Essay: who cares about Unesco?


When I wrote Unesco pulls trigger on Amsterdam in 2010 I was unaware that a day later urbanist Michiel van Iersel would tackle the same subject a day later in NRC.

At the time Unesco had added Amsterdam’s historic city centre to its famous World Heritage List. Critics feared that Amsterdam would fare the same way as Bruges, a city in Belgium that has a lot mediaeval architecture still intact, but that also has the reputation to be staid and boring. They were afraid that the municipal government would turn the city into a museum in which nothing could be changed.

In an essay called Who cares about Unesco? Van Iersel counters these criticisms by saying that “in fairness it should be pointed out that the Belgian town was well on its way to being a museum exhibit before it was included on the list in the year 2000”. He adds that a Unesco listing is unlikely to act as a Trojan horse because if anything, Unesco’s rules are vague and ambiguous.

So, should Amsterdam embrace its Unesco listing? Van Iersel doesn’t seem to care either way. He feels the great number of sites on the World Heritage List has made it the Starbucks of distinctions. He proposes that Amsterdam should “pretend that UNESCO does not exist.” It doesn’t seem to matter much if you’re on it, because everybody else is, too. In fact, when Unesco dropped Dresden from its list for building a bridge, the joke was on Unesco: “in opting for innovation Dresden gave up its place on the list, while UNESCO lost one of its sites and also the support of some of its partisans.”

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