New UNESCO Sites

Ogasawara Islands, Japan
Each year the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) revises its list of world heritage sites.  The initiative to designate buildings, towns, landscapes, and other materials on an international scale began in 1972 following the ratification of the convention concerning the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage.   
This year’s UNESCO meeting was held in June in Paris, France.  During this meeting 25 additional heritage sites gained UNESCO designation.  A range of sites were added, however the majority of the sites fall under the cultural heritage type of designation.  The 25 additional sites include: 
 Additionally, the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (Honduras) and the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra (Indonesia) were added to the World Heritage in Danger list.

The Impact of UNESCO Designation in Djenné, Mali

A recent episode of The Current on CBC radio examined the impact of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on communities that are designated World Heritage Sites. The Current looked specifically at the designation of Dejenne. The episode looks at the contrast between preservation concerns and the needs of the people who live in the mud huts of Djenné.

The city of Djenné has existed since around 200-250 B.C., two thousand of the original mud based houses still exist today. The ‘old town’ is an example of the development from pre-Islamic civilization to a trading center, Sudanese-style architecture, and the well known Great Mosque. The Great Mosque and the other designated heritage buildings are all built from sun baked mud bricks. The visual appearance is stunning. However mud based bricks have inherent problems, especially in a region which frequently suffers from flooding.

The most prominent theme of the Current segment was the disconnect between UNESCO and some of the government bodies which agree to UNESCO designation. UNESCO designates heritage sites but it is not directly involved with the general upkeep and preservation of heritage sites. However, UNESCO does provide governing and preservation guidelines and governments agree to these guidelines when they agree to designation.

I haven’t previously put a lot of thought into how UNESCO sites are maintained and the potential problems which can arise from designation. There seems to be a clash between the desire of UNESCO to preserve heritage and the rise of tourism which comes from UNESCO designation. A number of countries see UNESCO designation as an instant way to increase tourism and revenue. Since the Great Mosque in Djenné was designated, millions of dollars have went into it’s upkeep and the city has also greatly benefited from an influx of tourism dollars. However, an influx of people visiting a heritage site has the potential to cause damage to the site itself. Emissions from motor vehicles, human contact, and careless but well intentioned visitors increase the risk of deteriorating heritage value.

There needs to be a balance between preservation, tourism, and accommodating the people who live in a UNESCO site. There are so many factors and parties involved that pleasing everyone without compromise is somewhat unrealistic. Places being considered for UNESCO or other heritage designation need to look at the concerns of all of the people that will be impacted by designation and how heritage can be preserved while still maintaining an acceptable standard of living.

Younge Street Built Heritage Loss

Yesterday, the heritage building once known as William Reynold’s Block at Younge and Gould Streets in Toronto burnt to the ground. The building was built in 1888 and last year suffered major damage to its facade. A great concise history of the building was posted on BlogTO in May 2010.

Following the collapse of a portion of the building last year, the building’s current owner filed a request for demolition. This request was delayed by the building being designated a heritage property and Heritage Toronto maintaining that efforts would go towards the renovation and restoration of the building.

Considering the ongoing request for demolition various heritage advocates have been crying arson since news of the blaze of the fire. Currently, the cause of the fire is not yet clear, but arson has yet to be ruled out. Regardless, this fire marks a substantial loss to the historic Young street facade.

Photo credit: Postmedia News photo

Built Heritage in Danger: Sudbury’s Flour Mill


The Moulin à Fleur neighbourhood Sudbury located immediately north of the downtown core was one of the first neighbourhoods to develop outside of the original settlement. The most well known landmark in the area is the flour mill which gave the community its name. The mill silos will be 100 this year.

This mill has long closed and the mill’s silos were designated a city heritage site in 1973 and recognized under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1989. Additionally, the mill’s foreman house was converted into a community museum in 1974.

Despite these positive preservation efforts the flour mill landmark in Sudbury is in a state of disrepair. The silos that the city has previously deemed a heritage property have received no maintenance work in many years, and the entire structure is nearing a state of demolition by neglect.

The neglect of the silos has left the city with a choice to either repair or demolish the silos, as they are becoming a safety hazard. Demolition costs have been estimated at $520,000 to $850,000, and refurbishment at $1.7 million. However, based on the age of the silos there are a number of heritage grants which local organizations are applying to in hopes of helping finance the repair. Many Moulin à Fleur community members see the mill as been a valuable part of their local heritage and are against the demolition of the silos. Hopefully the city can be convinced of the value of this local landmark.

Historical Societies and Community Heritage

Regardless of the size of the city, town, or rural community you live in there is a good chance your community has a historical society. These societies are often comprised of passionate volunteers who care greatly about the preservation of community history. What role does your local historical society play in the preservation and interpretation of your community’s past? How active is your local historical society? How do historical societies fit amongst heritage institutions such as museums and archives?

One of the great things about historical societies is that membership is often open to anyone. By volunteering with a historical society people looking to gain more experience in the heritage field can participate in fundraising, research, and interpretation projects. Historical societies are also a great place for people who are just generally passionate about history or who would like be more involved in their community. Additionally, anyone one with a professional background in heritage, who is willing to share their expertise, is usually enthusiastically welcomed by historical societies.

The volunteer nature of historical societies is great for the variety of people the societies attract. However, there is a downside to being a volunteer based organization. Without active and committed volunteers local historical societies can easily become inactive and in some cases disband entirely. The problem of the disappearance of historical societies is particularly troublesome when a historical society has acted as a collector of community history. What happens to a photo collection or archival collection held by a historical society when there is no longer a group of dedicated volunteers to maintain the collection? Good historical societies have plans in place to deal with this possibility. These plans may include donating the material to a local heritage institution or appointing a knowledge community member to act as curator of the collection. Regardless of how vibrant a historical society is currently, the volunteer nature of most historical societies makes it essential that plans are created to ensure to the longevity of any holdings the historical society maintains.

Historical societies play an important role in increasing public awareness of local heritage. Many historical societies run genealogy workshops, walking tours, lecture series, and in some cases play an active role in heritage preservation initiatives. In addition to their role as promoters and educators of local history, some historical societies have taken on a role of collecting community histories. In some cases this is done in terms of collecting oral histories, preserving photo collections, or working in tandem with local heritage institutions. Examples of historical societies acting as collectors of community history include: the Guelph Historical Society which maintains its own archival collection, and the Milton Historical Society which has partnered with various libraries and other historical societies to digitize their photo collection. Both of these historical societies are active in their respective communities and have made an effort to increase accessibility to their collections.

Heritage Properties Online

In my public history class, we recently discussed heritage legislation in Canada. A portion of our discussion focused on the ineffectiveness of this legislation, and the extent to which the preservation of heritage properties often depended on how active a municipal community was. We also came to the conclusion that more often then not heritage properties appeal to a niche market, some people simply don’t like old houses, while some love them.

Being a history student kind of implies a love or at the least an appreciation for heritage and old buildings. So, after class I explored some municipal websites to see what information was available online about already designated heritage properties. Surprisingly enough not all city or municipality websites actually featured a list of the buildings and properties which had been designated.

However, the city of London, has gone beyond a simple list of properties. The city site includes an interactive map that lets users explore priority rankings of heritage sites, the year they were built, the architectural features of the buildings, and the addressed of all the heritage properties and communities in London. The city of Toronto website does have a Inventory of Heritage Properties. This inventory is searchable by street name, and shows information about the age of each property and the reason it was designated a heritage property. The city of Barrie heritage website does not feature any form of list or database of the city’s heritage properties. However, Heritage Barrie has designed a number of walking tours based on the heritage properties in Barrie, the brochures and maps of these walking tours are available online. The walking tour guides are local history rooted and essentially tell the story of the early development of Barrie.

I personally like the idea of the walking tour guide as it provides a non academic way to present heritage information, includes more information than a mere list, and has the potential to interest a wider audience. The fact that some cities have made a list of heritage properties available shows a commitment to informing the public and to heritage itself.