterns have emerged.
The culprit, in Liverpool’s case, has been a big-ticket regeneration project where 60 hectares of derelict docks are to be transformed into a supposedly world-class centre comprising residential, office and commercial blocks. Called Liverpool Waters, the scheme is estimated to cost £5.5bn, and will be modelled after Vancouver, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Heritage conservation authorities and watchdogs all over the country have decried the project ever since it was first announced, and despite the developer’s attempts at appeasement, the international body has remained unmoved. The announcement of a football stadium for Everton FC at the Bramley-Moore Docks has only worsened the authorities’ relationship with the agency.
Much like Liverpool, an ambitious high-rise project in Vienna’s historic Baroque centre resulted in the former Austro-Hungarian capital being shunted off to the World Heritage Sites in Danger list in 2017. The project—a 66-metre-high structure, as against UNESCO’s approved 43-metre standard—has since been stalled, but the at-risk status for the Austrian capital stays.
Meanwhile, another major site in the U.K. can expect to have its World Heritage status taken away—plans for the construction of a 3.3-km cut-and-cover tunnel in the vicinity of Stonehenge, are afoot. Unless the design for the construction, which is set to cause “substantial harm” to the outstanding universal value of the site, is changed considerably, the prehistoric monument will enter the at-risk list next year.
The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, in 2007, became the first site to lose the World Heritage tag, after the country decided to reduce the area of the reserve—the only remaining home of the rare antelope—to a tenth of its original size. The rest of it was thrown open to oil prospecting. Poaching and habitat degradation shrank the number from 450 in 1994, at the time the game reserve was inscribed, to 65 in 2007.
In 1998, Mexico’s El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve was similarly threatened by a huge salt plant planned very close to the former’s whale sanctuary. The plant was scrapped by the Mexican president soon after.
The Elbe Valley in Dresden, Germany, was inscribed on the list as a ‘Continuing Cultural Landscape’ in 2004, the same year as Liverpool. Known for its low meadows, Baroque and industrial-era structures and others existing since the 16th century, suburban villas, and aesthetic natural features, the site was shifted to the endangered list soon after (2006) when news of a four-lane bridge cutting through the valley and disturbing its long-cherished and cohesive natural vistas, emerged. Soon after its completion, the Waldschlößchen bridge was denounced as an eyesore and a design disaster, and Elbe Valley was taken off the prestigious list.
After much resistance and lobbying on the Australian authorities’ part, UNESCO put off placing the Great Barrier Reef (worth $23bn in tourism revenue) on the endangered list this time, to the dismay of activists and climate change advocates who were hoping that the decision would kick off a fight to save the struggling marine ecosystem. The at-risk label has been expected for a long time now, especially after record heat in 2016 and 2017 caused mass bleaching in the reef. Australia’s management of the problem has been debated and subjected to harsh criticism in the recent years, and even though the country has got a reprieve, increasing temperatures and lack of an accelerated action plan may even bring about a delisting one day.
Of late, the huge cruise ships docking at St Mark’s Square in Venice has resulted in the city of lagoons running into trouble with UNESCO, even stoking concerns of revocation. The cruises bring in thousands of tourists for day trips to the historical centre, putting the city’s fragile infrastructure and heightened susceptibility to high tides and floods, under unprecedented pressure. The site has escaped the relegation to the endangered list this time around, but concerns around the sustainability of the historical buildings, which are built on marshy land, continue to be a worry. A ban on the giant ships, which cause erosion and pose structural threats to the structures, has been enforced starting August 1.
Peru’s Machu Picchu, too, has received numerous warnings over overtourism and flooding. A 2017 study warned of similar clouds looming over two natural heritage sites back home in India. Assam’s Manas National Park (which has been to the endangered list and back) and Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan were reported to be under pressure from human footprint that was several times higher than that of other Natural Heritage Sites.
Having been on the tentative list since and pursued the nomination for a couple of years, under the joint aegis of the Liverpool City Council and English Heritage, the city finally won the nomination in 2004, at the 28th session of the UNESCO, held at Suzhou in China.
Much before the city was given its first warning in 2012, as the spectre of development projects loomed large over the fragile heritage system, and the authorities prepared to batten down the hatches, the then-newly made ferry terminal at the waterfront was billed the ugliest building in the country (an antithesis of the Stirling Prize). In 2017, faced with a final warning from UNESCO, the mayor put together a special taskforce to “reset the city’s relationship” with the body, and to reassert its unquestionable efforts towards preservation of its maritime heritage. In June this year, a month prior to the delisting, the city council had expressed hope for an extension.
Ever since the site lost its 17-year-old World Heritage Tag, reactions to the delisting have ranged from shock (residents and outsiders), and humiliation (heritage bodies) to vocal indifference (pro-development stakeholders and the city council). While some sat up and expressed concern about the relegation and heritage advocates shook their heads in disbelief, a few responses could be paraphrased as implying “good riddance”. Moments after the ouster, Culture Liverpool tweeted, “No labels needed.”
Now that the certificate on the wall is out of the way, Liverpudlians are of the belief that the iconic English city is free to finally pursue its vision of development. Some even believe that the city’s aesthetic value and tourist appeal are not dependent on the tag. The post-pandemic world is about to test that confidence.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.