With World Heritage City Liftoff Tomorrow, What Can We Expect?

 By Hilary Jay, journalist and founder of DesignPhiladelphia

Tomorrow morning at 11:30 in City Hall, Mayor Jim Kenney will proclaim May 26th World Heritage Day in Philadelphia. He’ll raise the first American World Heritage City (WHC) flag, read a proclamation, and unveil the WHC-Philadelphia logo and seal. WHC officials will present their aspirational goals and key strategies still in the making, among them the preservation of the city’s historical and cultural heritage and the stimulation of the region’s economy. These are lofty goals. Can they deliver?

This event is a culmination of work that began three years ago and that was affirmed last November when the Québec City-based Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC) named Philadelphia its 266th World Heritage City. But it is more substantially a liftoff for what organizers believe will be a long-term process of elevation and investment.

John F. Smith III, a powerful attorney and partner of the firm Reed Smith LLP, established Global Philadelphia Association (GPA) in 2010 in order to raise Philadelphia’s international profile. Within a year, Smith had hired an expert in global business and marketing, Tunisian-born Zabeth Teelucksingh, as executive director of GPA (he became board chair). Smith soon recognized that OWHC designation could be the ignition key to turn over Philadelphia’s international presence, as well as help Philadelphians think about their city differently. “This title,” says Smith, “is not a public relations campaign; it’s a demarcation, a status. It doesn’t come and go like the DNC or the Pope. It’s more of a tide than a splash.”

Smith’s implicit belief was the tide would redound to the city economic and cultural development. And that more value would accrue by engaging a wide range of community partners.

Following a “World Heritage Symposium” that GPA organized last October, advocates and partners are at work developing an action plan, to be presented to the public this summer. Among the goals of the plan: an increase in international trade and cultural exchange, heightened preservation of Philadelphia national landmarks (many of which are not protected by local regulations), and the creation of education curriculum.

Smith reached out to several close colleagues, including Alan Greenberger, then the deputy mayor and director of commerce, and now a professor and fellow of the Lundy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. Mayor Nutter pledged the City’s full participation. Officials formed a partnership between the City of Philadelphia and the Global Philadelphia Association.

To gain entry to the OWHC, an organization founded in 1991, cities need to possess one or more official United Nations Educational Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites, be it a large district like the medina of Fez, Morocco or a single site such as Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. (“The girl who got us to the ball,” is how Sylvie Gallier Howard, the deputy chief of staff in the City’s Commerce Department, describes Independence Hall.) Cities are either invited to present an application or they can assertively push for the chance. Success rides on local public and governmental commitment to OWHC’s bylaws, and buy-in to OWHC’s motto “Historic Cities, Memory of the World,” a kind of 21st century experiential concept that aspires to the breadth of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

There are no application forms for membership into the OWHC and no official guidelines, which perhaps has added to critics’ claims that Philadelphia was merely joining a private club. Making the case relies on the applicant city’s available resources, plus creative and scholarly strength. Early team members included: David Brownlee, University of Pennsylvania’s Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer professor of 19th-century European Art, and expert on Philadelphia architecture; Alan Jacobson, of brand strategy studios J2 Partnership and ex;it; Barry Eiswerth, an architect and retired partner of the firm H2L2/Nelson; Sylvie Gallier Howard, who worked under Greenberger at the time; Caroline Boyce, now outgoing executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia; and Teelucksingh and Smith.

The applicant pays all application costs. Philadelphia and Global Philadelphia racked up a hefty bill over two years developing an application strategy. Based on the number of professional hours put in, plus the fixed travel and promotional costs, several hundred thousand dollars have already been spent. Hard cash came from Global Philadelphia’s initiative fund, the City, and pro bono volunteers.

As the lead city official, Greenberger made the case for Philadelphia’s bid to become America’s first World Heritage City at OWHC’s World Congress in Arequipa, Peru last year.

“You need to get voted into the World Heritage City Club,” says brand strategist Alan Jacobson. “It’s kind of like getting into the baseball Hall of Fame. You don’t need a certain number of runs to get in. You just need to be accepted by the group.” Plus pay the annual membership dues–$10,000, a sum guaranteed by the City of Philadelphia (the U.S. government pays substantial annual dues to UNESCO, on account of U.S. World Heritage Sites, including Independence Hall).

When news broke last November that Philadelphia had become the first United States city in the OWHC, several media outlets reported the story incorrectly. Travel and Leisure hailed Philadelphia as “America’s first UNESCO World Heritage City.” Ditto for LonelyPlanet.com, Fox News, and skift.com, “the largest global travel industry intelligence.”

In “World Heritage City? Not Exactly,” Hidden City writer Ryan Briggs parsed out the difference between a classified UNESCO world heritage site and being a member of the OWHC. Unlike UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, “Philadelphia’s membership in OWHC doesn’t entail any special historic protections or funding for restoration,” he wrote. Yet, misinformation and confusion has persisted because, in part, the website of Global Philadelphia continues to post the erroneous articles. The confusion has led some observers, including those who spoke to Briggs, to essentially deem the designation a farce, a public relations ploy, even a “a dangerous delusion.” Some say that the OWHC seal is honorary at best, available to every city with an UNESCO site and the willingness to pay annual dues promptly. That’s 400+ cities around the world—not all that exclusive. Some antagonists argued that without UNESCO’s full imprimatur through the naming of a city or district-wide World Heritage Site, the designation will do little to nothing to protect Philadelphia’s legacy architecture.

Some of these arguments have merit, but as Smith says, the conversation distracts from the very real work of leveraging OWHC membership for the benefit of the city. It has the potential to be a powerful tool for everyone—privileged and underserved—in the five county region, backers say.

Independence Hall received its UNESCO World Heritage site status in 1979 for its historic architecture, of course, but perhaps more importantly the designation refers to the ideals incased in the bricks and mortar: the birth of democracy, and the impact that political system has contributed to global politics over the past three centuries. “Preservationists wondered why we didn’t get a UNESCO designation [for the entire city or a large district],” says the City’s Gallier Howard. “This project is not so much about preserving a specific building, it’s about furthering big ideas,” to put the culture of innovation that produced Independence Hall to use for the contemporary city.

Brownlee, the Penn professor, mapped Philadelphia’s historical timeline, authenticating this as a city of firsts. Philadelphia is home to the first American library, the first hospital, the first stock exchange, the first trade show, the first fine arts academy, the first slavery abolition society, the first lick of ice cream. “The human capacity to innovate and change is particularly powerful at certain times in [Philadelphia’s] history,” Brownlee says.

Denis Richard, secretary general of the Organization of World Heritage Cities, notes that designation doesn’t obligate a city to do anything at all. On the other hand, the active cities that participate on the OWHC board, host World Congresses, and contribute to the organization’s committees clearly stand out. John Smith and the World Heritage City team intend to reshape Philadelphia into an international beacon. An admirable goal to a considerable number of people.

Philadelphia’s membership puts the city in a group with places like Paris, Rome, St Petersburg, Amsterdam, and Zanzibar; active cities in the group form valuable economic and cultural alliances, alluring to the Global Philadelphia team. Architect Barry Eiswerth, who along with Harold Epps, the City’s commerce director, is a vice chairman of the Philadelphia OWHC effort and co-leader of the arts and culture component. During his tenure at H2L2, Eiswerth oversaw the creation of more than 70 schools in South America, Europe, and Asia. “Many international places that Philadelphia is now connected to within the OWHC community,” he says.

That connection among World Heritage Cites cannot be underestimated. The mayor of OWHC member Sintra, Portugal, Basilio Horta, came to America in late March for the meeting of Organizations of Economic Cooperation and Development in New York, says Lauren Swartz, recently appointed the City’s director of international business investment. Epps invited Horta to visit Philadelphia. On March 28th, a group comprised of city officials, Global Philadelphia, and the Portuguese contingency began discussion on the potential for developing mutually beneficial trade agreements in the energy sector.

Six weeks later, on May 5th, Jorge Gabriel, a senior executive with the Luso-American Development Foundation, a non-profit promoting economic, social and cultural relations between Portugal and the U.S., also travelled to America for an East Coast conference. Members of Select Greater Philadelphia, Global Philadelphia and the City met with him to focus on economic development, scientific cooperation, and education. Talks continue and ideas for business development are being explored, says Swartz.

At Global Philadelphia’s World Heritage Symposium in October, about 150 people joined together to strategize how to leverage OWHC designation. This was, and is, a diverse group, including senior staff of the Philadelphia International Airport, the City’s Immigration Office, Visit Philly, Select Greater Philadelphia, the Consular Corps Association, Citizen Diplomacy, Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, the Economy League, Temple University, the Free Library, Deloitte, Taller Puertoriqueno, Lantern Theater Company, Al Bustan Seeds of Culture, Bodine High School, Al-Jazeera America, the American Jewish Committee, CHOP, Nicetown CDC, and many more.

Eight working teams developed from the symposium, each with a specific topic to explore and envision concrete solutions: from increasing property values to expanding global enterprise & competitiveness; extending hospitality & tourism to improving arts & culture revenue; providing education reform to preservation of Philadelphia’s National Historic Landmarks. The eight working teams drew up proposals to be synthesized into one long document, the Project’s strategic plan.

Until Global Philadelphia officials roll out the complete strategic plan in early summer, steps are being taken to insure the public’s understanding of the opportunities at hand. GPA, and the film production company History Making Productions, led by Sam Katz, produced a short film (which Brownlee wrote and Katz directed), “Philadelphia: The Nation’s First World Heritage City.” The film provides historical context for the city’s present-day heritage story and the potential for what lies ahead. It premiered to an audience of about 100 people at the Center for Architecture on May 6th, and will continue to be shown across the city during the next several months.

Smith says his agenda is to derive a “universal appraisal of who we are as a city.” Over the past two years, Smith and the ever-evolving team of some 200 people began to recognize that the concept of “World Heritage,” represented by landmarks like Independence Hall or ruins like Paestum and Velia archeological sites, or the Taos Pueblo Indian settlement, are mainly appreciated by a rarified sector of preservation and culturally minded individuals. “World Heritage is not only for a particular group of people, but includes every county, every neighborhood, every community and what they have brought to this city,” says Smith. By creating ways to tell everyone’s story—from 52nd Street to Front, Wolf Street to Aramingo, Green Street to Normandy—Global Philadelphia expects to raise the status of Philadelphia’s collective heritage both at home and abroad.

“Community outreach and educational initiatives will bring the Project to every corner of Philadelphia in order to inspire every Philadelphian to take pride in his or her heritage, along with that of the City as a whole, and to make it possible for every child to be successful in the 21st century,” says Smith. That work began to unfold in a pilot program earlier this month at Andrew Jackson Public School in South Philadelphia. Launching World Heritage Education Week, the Education Working Group created the Philadelphia World Heritage Toolkit, consisting of 35 lesson plans related to global education for grades K-12. The objective is to replicate the curriculum but funds will have to be raised first.

Tomorrow, when Mayor Kenney raises the World Heritage City flag, he’ll likely to be thinking about OWHC, a legacy of the Nutter administration he often tries to distance himself from, and the City’s public-private partnership with the Global Philadelphia Association. From the start of his administration, Mayor Kenney committed his allegiance, staff time, and some funds to the long-term success of the initiative.

“Is it a fast fix?” Smith asks and then concedes, “No.” Ultimately, the project is a patience game. Ten years from now, will there be more economic and educational opportunities to empower new Philadelphia ideas and innovations? Wait and see.

“There’s a stubborn idealism about Philadelphia, as we continually readjust to the times. Though Philadelphia is hardly the Quaker town it was founded as, we remain modest about our greatness,” Brownlee says. But, Smith adds, being the first is equally part of our DNA.


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Hilary Jay is a journalist and founder of DesignPhiladelphia. She is also a senior cultural anthropologist within [email protected] at Thomas Jefferson University, an anti-disciplinary design research unit dedicated to redefining health and human dignity in medicine, health and wellness.