New technologies helping to save world heritageParis - As UNESCO prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, adopted on November 16, 1972, preservationists campaigning to save sites, landscapes and monuments of "exceptional universal value" still face serious threats, even though most of the 730 world heritage sites are well managed.
So far, 175 States have ratified the Convention - the most widely recognized legal instrument for protecting the planet's natural and cultural heritage - and 125 are represented on the World Heritage List. But, as the terrible floods that recently ravaged several European countries have shown, natural disasters do not spare world heritage. Likewise, threats stemming from human activities, such as wars, the deliberate destruction of cultural symbols, pillage, pollution, poaching and poorly managed tourism, are undermining the efforts of UNESCO and its partners committed to the preservation of sites.
What can be done to more effectively protect the 33 sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger and the hundred or so others that are considered to be in an alarming situation? "We must shift from a reactive attitude to a preventive approach," says UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. "The identification, preservation and enhancement of sites reflecting our world's natural and cultural diversity can be assured only if governments, local officials, business and, especially, local populations work at it together." Determination, solidarity and a wide range of appropriate tools that are as inexpensive as possible are also required.
To bring people of good will together and identify practical solutions in this United Nations Year for the Cultural Heritage, UNESCO and the Centre for Design Visualization at the University of California in Berkeley (USA) have organized a series of seven interactive conferences in seven cities around the world. These events will form a virtual congress on the theme, "World Heritage in the Digital Age". The inaugural conference will take place at the French Senate on October 16.
Between mid-October and mid-November, hundreds of participants from a broad spectrum of places and professional backgrounds will meet in Alexandria, Beijing, Dakar, Mexico City, Paris, Strasbourg and Tours to work out how to make the most of new information and communication technologies to better manage heritage sites. They will be able to communicate with each other via the Internet and feed the Congress's virtual web site. Some 200 papers from approximately 60 countries presenting groundbreaking experiences have already reached the Congress organizers. The best ones will be selected by a scientific committee and put on-line.
Mr Matsuura and Senate President Christian Poncelet will open the inaugural conference in Paris on October 16. Over 250 elected officials from France and many other countries, as well as representatives from States Parties to the Convention, will exchange ideas, information and experiences on the theme, "Elected Representatives and World Heritage: Challenges of Decentralization". Although States are still primarily responsible for implementing sustainable development policies for heritage, local elected officials are becoming essential players. For several years, cooperation between cities, especially between those in the countries of the North and the South, has helped concerned people not only to open up to other cultures, but also to take part in the rehabilitation of endangered cultural and natural sites.
One example is the cooperation between Chinon (France) and Luang Prabang (Laos), which began in 1995. Under the aegis of UNESCO, a plan to preserve the ancient capital of the "kingdom of a thousand elephants" has led to the restoration of many of the city's pagodas and landmarks and helped the inhabitants to improve their homes. A Heritage Centre has been set up by the local authorities, who have benefited from the experience and know-how of their counterparts in Chinon to enact appropriate laws and urban planning regulations. Many other world heritage cities are also now experimenting with this kind of decentralized cooperation, including Lille (France), Turin (Italy) and Hue (Viet Nam); Bath (United Kingdom) and Katmandu (Nepal); Barcelona (Spain) and Vigan (Philippines); Bergen (Norway) and Mozambique Island.
At the same time as the October 16 conference in Paris, two other conferences will take place in Africa and Asia. From October 15 to 17, Dakar (Senegal), in partnership with the Agence universitaire de la francophonie (AUF), will host a conference on "Teaching World Heritage in Africa", which will be opened by Minister of Education Moustapha Sourany. Some 30 African university professors will take an inventory of university programmes in the environmental sciences, architecture, landscape design, urban planning and heritage preservation, examine the "digital divide" and, for the first time, assess the state of the World Heritage Convention's implementation in Africa.
How can 3D simulation contribute to the design hotels, airports, train stations, museums, information centres, hiking trails and other tourism infrastructures that preserve heritage sites for future generations? Internationally renowned architects, representatives of China's local officials and representatives of States in the Asia-Pacific region that have signed the Convention will meet in Beijing (China) from October 15 to 17 to present their experiences and discuss "Architecture and World Heritage". Liu Zhifeng, the Vice-Minister of Construction, will chair the opening session.
Two other conferences will continue the relay four days later in the Arab region and Europe. From October 21 to 23, the forum of Alexandria (Egypt) will be held at the new Alexandria Library under the chairmanship of Information and Communications Technologies Minister Ahmed Nazif. The participants will include representatives of the Egyptian and Arab authorities and diplomatic missions as well as international experts, who will exchange ideas on "Heritage Management and Mapping: Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and Multimedia". These systems make it possible to translate databases involving sites into a map to improve town and country planning.
At the same time, from October 21 to 24, François Rabelais University, the Mission Val de Loire and UNESCO will hold a conference in Tours (France) on "The Great World Heritage Rivers: From Crisis to Risk Management Culture". After flooding in Europe destroyed precious historic archives, damaged landmarks and museums in Prague and altered cultural landscapes such as the Wachau in Austria, the prevention of natural catastrophes is more than ever on the agenda. Participants from the Amazon, Danube, Ganges, Indus, Loire, Mekong, Niger, Nile, Oder, Rhine and Yang Tse Kiang river basins will study ways of using new technologies to analyze, prevent and manage the risk of cultural destruction caused by flooding to produce a manua on the subject.
Lastly, two other conferences will take place in early November. In Strasbourg (France), UNESCO Deputy Director General Marcio Barbosa will open a symposium of international experts on "Space Applications for Heritage Conservation," which will take place from November 5 to 8. Observation satellites are already used to watch natural world heritage sites, notably in Africa, where the last mountain gorillas survive. But today, a new generation of satellites could also help to control damage to buildings and looting at sites. The symposium will help to identify the possible applications of these new technologies and estimate their cost.
In Mexico City (Mexico), from November 6 to 8 representatives of the local authorities as well as national and international urban development experts will take part in a conference on "Heritage Management and Historical Cities: Planning for Mixed Use and Social Equity". Today, tourism and land speculation pressures often have the effect of excluding the most disadvantaged inhabitants from some 200 historic centres on the World Heritage List, of which approximately 30 are located in Latin American and the Caribbean. In the future, urban planning should preserve the social mix and liveliness of these centres. Geographical information systems (GIS) are a precious tool for achieving that goal because they help to identify the population's density and age, the price of land per square metre, the development of infrastructures, and so on.
A series of special events will accompany the Virtual Congress. The fifth annual Berkeley Prize Competition (UC Berkeley, United States) will begin on October 15. Open to undergraduate architecture students worldwide, the this year's on line essay competition (www.berkeleyprize.org) is dedicated to World Heritage. In France, between October 15 and 21 the city of Paris and the Paris metropolitan transportation authority (RATP) will display photographs from the Magnum agency in the metro and buses to raise public awareness of the diversity of the world heritage and encourage people to take part in the Virtual Congress. In Belize, from November 1 to 12, divers and biodiversity specialists will supply pictures of that Central American country's exceptional coral reef so that they can be transmitted to Virtual Congress participants over the Internet.
A press conference will take place on October 10 at the Foreign Press Centre (CAPE) on the inaugural conference of the virtual congress: the international symposium organized by UNESCO and the French Senate on the theme "Elected Representatives and World Heritage: Challenges of Decentralization"
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