New Wonders of the World

Anyone who sets foot outside the United States, or even flips
through a guidebook to foreign lands, is sure to run across
references to World Heritage Sites. But for most of us Americans
it’s a phrase every bit as exotic as sladoled, the
Serbo-Croatian word for ice cream. Of the 754 World Heritage Sites
designated by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, a
scant 20 are in the United States. Yellowstone Park, Independence
Hall, and the Taos Pueblo are among the few spots that take their
rightful place alongside the pyramids, the Great Wall of China,
Victoria Falls, Old Havana, Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef,
and the Bauhaus buildings of Dessau, Germany.

That’s not because we have fewer sites that meet UNESCO’s
criteria of ‘outstanding universal value.’ Nor is it some
politicians’ deep suspicion of the U.N., since these places are
selected by an international committee independent of UNESCO. It is
be-cause World Heritage sites must be nominated by the country in
which they’re located, and that country must have already made
efforts to protect these monuments, notes Jonathan B. Tourtellot, a
columnist for National Geographic Traveler (October,
2002). American officials are skeptical of an international program
that sets standards for preserving historic and natural
wonders.

Other nations are eager to see their magnificent landscapes and
charming towns recognized as world treasures. Mexico has 23 sites
on the list, while Portugal, a country smaller than Ohio, has 12
designated sites that Tourtellot says the Portuguese never tire of
bragging about.

Congress has decreed that no place in America can be considered
for World Heritage status until every last property owner has
formally consented — a bureaucratic nightmare that crushed local
efforts to put lovely Savannah, Georgia, on the list. The fear
seems to be that a World Heritage Site designation might somehow
limit economic development. Tourtellot finds this an extremely
shortsighted excuse. World Heritage status fosters interest in a
place, bringing visitors from around the world; protecting a unique
place under this program creates prosperity rather than hindering
it.

The idea for preserving world heritage sites actually came from
Richard Nixon’s EPA director, Russell Train, and the United States
was the first government to ratify the idea in 1972. Let’s hope
that we can soon reclaim that spirit of enlightened
internationalism and welcome a program that honors our special
places for all the world to appreciate.

In fact, let’s expand the scope of the World Heritage program
and nominate some sites that express America’s contributions to the
world’s culture, starting with New Orleans jazz bars, Fenway Park,
Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest buildings, river towns along the
Mississippi, Key West, Chicago’s el trains, Greenwich Village,
Harlem, Coney Island, Chautauqua in upstate New York, Calle Ocho in
Miami, the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco, the Hollywood Walk
of Fame, Birmingham city jail, where Martin Luther King wrote his
famous letter, and Bob Dylan’s boyhood home in Hibbing,
Minnesota.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.