World Heritage
World Heritage

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World Heritage

2.5.2 Case study: World Heritage Cities in Bath and Old and New Towns of Edinburgh

Bath has been a World Heritage site since 1987, recognised as a place of outstanding universal value for its ensemble of architecture, town planning, landscape, archaeological remains and its interesting social history as a place of resort. The history of the place extends over 2000 years, and consequently Bath displays a fascinating array of remains including archaeological evidence of pre-Roman use of the hot springs and the Roman spa itself (Figure 8), medieval relics, the impressive Georgian city, civic buildings, parks, gardens and streetscapes. More recent heritage includes Brunei’s Great Western Railway with its station buildings and structures, all situated in a magnificent natural landscape. The history of the city is presented and interpreted through a range of museums and galleries devoted to specific aspects of the city’s past, including a Georgian house given over to a museum celebrating the life and times of Jane Austen, one-time resident of the city in its heyday as a place of fashionable resort. (Incongruously Austen had mixed feelings about Bath, though it features prominently in several of her novels.)

Figure 8 The Roman Baths, City of Bath World Heritage City. Unknown photographer. Photo: © Travelshots.com/Alamy.

Like Edinburgh, as a heritage city Bath is clearly a major cultural and economic asset, with a population of 84,000 people: it is a significant regional centre for employment, shopping, entertainment and education. As an international tourist destination, it attracts nearly 4 million visitors per annum, emphasising the close relationship between the heritage and the success of the modern city. The spa, object of a multimillion pound re-development, continues in use for health and leisure. Maintaining economic performance and vibrancy in the community is seen by the local authorities as essential for the long-term protection of the city’s heritage, which in its turn gives Bath a unique and much-celebrated character. How this is to be sustained in the future is explained in the management plan, briefly summarised as follows:

The Management Plan aims to provide a framework to conserve the cultural heritage assets of the World Heritage Site of Bath. This wide remit includes protection and enhancement of the architectural, archaeological, landscape and natural assets and their urban and landscape settings, improving understanding of the site, its interpretation and use as an educational resource, and supporting the local community in its cultural, social and economic vitality.

The plan will outline the main issues that challenge the World Heritage Site and the potential opportunities of that status. These issues will be addressed through a series of objectives and actions, specifically intended to fulfil the main aims of the plan. These are:

  • Promote sustainable management of the World Heritage Site;
  • Ensure that the unique qualities and outstanding universal values of the World Heritage Site are understood and are sustained in the future;
  • Sustain the outstanding universal values of the World Heritage Site whilst maintaining and promoting Bath as a living and working city which benefits from the status of the World Heritage Site;
  • Improve physical access and interpretation, encouraging all people to enjoy and understand the World Heritage Site;
  • Improve public awareness of and interest and involvement in the heritage of Bath, achieving a common local, national and international ownership of World Heritage Site Management.
(Bath and North East Somerset Council, 2008)

This wide remit emphasises the problems of managing complex heritage sites – particularly the balancing of conservation and development, which is especially challenging in the urban context and evidently an ongoing issue in the city.

The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh site (Figure 9) faces similar dilemmas and its website is enlightening in this regard. It seems there are many points of comparison, at least in statements that recognise the challenges and threats, and set out policies to preserve and enhance the site. The plan, like that of Bath, identifies key features, like the unique setting overlooking the Firth of Forth, a dramatic castle perched above the city centre, the contrasting architecture of the medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town, and the history and heritage of Scotland’s ancient capital. Challenges and opportunities abound, for example raising funds for restoration of buildings with diverse functions throughout the designated area, the need to promote the use of traditional materials that are becoming very hard to obtain, and the constant threats arising from inappropriate development. Edinburgh World Heritage has also had to balance the needs of conservation in the New Town with those of the Old Town, which before the eighteenth-century expansion constituted the core of the city. There the Royal Mile links the Castle on its rock with the Palace and Abbey of Holyrood at its foot, now also the location of the Scottish Parliament. After many decades of decay preservation has been a priority for an area that is a major tourist magnet in a tourist city. But the plan is not only about preservation, it is also about promoting Edinburgh as a ‘thriving, dynamic, economically successful city’. We might finally note that the plan is supported by a wide range of bodies including the Scottish government, the City of Edinburgh Council, Historic Scotland and various enterprise agencies. What happens in Edinburgh is of considerable consequence politically, and developments there, particularly in terms of policy and the funding of heritage projects, are watched with interest throughout Scotland (Edinburgh World Heritage, 2008; Rodwell, 2007).

Figure 9 The Old Town of Edinburgh (left), linked by North Bridge to the eighteenth-century planned New Town (right). Unknown photographer. Photo: © World Pictures/Alamy.

Reflecting on the case study

Would Bath and Edinburgh ever be anything other than highly attractive places, since they have been attracting visitors for several centuries in modern times and were significant places from antiquity? What benefits has World Heritage status brought that would not have been promoted in the usual course of events? Some injudicious developments, notably shopping complexes, have been allowed in both places, though World Heritage status has perhaps prevented the worst excesses. In reality it is very difficult to see how such complex sites can be managed because of the competing interests of conservation and development (Rodwell, 2007).

In both instances there are also interesting issues of interpretation of the ways in which elite culture was promoted and sustained historically by the middle and upper classes at the expense of the labouring classes in these cities, with large numbers employed in construction, shop work, domestic and other services. In Bath’s interpretation the army of servants found above and below stairs in the great resort era seems to be essentially subverted in favour of elites. Edinburgh presents an interesting juxtaposition of the formerly poverty-stricken Old Town tenements with the fine Georgian terraces of the New Town to the north. And while much is made of the Scottish capital’s ancient history (especially at the Castle and at Holyrood Palace), the Scottish Enlightenment, driven by educated elites of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, is perhaps more prominent, at least in the city’s institutions. Of course, in some ways, Edinburgh is an exceptional case given its capital city status, long significant in its political, cultural and economic standing, and even more so since the opening of the Scottish Parliament.

Is World Heritage City status driven by the tourist agenda? There is undoubtedly a sense of competition among traditional tourist cities that feel if they do not achieve World Heritage status they will be overlooked for somewhere else as a tourist destination. Both these cities rely on tourism as a major contributor to their economies, so their status is undoubtedly of great importance and value.

This brings us briefly to the role of World Heritage in wider social and economic regeneration and in cultural tourism, itself an enormous topic with a substantial literature (for example Smith and Robinson, 2006; Timothy and Boyd, 2003). It has been suggested that World Heritage sites are perceived as the new ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ (multiplied many times over), and that listing substantially affects the attraction of sites as tourist destinations and boosts local economies in the process. Here, as in many other places in this book, it is evident that this is one of the most significant aspects of heritage beyond its obvious function of restoration and conservation. It also helps to explain why World Heritage is so highly political.

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