14th World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities

Article by Charlotte Thomas, GPA Ambassador

At the end of October, five delegates from the Global Philadelphia Association and the City of Philadelphia were fortunate to represent Philadelphia in the 14th World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC) in Gyeongju, South Korea. As Philadelphia joined the prestigious organization of World Heritage Cities in 2015, it was a great opportunity to showcase Global Philadelphia’s strategic plan to promote preservation and appreciation of the US’s first World Heritage City. It was also a chance to share Philly’s rich history and culture that merits this designation with the other 95 World Heritage Cities in attendance.

The events of this celebration of the preservation and development of historic cities began on Monday, October 30. Gyeongju provided ample activities and entertainment, beginning with visits to Gyeongju historic areas inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This tour, that boasts Gyeongju is home to three statuary and architectural UNESCO World Heritage sites, offers insight into the great cultural richness of the city. A significant historical place, Gyeongju was the cradle of the Kingdom of Silla, which succeeded in the first historical unification of the Korean peninsula.

Since this OWHC Congress was notably the first of its kind in a city of the Asian continent, it was particularly important that attendees experience the indispensable contributions that this area of the world offers humanity as a whole. These were gleaned through the city of Gyeongju throughout the Congress.

On Tuesday October 31, day two, delegates enjoyed a picturesque opening ceremony. A performance depicting the tale of an ancient love story from the Silla era took place at Woljeonggyo in the company of the citizens of Gyeongju.  Succeeding this included four more events including a tightrope walker, Taekwondo demonstration and b-boy dancing, a young girls’ and boys’ choir media art show, and a performance by internationally recognized pop star, Lena Park. Hundreds of people attended the public event, and it also included words from Mr. Denis Ricard, Secretary General of the OWHC, Mr. Yangsik Choi, Mayor of Gyeongju, and Mr. Nakyeon Lee, Prime Minister of Korea, Prof. Michael Turner, Chargé de mission to the Director of UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and Mr. Kwanyong Kim, Governor of Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, who praised Gyeongju as the perfect place to discuss tools for community building in World Heritage Cities, due to the city’s combination of traditional heritage and modern, urban aesthetic.

The presentation was not only an exciting prelude for the wide variety of impressive Korean culture, events, and performances that would manifest throughout the Congress, but it was also an aptly stimulating precursor to the much-awaited exchange of dialogue between World Heritage Cities. Board Chair and Executive Director of GPA, John Smith III and Zabeth Teelucksingh respectively, were able to connect with both the Mayor of Gyeongju, Mr. Choi, as well as Board Members of the OWHC which includes representatives from World Heritage Cities such as: Quebec, Bergen, Toledo, Rhodes, Cuenca, Beemster, Sintra, and Lyon.

“An interesting connection that we shared with Mr. Choi [Mayor of Gyeongju] was that his son was attending the University of Pennsylvania. This just demonstrates that Philadelphia is already a city that has global influence, and it was more than serendipitous chance that we shared this link” commented Melissa Stevens, GPA’s World Heritage Coordinator who also connected with the Mayor at the Congress.

The core discussions between representatives took place on Wednesday, November 1, World Scientific Day. They aimed to address the theme of this year’s Congress, “Heritage & Communities: Tools to Engage Local Communities”. Philadelphia was selected as one out of seven World Heritage Cities that was chosen to present during this day, including Brussels, Oaxaca de Juarez, George Town, Tarragona, Quebec, and Cordoba.  Professor Michael Turner, UNESCO Chair in Urban Design and Conservation Studies at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem began the session with a keynote address concerning the promotion of local communities as managers of cultural heritage. Subsequently, each of the seven cities expounded on specific projects that demonstrated the best practices for community engagement within their domains.

Philadelphia shared the initiative to incorporate World Heritage education into the Greater Philadelphia school system. They highlighted their work with partners such as the Tilden School and the William Penn Charter School, to illustrate the necessity that the community within a World Heritage City feels that there is a sense of common ownership of the culture and history in the city. It is also just as important that the public assume a shared responsibility in the conservation of these shared assets, to identify, protect, and promote its value.

Six following exhibitions included similar ideas, as well as tools to encourage local communities into actively engaging with cultural and historical city resources. In the last session, two OWHC regional secretariats, Matthias Ripp, regional coordinator of the Secretariat of Northern Europe and North America and World Heritage Coordinator of the City of Regensburg, and Jahyun Jang, Assistant Regional Coordinator of the Secretariat of Asia-Pacific, explained their accomplishments over the past two years with community participation. They looked at specific techniques and tools for measuring levels of community engagement. The Northern Europe and North America Secretariat also offered tools to augment city engagement in cultural and historical development through a photo competition, a city-to-city visit program, and a creative youth travel project. To increase community engagement, they also suggested a training workshop that is open to representatives of Philadelphia to attend. Additionally, a consensus that the preservation of resources is not the end goal but that it should be seen as a tool of urban development resonated throughout in talks throughout the Congress.   

In subsequent meetings, Philadelphia had the opportunity to present in front of 95 cities from 52 countries. They participated in several regional secretariat meetings on November 2nd, where they discussed collaboration between cities and regional programs. The last day, November 3rd, Philadelphia representative, Sylvie Gallier Howard, Chief of Staff for the Philadelphia Department of Commerce presented a letter written by Philadelphia Mayor, Jim Kenney during the General Assembly of the OWHC.

Overall, Philadelphia had a strong presence at the 14th World Congress. Both in meetings in addition to presentations during the Scientific Day, they showcased that Philadelphia has been and always will be a city that benefits from its far-reaching, global reputation. They also held an exhibition with a booth that promoted Philadelphia as a place to not only visit, but to also live and conduct international business.

Philadelphia delivers not only because it has culturally and historically rich assets that have helped it to reach a prestigious designation, but because it is a city with a solid, caring community that will continue to support fellow World Heritage Cities in future growth opportunities.

View photos of the event