World Heritage
World Heritage

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

World Heritage

2.3.2 Selection criteria

There are ten Selection Criteria that a place, object or practice of heritage needs to meet for inclusion. Until 2004 there were six criteria for cultural heritage and four for natural heritage. In 2005 this was modified to make one set often criteria (and also to take account of intangible heritage). Nominated sites are described as being of ‘outstanding universal value’ and must meet at least one of the ten criteria.

Cultural criteria

  1. To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius.
  2. 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, town-planning or landscape design.
  3. To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).

Natural criteria

  • (vii) to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
  • (viii) 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;
  • (ix) 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;
  • (x) to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-site conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.
(UNESCO, 2008a)

While subsequent conventions have altered the balance, few would dispute the bias towards cultural sites/artefacts rather than natural/environmental ones, but there is an attempt to be inclusive of many human and natural phenomena. The criteria are certainly open to wide interpretation and one might well question whether fitting only one criterion is enough to justify World Heritage status.

All of this raises some interesting issues about the process, particularly how the selection for nominations is made and, indeed, by whom. According to one analyst, nomination of sites for the World Heritage List largely depends on who takes the initiative. The answer to the question of who initiates nominations differs by country, over time and according to the type of site. Differences between countries are most obvious when sites are selected at the centre, the initiative for nomination being taken at national level, often during the initial period after signing up to the convention and the construction of the Tentative List. Depending on the context, decentralised nominations sometimes replace centralised ones over time. And in general those involved in the cultural field have always been more interested and active than those in natural heritage. While this is suggestive of the view that World Heritage is primarily concerned with elite culture, in some countries (like the USA) state parks and natural or scientific sites were and remain well represented relative to cultural ones.

A recent study of World Heritage nomination (van der Aa, 2005) includes some interesting case studies of the processes in Poland, the Netherlands, Mexico, the USA, Spain and the UK which identify various patterns, including: a ‘historical core’ of typical sites, as in Poland; the key narrative of the ‘battle against water’ in the Netherlands (also specifically concentrated in the historical core of the country and dating to the Dutch ‘Golden Age’); core sites of pre-Hispanic and Hispanic Mexico, centrally selected (and with belated recognition of Mexico’s post-colonial heritage). In the USA a mixed ‘best-judgement’ list, assembled at federal level but taking account of heritage and environmental professionals at both federal and state levels, has succeeded in highlighting a wide range of representative histories, landscapes and cultures. However, it has also taken account of both the long-established and highly developed system of national parks (referred to below) and sites already on the National Register of Historic Places. In Spain the large degree of autonomy to the regions has ensured strong representation of regional identities and cultures including, in Andalusia and elsewhere, Muslimoriented sites. Also included is one of the early ‘serial sites’, the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela that runs through five regions and was listed in 1993 (van der Aa, 2005, pp. 58–61).

The UK’s approach has also been relatively decentralised, reflecting its constituent countries. In the later 1980s and into the 1990s, backed by statutory bodies like English Heritage and Historic Scotland plus numerous heritage groups and professionals, this process created a list drawn from all parts of the country but with fewer culturally distinct sites than, say, Spain. It seems that although some central responsibility was evident, it was rather a piecemeal operation involving many bodies (500 organisations and individuals were consulted in England alone) and with different working methods in each context, including bodies in Wales and Scotland (all essentially working separately). Certainly many consultants and experts expressed their views, but the diversity of the UK’s heritage made it extremely difficult to focus on anything more than the obvious, the big frontrunners, Stonehenge, Westminster, Bath etc. However, the earliest listings in the 1980s comprised essentially elite selections, mainly of English sites. This changed over time to embrace industrial heritage in later listings, for example Blaenavon iron works and landscapes, the other industrial villages of New Lanark and Saltaire, and more natural features such as the spectacular Dorset and East Devon Coast. It is unclear how the list of sites in overseas territories was arrived at, perhaps another example of the essentially ‘top-down’ approach generally adopted (Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 1999).


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371