A Conversation with Francesco Bandarin

Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre

My office in Tuscany opens onto my distressed garden (it’s late July, and it hasn’t rained since May: on principle, I don’t water). Surveying the damage I’m not in the best of moods as I tap the key on my computer that will put me in touch with Francesco Bandarin, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture. A moment later Francesco appears before me, sitting on his patio in Puglia’s Salento region, overlooking his distressed garden. Like two farmers we comment on the weather and the trouble we’ll be in if we don’t get some rain. It’s a fitting exchange, somehow, as the topic of today’s conversation is landscape, its social value, and the steps that must be taken to assure its preservation. 2012 marked the World Heritage Convention’s 40th anniversary, so it’s also a good time to draw a balance of what has been done to date, and to muse about how best to move ahead in the future.

Odd as it might seem, landscape has only recently found a place in the general movement for the preservation of natural and cultural heritage. Until just a few years ago, that movement had been largely “object oriented”: focused on the safeguarding of single, well defined objects or groups of objects. One of the reasons may be that the “horizontality” of a landscape approach to preservation – its inclusiveness and the complexity it brings – is daunting. Not just because there are more objects (and processes) that must be dealt with, but also (and perhaps most importantly) because the successful preservation of every landscape depends on the active involvement of those who live in it, drive through it, make their living by tapping its resources. The value of landscape may be universal, but the actions that must be carried out to preserve a particular landscape – the dirt-under-the- fingernails stuff – is always local. Here’s Francesco’s take on how all of us can help.

PB: The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in November 1972 – which means 2012 marked its fortieth anniversary. In this time the Convention’s executive arm, the World Heritage Centre, has established nearly 1000 World Heritage sites – one every two weeks on average. That’s quite an achievement.

FB: The exact number is 962, after the last meeting of the World Heritage Committee in St. Petersburg that ended on July 6, 2012, which approved 26 new sites. That was a major meeting – oceanic, really – involving 1000 people over a two week period in decisions on 250 issues.

PB: You certainly can be proud of what you’ve achieved, and you can count on further success in the future, I’m sure, as there is a great deal of momentum behind the Convention now. How would you assess the last forty years? What do you consider your greatest accomplishments? And what was not done that perhaps should have been done?

FB: Forty years is a long time, and I think it gives us enough distance to attempt an assessment. Over the last two or three years we have been doing just that: a working group has been looking at the future of the Convention, at its effectiveness, and at ways to address future challenges. The Convention has become a key element in the conservation movement, although of course it is limited to a certain number of sites – numerous but limited – that represent a high point of the movement. Institutionally it has achieved a leading position: it is the most visible and competent vehicle for the preservation of cultural and natural heritage. 190 States have ratified the Convention, and take active part in discussions and decisions. Of course this means that we are very visible and that the sites are subjected to close scrutiny – a fact that, in its turn, opens the door to politicization. It’s inevitable: a site takes on certain qualities, becomes a symbol of national or local identity; it touches on elements of pride and so on. So whenever something happens there is a huge political reaction. That’s the risk today: there are political elements that come into the decision-making process and somehow distort its professional, technical character. We’ve seen it again and again, and perhaps it’s inevitable – life is politics, we can’t be naïve about that, but there is a limit. There must be a limit. Sometimes we step over the limit, and this spells big trouble, as it establishes precedents that are not easy to justify in the future.

Overall, when speaking of accomplishments I always say the Convention has been a tool – possibly the most famous, certainly the most visible – for transforming heritage from a reserve of the few into an object of desire for a very large public. If you think of the world forty years ago, museums and sites were essentially for specialists, people who were looking at a specific thing, or the elite, the cultural elite and so on. Now World Heritage sites are in every possible tourist package; for better or for worse, they have entered the mainstream of mass society. I see this as a great achievement: heritage is no longer viewed as exclusive or limited, it is broadly considered to be collective memory, and as such it is interesting and sometimes intriguing. Seeing the beauty, absorbing the aesthetic and cultural experience, must be, and is, available to the greater public.

So I think the World Heritage Convention has been quite successful. Heritage is part of public policies today: say what one will, no government can do without it, whereas in the past it was mainly for specialists. Of course, this success comes at a price. The price is a certain degree of commercialization, it is the impact tourism brings, the economic conflict that can arise around a site, and of course politicization. So there are costs associated with this success: it doesn’t come for free, and we have to be very vigilant about that. The causes of today’s problems are clear; we should try to understand what will cause tomorrow’s. This is something we at UNESCO need to discuss in greater detail, because it’s not easy to predict the future. Nevertheless we can see some trends, and these trends need to be examined, to determine the instruments that have to be put in place.

unesco world heritage dubrovnik
Dubrovnik, Croatia

PB: Regarding the criteria and protocol for inscription in the World Heritage List, I would rather refer the reader to your website, whc.unesco.org/, where these matters are explained in detail. Is there anything that’s not given sufficient attention in the “official” description that you’d like to cue us into?

FB: The thing that matters most is that the sites are not selected by UNESCO. They are nominated by Member States and we, jointly with the Advisory Bodies of the Convention, ICOMOS and IUCN, simply evaluate the nominees – so we are on the receiving end of the process. When a potential site is proposed to us by a national government, behind the government we inevitably find civil society – movements, institutions, nonprofits, local governments, and so on. These organizations are the real promoters of the candidacy.

PB: There is a particular form of heritage I’d like to touch on because it’s a key to our larger discussion today. What is cultural landscape, and why must it be protected?

FB: Cultural landscape is – to keep it very simple – a category of heritage that was introduced twenty years ago, in 1992, to complement the definitions that appear in the Convention. These essentially said that cultural heritage has three forms – heritage can be a monument, a group of buildings, or a site. That’s a bit rigid as definitions go. As time went by people gradually realized that there are types of heritage that don’t fit this strict scheme of things. For instance cultural landscape, or landscape that is constructed over a long period of time by human interaction with nature.

A cultural landscape is one whose natural character has somehow been tamed by human action. It is typical of traditional cultural systems – areas of irrigation, for instance, where humans have had to mold the land to meet the needs of agricultural production. It is an area where humankind has transformed nature for its own purposes and has generated elements of great beauty – which are still alive. In our vision it’s essentially a rural area, although this is something with which I don’t agree and I think we are going to change soon. In essence it is a place outside of built-up areas, where certain types of cultivations have been developed for centuries – the terraced hillsides of Chianti, the rice fields of the Philippines, the Dujiangyan irrigation system in China, or the countryside of Bordeaux – wherever there is a very clear investment of society in an area that has its own natural configuration, but then becomes something else, something different, and is somehow integrated with a system of production. It is the interaction of humankind and nature for productive purposes, and it is rural in our definition. Or at least this is how we’ve defined it in the past. Now, we’re thinking, if we want to talk about the interaction of man and nature, why limit the discussion to the rural? There is no reason to. There are also urban landscapes that are essentially products of human interaction with nature. We’re reflecting on that.

PB: When do you expect to see some progress?

FB: You know, in November 2011, after extensive study, UNESCO adopted a very important new piece of “doctrine,” let’s call it – a recommendation for historic urban landscape where we redefine urban heritage by associating it, precisely, with the concept of landscape. We no longer view the city as a separate place, as an area of buildings or major monuments; we see it as a human production that has combined with its natural foundation, the natural strata let’s say, has a wide range of complex relations with its territory – visual, productive, all sorts of things – and incorporates important intangible values – symbolic values, memory values and so on. The Committee has accepted to reconsider the definition we use for cities, and next year a working group will reassess and possibly change the definition of urban heritage in the Convention, bring it up to date. The definition we use today when we speak of cities is very much linked to concepts developed for the conservation of monuments. Of course cities are not just monuments. They incorporate monuments but they are not just monuments. This is just to let you know that things are happening around these definitions that, in the future, may also affect the definition of cultural landscape as we know it. The idea of cultural landscape may no longer be restricted to rural areas; it may be extended to other dimensions that, so far, have not been considered.

unesco world heritage cappadocia
Rock Sites of Cappadocia, Turkey

PB: So cultural landscape as a category is becoming more important by the day.

FB: Right now we have about seventy five, seventy six cultural landscapes, if I’m not mistaken. It’s not very big as categories go – out of 962 it’s about eight percent, I suppose – but it’s growing quickly and it’s well distributed regionally. Whereas most monuments are in Europe, China and perhaps to a lesser extent Mexico, cultural landscapes are everywhere. I think that shows it was a very good idea to include them. Now some say cultural landscapes are already protected by national law, but I can’t go along with that. We’ve listed 75 sites: what about the rest of the world? National and international legislation are not particularly vigilant, and this is a serious problem: there are a lot of sites out there, but not a lot is being done to preserve them. So in a way we are still missing an efficient tool for landscape preservation, in our system. We’re working on this with a certain urgency, although it’s very complicated.

PB: The lack of local and national measures for the
preservation of cultural landscapes is in fact alarming. One would be inclined to think there’s a deficit of public awareness of the importance of these landscapes, or of landscape tout court. Why is protecting landscape important to everyone and not just to those who have a vested interest in it?

FB: First, landscape protection is very close to conservation as it involves the long-term preservation of natural elements. This links it to the conservation movement on the broadest scale. Secondly it is very important as an area for integrated planning and development. By the way there’s been a very interesting change concerning conservation in urban and territorial planning – my profession originally – because in effect territorial planning is now largely based on a landscape approach. And it’s not just a matter of fashion. The change has come about because it’s functional – it enables planning to embrace heritage protection, water management, forest management and so on, in a single approach. It’s actually a management concept linked with a sustainability principle. The US is particularly active on this front, even more than Europe. There land-planning and other tools are grouped together under a single term, landscape urbanism, which refers specifically to the search for wholeness, for a landscape unit understood as an integrated system where all the different components of management, regardless of whether they concern the natural or the built environment, are taken into consideration holistically. It’s a very modern idea, rooted in the broad-based normative approach to landscape architecture pioneered in America fifty years ago – you know, the pioneering work of Ian McHarg, “Design with Nature”.

The years around 1970 witnessed a widespread practical implementation of principles that had been developed throughout the great American tradition of nature and landscape management, beginning in the nineteenth century, through the work of Aldo Leopold and others, but that reached a turning point in the seventies when McHarg brought out the concept of integrated land management at the regional scale. Now we have evolved and have much more sophisticated technology for land area analysis and planning, and we can deal with these issues in a much more powerful way. The recent work by MIT’s Professor Mohsen Mostafavi, “Ecological Urbanism” is the clearest example of this trend. That’s why I think landscape is really the concept of the future, which drives the big machine of city development, urban development, regional development – it’s all around that.

PB: How does this bear specifically on the preservation of historic urban landscapes?

FB: Our recommendation for the historic urban landscape tries to get away from the traditional definition of a city as a group of buildings and to introduce the larger idea of landscape – because real conservation, even urban conservation, has to look at the big picture, it has to be holistic. You can’t preserve a city only by restoring monuments. That’s not the way it’s done. It doesn’t work. You have enormous problems, you save the monument but lose the city, as has happened on a number of occasions. We fail completely on the principle of land preservation because our objectives and principles are distorted. By plying a holistic approach we are able to reconnect, for the first time in a very long while, with the great stream of planning for development. Which I think is necessary. We cannot consider conservation as something separate from development, as we have done for almost a century. Until Modernism won its battle at the beginning of the twentieth century and became the way to go, the two things were done together – conservation and development were two sides of the same coin. Then there was the big fracture and the two were separated. Now, a century later, we have to reunite them in the same concept rather than pitting one against the other, as we do today, because if it is one against the other conservation will lose. We will lose the battle. We’ll be entrenched in a kind of secluded area and as the pressures outside increase our capacity to resist will diminish. Look at what happens today in historic places – one can’t stop economic development, one can’t stop economic pressure, the impetus for change is very high and our trench is very fragile.

It’s much better for us to be in the mainstream of this current that is determining the ways in which cities are managed or expanded, or regions are managed and developed, and try to transmit the historic values a place has, the values we want to preserve. There is a lesson for everyone here. Conservation by definition is always sustainable. Historical places are more sustainable than modern places because they were built at a time when energy was scarce. They necessarily have a lot to teach us about how modern energy and resource conservation can be brought about.

unesco world heritage hampi
Hampi, India

PB: You mentioned Aldo Leopold a moment ago. I’d like to turn briefly to A Sand County Almanac, which the American conservationist wrote in 1949 – the first modern work to voice a call for an ethic of the land. Aldo Leopold’s land ethic says, and I’m quoting from the book, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Would you say that’s still on the mark?

FB: I think it is straightforward and clear, and I agree, because Leopold’s land ethic involves respect for natural phenomena, which normally have no rights. It’s very good because it talks about biotic effects – it’s about trying to find an equilibrium between different land uses. Although it’s not widely known in the conservation movement, this ethic is the only foundation on which such an equilibrium can be built. Perhaps the time has come to revive these principles and call them by their true names. Ethics is
very important. Very important.

PB: Leopold goes on to say, ” The fallacy the economic determinists have tied around our collective neck, and which we now need to cast off, is the belief that economics determines all land use. This is simply not true. . . . The bulk of all land relations hinges on investments of time, forethought, skill, and faith rather than on investments of cash.” This would seem to suggest that education is key to moving future development in the right direction.

FB: Yes. This is very advanced thinking. We had fifty years of economic booms that spurred development – and are still spurring development in some areas of the world, like China. Booms that did not respect these principles. Today we are facing the consequences of our actions on both the local and the global scale. To define an ethic, therefore, is extremely important for the future. When Leopold said economics cannot be the predominant force, he was saying, in effect, if it is all about economics, then disaster is inevitable. As indeed we’ve seen time and again.

PB: How can people get involved in preserving landscape, if they’re interested in making a difference? How can the individual integrate interests that are not purely economic in humankind’s relationship to the land?

FB: The strategy is the same for rural and urban landscapes. When the right to the city became a concern, grass-roots movements were really able to make their voice heard. Jane Jacobs changed the world, in terms of who decides. The same sort of thing can be done on a broader scale. The first step is to get organized at the grass-roots level: the examples and institutions and organizations are there – it’s not difficult to do. It happens all the time. You know very well that when something bad happens in an area near you, there is a lot of mobilization.

Grass-roots activism is important because it counters economic power as well as political power. Political power is always subject to economic pressures, given that politicians have to support those who generate jobs, even if it rarely happens that the jobs are truly created. Usually the opposite happens – the land is spoiled and its interest, destroyed. I’m very much in favor of grass-roots organization, both at local and at the global level, as it can be a positive force for conservation. You know, in St. Petersburg, last July, the meeting of the Committee was preceded, for the first time, by a meeting of NGOs – which I think is a great sign of maturity for the system. From now on, every time the Committee meets, NGOs that deal with heritage preservation will meet first. This, I hope, will bring a certain positive pressure to bear on the Committee and on governments. The major NGOs have created a new association, the World Heritage Watch, which might become an important player over the next few years. So there’s been a major innovation in our system, something outside the Convention, which is by its nature strictly intergovernmental.

PB: There’s a lot of talk in Europe about the unsuitability of saddling future generations with our present-day financial debt. Is there hope that we can get around our current tendency to saddle future generations with our ecological debt?

FB: It’s very difficult. The two things are closely linked, in fact. Our form of capital is used to borrowing from the future because the future is not represented – it’s the weak part. And now we’re paying for it. The current financial crisis is emblematic in this sense, because we over-borrowed from the future, creating a bubble – and when the bubble bursts you have the proof you can’t do that. Secondly it’s true that, now that we’re close to a transition, because baby boomers and other people who were successful over the last fifty years are transmitting their wealth, and have taken stock of the situation, they realize, themselves, that it can’t go on.

So I think it all comes back to ethics. This is what it boils down to. Only ethics can drive politics into a more cautious approach in this borrowing process. There is a limit to borrowing – be it resources or money – you know, ecological balance and so on. The big issue is, politics has to develop a new social contract. This is very hard to see right now, and the big global summits have failed to provide answers. But that’s the only thing that will really make the difference. And civil society will have to be strong, for ethics is not the realm of governments alone.