Highlights from the 15th World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities

In the underground ballroom of a 600-year-old salt mine, City Representative Sheila Hess accepted Philadelphia’s nomination to join the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC) Board of Directors on behalf of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. 

Philadelphia joined the OWHC in 2015 and became America’s first World Heritage City. The successful application, spearheaded by Global Philadelphia Association (GPA), allowed Philadelphia to join an extensive international community. Membership in the OWHC has connected Philadelphia to a network of over 300 cities around the world and has provided access to a collective intelligence regarding the urban management of UNESCO World Heritage Cities.

The OWHC oversees the exchange of ideas by hosting a range of conferences and meetings, most recently including the 15th World Congress they hosted from June 2 - 5, 2019, in Krakow, Poland.

Given the honor of speaking at the first session of the 2019 Congress, Philadelphia’s delegation addressed the theme of “Communicating Heritage.” Our city’s representatives used the opportunity to share their expertise, discussing Philadelphia’s efforts to use inclusive methods of communication to build World Heritage awareness. Zabeth Teelucksingh, Executive Director of Global Philadelphia Association, was the first of our delegates to speak and expounded on GPA's work to bring together the city’s public and private sectors.

GPA itself exists at the crossroads of government, business, and the arts and uses its connections to foster greater interactivity among the many organizations and people who are engaged in one form or another of international activity within the Greater Philadelphia Region. Two of GPA's flagship events, Philadelphia World Heritage Day and the World Heritage City Celebration, are prime examples of this work. A collaboration between GPA and the City of Philadelphia, World Heritage Day was designated as an official holiday by Mayor Kenney in 2016, occuring the fourth Thursday of each May, and promotes awareness of the city’s heritage. Additionally, the annual World Heritage City Celebration highlights Philadelphia’s global network, bringing together representatives from both the public and private spheres.

Teelucksingh’s speech was followed by a presentation from Cynthia MacLeod, Superintendent of Independence National Historic Park. MacLeod discussed lingual inclusivity and specifically highlighted the Park Service’s work to make Independence Hall and Independence Park more accessible. In particular, the National Park Service has increased the availability of historical vignettes and tours in multiple languages beyond English. A site of international importance and popularity, Philadelphia Business Journal reports that Independence National Historic Park was the city’s most popular tourist attraction with 4,576,456 visitors in 2018 alone

MacLeod expanded on this theme of inclusivity by describing the community’s efforts to have diverse voices represented in the park’s history, evident in the restoration of the President’s House. Before the White House opened in 1800, a rented mansion in Philadelphia was home to the first two presidents of the United States, George Washington and John Adams. Part of the household included nine slaves, which Washington brought with him from his estate in Virginia. Community members across the city wanted to explore the story of these slaves and the paradox of having slaves serving under a “free” government. By focusing on slavery, the exhibit presents history that has not been traditionally explored and has helped to diversify Philadelphia’s heritage sites by presenting new perspectives. 

Hess was the final member of Philadelphia’s delegation to speak. She described Philadelphia’s legacy as a welcoming city, speaking to the history of celebrating the cultures and heritages of its international populations. As proof of the city’s commitment to this cause, she cited a recent vote in which Philadelphians approved of the measure to make the Office of Immigrant Affairs a permanent fixture within the city’s government. She also referenced the Philadelphia Honors Diversity Flag Raising Program, which enables different immigrant groups to celebrate their heritage by flying their respective national flag above City Hall. The flag raising ceremonies serve as a testament to the strength of Philadelphia’s relationship with its immigrant communities, as well as a sign of its commitment to preserve their heritage. Hess concluded by discussing the Wawa Welcome America Festival, which is held in Philadelphia every year to celebrate America's birthday. Widely popular, the festival is a private-public collaboration and offered over 50 free cultural events in 2019. 

But the real highlight of the World Congress, as previously touched on, was Mayor Kenney's nomination and successful appointment to serve on the OWHC Board of Directors. Kenney, the first U.S. mayor ever to serve, will fulfill a two-year term on the OWHC’s eight-man board. This opportunity is an honor for our city to be recognized on a global stage and will help strengthen our relationships around the world.


Article written by Scott Blum-Woodland on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association