Philadelphia seeks World Heritage designation

By Chris Hepp, Inquirer Staff Writer

Philadelphia, teetering on the edge of the world stage, wants a leading role.

Enter the Global Philadelphia Association.

GPA, in conjunction with Mayor Nutter's administration, is pressing the city's case that it should be added to the list of World Heritage Cities, a designation seen as a further boost to Philadelphia as an attraction for international tourists.

The city's efforts secured a visit last week from Denis Ricard, secretary general of the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC), who, for two days, received a whirlwind tour of the Philadelphia.

Among the stops were Independence Hall (already a World Heritage site), the Constitution Center, the Barnes Foundation, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the remade Navy Yard.

What caught Ricard's attention? The Navy Yard, of all places.

"I was very impressed at how you can re-use something that was of the past," he said.

The hope was to so impress Ricard that he will advocate for Philadelphia's admission into what now is a relatively exclusive club of 253 cities, none of which is in the United States. All are historic cities that have made a notable impact on the world.

The effort to secure World Heritage status is now two years old and is liable to take several years more, if it is to succeed, said Zabeth Teelucksingh, the GPA's executive director.

The city is pressing on two fronts.

One is the traditional path, which requires the National Park Service first to promote the city's candidacy to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which in turn must advance it to the State Department. The State Department then must agree to put the city's application forward to UNESCO, the world body that makes the final determination of World Heritage status.

There is an alternative, possibly quicker path, according to John Smith, a partner at the law firm Reed Smith and chairman of the GPA board.

The Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC) can designate members on its own, Smith said, thus the interest in wooing Ricard last week. Philadelphia has already been afforded "observer" status with the OWHC, which is headquartered in Quebec City.

Smith and Teelucksingh said Philadelphia has a strong case for World Heritage status.

"Our history is hugely important," Smith said. "It not only makes Philadelphia special, but it lines up with some of the themes that are important in the world as a whole."

Foremost is Philadelphia's role as the birthplace of modern democracy.

"The growth of constitutional democracy; we clearly showed the way for much of the globe in that regard," Smith said.

The city also can claim special status when it comes to religious toleration, he said.

The city's history as a leader in medicine and a nexus of great colleges and universities are also key.

"The Organization of World Heritage Cities is looking to the experience it believe resides in centers like Philadelphia," Smith said. "From an academic and city development standpoint, Philadelphia will have an opportunity both to teach and learn under the aegis of the organization. It is a tremendous opportunity."


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