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Culture

Dresden loses UNESCO world heritage status

UNESCO has dropped the German city of Dresden from its list of world heritage sites for constructing a disputed bridge that UN officials say will ruin the city's historic Elbe Valley landscape.

Dresden's skyline, rebuilt after WWII

Some see the UNESCO loss as a setback for Dresden's image

The move makes Dresden just the second site to lose its status since the World Heritage list was created in 1972.

Some officials say the loss will damage both Dresden's reputation and its tourism revenues. But a recent poll showed that more than half of the people living in the city are willing to see the title go.

The saga of Dresden's World Cultural Heritage status has been going on almost since the city was granted the title, in 2004, for its beautifully conserved river landscape. In 2005, the town proposed a bridge across the Elbe, and that structure has been at the heart of the dispute ever since.

View to the construction site of the Waldschloesschenbruecke bridge in Dresden, Oct. 24, 2008.

The building site is already an eyesore, some say

Conservationists warned that if it was built according to plan, the Waldschloesschen Bridge would ruin the 20-kilometer long (12 mile), World Heritage-worthy stretch of Dresden cityscape. Urban planners countered that it is needed to reduce traffic congestion.

The seemingly endless debate has seen as many twists and turns as the meandering Elbe River itself, involving several reworked plans for the bridge, public demonstrations, back-and-forth legal actions, and a debate over an endangered species of bat.

But what does it really mean to have - and lose - a cultural heritage title? The answer depends on who is being asked.

Impact both practical and symbolic

UNESCO World Heritage designation is attached to some 878 cultural and natural properties world-wide, from the Taj Mahal to the Grand Canyon to the Great Barrier Reef. Including Dresden, Germany has 33 of these sites.

In practical terms, the loss could mean fewer tourists coming to Dresden, says Martin Roth, the director of the Dresden State Art Collections.

"The bridge, which is architecturally banal and was pushed through against all warnings to the contrary, is idiotic," Roth told Germany's Tagesspiegel newspaper. The dispute has led to a "damaged image" for Dresden, and the fact that the city has seen a 10 percent drop in toursim this year is "not due to the economic crisis alone," he said.

An armed Afghan man stands guard as the location of the destroyed Buddha statue, left, is seen behind him in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, Tuesday April 9, 2002.

The Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, are also on the list

But it seems that damage to Dresden's image as a post-War, post-Communist success story cuts deeper than any financial pain the city might feel.

'Shame on Germany'

The move "will severely tarnish Dresden's status as a cultural icon…. It will also greatly diminish the impact of Dresden's message of reconciliation" in the wake of World War II," Guenter Blobel, the founder of the nonprofit organization Friends of Dresden, wrote in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.

The move also shames Germany, Blobel added. The image of a "wealthy country letting one of its World Cultural Heritage go to waste while many poorer countries struggle to maintain theirs" is disturbing.

Indeed, no other European country has a spot on the "red list" of 30 Sites that are currently in danger of losing their status. Most of these endangered sites are in poor and violence-ravaged countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, to name just a few. (So far, UNESCO has struck only one other site from the list: the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman.)

Poll shows citizens unmoved

Still, Dresden's citizens do not seem much bothered by the threat of loss. In a snap survey of 500 people conducted for the local newspaper the Sächsische Zeiutung, 57 percent of those asked said the UNESCO title is not absolutely necessary. Younger people were generally less concerned than older folks, with a full 61 percent of those between 30 and 49 saying the city did not need the UNESCO heritage designation.

However, 44 percent complained that the city should have done more to maintain the title.

Rebuilding the city's symbolic Frauenkirche, from rubble

Dresden's reconstruction was hard-won

In two separate plebiscites, Dresden citizens have voted in favor of the bridge. Some city officials who support the project say that while Dresden might lose its official UNESCO designation, the bridge has become a symbol of something even more important for a post-Communist city like Dresden: citizen action.

"In a democracy, we cannot have a dictatorship of a minority that, acting out of cultural or aesthetic grounds, thinks they know more than the overwhelming majority of citizens," wrote Dresden city councilman Jan Mücke, in a commentary in the S-Z Online newspaper.

Symbol of democracy?

For Mücke, the construction of the Wadschloesschen Bridge is "a symbol of an educated and self-confident citizenry, which wants to make its own decisions without being criticized or accused of being culturally backwards."

Bridges have been an enriching part of the European landscape for centuries, Muecke added.

Now, it looks like the European landscape will have one more bridge - and one less landscape deemed worthy of a Cultural Heritage designation.

Author: Jennifer Abramsohn

Editor: Nick Amies

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