It is devastating to witness the death throes of so many cities. Splendid, opulent, hectic, for centuries, sometimes millennia, they had survived the vicissitudes of history: war, pestilence, earthquakes. But now, one after another, they are withering, emptying, becoming reduced to theatrical backdrops against which a bloodless pantomime is staged. Where once life throbbed, and cantankerous humanity elbowed its way, pushing and shoving, now you will find only snack bars and stalls—all of them the same—selling ‘local specialities’: muslins, batiks, cottons, beach wraps, bracelets. What was once a living torrent, full of shouts and fury, is now safely enclosed in a travel brochure. The death sentence is delivered from an elegant building in Paris—Place Fontenoy, Seventh Arrondissement—after a long drawn-out bureaucratic process. The verdict is a label that cannot be removed—a brand, stamped on forever.footnote1

unesco’s ‘World Heritage’ listing is the kiss of death. Once the label is affixed, the city’s life is snuffed out; it is ready for taxidermy. This urbicide—horrible word—is not perpetrated deliberately. On the contrary, it is committed in all good faith and with the loftiest of intentions: to preserve—unaltered—a ‘legacy’ of humanity. As the word suggests, to ‘preserve’ means to embalm, to freeze, to save something from temporal decay; but here it also means halting time, fixing the object as in a photograph, protecting it from growth and change. There are, of course, monuments that need to be looked after. But if the Acropolis had been under a conservation order in 450 bc, we would not now have the Parthenon, the Propylaeum or the Erechtheum. unesco would have been horrified by the Rome of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which produced an admirable potpourri of neoclassicism, mannerism and the baroque.

It is not impossible to strike a balance between construction and preservation—to live in cities full of museums and works of art, rather than in mausoleums with dormitory suburbs. Not long ago I went back to San Gimignano for the first time in thirty years. There was not a single genuine butcher, greengrocer or baker within its walls. But in fact, once the bars, restaurants and souvenir shops had closed for the night, none of San Gimignano’s inhabitants were to be found in the old city—they all live outside its walls, in modern apartment blocks close to shopping centres. Within them, everything has become a set for a medieval costume movie, with the inevitable products of ‘invented tradition’ on commercial display. The smaller the city, the quicker its demise.

The Laotian city of Luang Prabang has suffered the same fate. Its historic centre is now a tourist trap. Its houses have been converted into hotels and restaurants, with the usual street market—identical the world over—selling the same necklaces, woven bags and leather belts. Paradoxically, the unintended consequence of wanting to preserve the uniqueness of a place is to produce a ‘non-place’, one that is replicated at World Heritage sites across the planet. Just as one has to leave the medieval walls to find the true inhabitants of San Gimignano, so one has to cycle a mile along the Phothisalath Road, beyond Phu Vao, to find where the Laotians live. Or take Portugal: walking through Porto, the invisible frontier of the World Heritage quarter is immediately perceptible: the heterogeneous humanity of its urban fabric gives way as if by magic to a monoculture of innkeepers, bar-tenders and waiters, touting for customers who will be instantly recognizable by their clothes—shorts, hiking boots—which are radically unsuitable for city wear. In Britain, few places are as deadly as the historic centres of Bath and Edinburgh.footnote2 Notably, both host festivals, the inevitable function of a World Heritage city. Venice has the film festival and several biennales, Avignon a theatre festival, Spoleto, in Umbria, has its Festival dei Due Mondi. In other cases—Salzburg, Bayreuth—a prestigious festival provides the rationale for unesco listing. These towns are given World Heritage status because they are already theatrical backdrops, picturesque still-lifes; conversely, the theatrical or musical performances the label attracts can afford them a semblance of vitality.

The World Heritage rescue operation all too often cures the disease by killing the patient. The old city of Rhodes and the acropolis of Lindos, on the same island, are cases in point. Saving a heap of stones does not mean saving a city and an urban culture. In this respect, the analogy between cultural heritage sites and natural parks is misleading. Nature reserves are created to multiply the existing fauna and flora, whereas the human fauna of World Heritage cities are forced to flee as the practicalities of daily life become impossible. The citizens of Dresden, ‘the Florence of Germany’, recently rebelled against this fate. The city and the surrounding Elbe Valley were awarded World Heritage status in 2004—but there was a snag: the good people of Dresden wanted to avoid traffic jams as they crossed the Elbe, so they needed a new bridge; unesco was opposed, claiming it would ruin the landscape. The matter was put to a referendum: a majority of the inhabitants voted in favour, even at the risk of losing World Heritage status, which was duly rescinded in 2009. In August 2013 the citizens celebrated the inauguration of their new bridge.