Philadelphia is the United States' first World Heritage City

Philadelphia is the United States' first World Heritage City

Independence Hall (Wikimedia Commons)
Independence Hall, built in 1753, was the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the meeting place of the Second Continental Congress, and the site of the Constitutional Convention. The structure is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as the central building in Independence National Historic Park (Wikimedia Commons)

What do Safranbolu, Turkey; Gyeongju, Korea; Cidade Velha, Cape Verde; and Philadelphia, PA, have in common? They are all World Heritage Cities. On November 6, the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC) honored Philadelphia with a World Heritage City designation. Philadelphia is the first United States city to be recognized by the OWHC.

Built between 1855 and 1857, the Academy of Music is the oldest continually running opera house in the United States (Courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia / Flickr)

The mayor’s office and city leaders have been advocating for World Heritage City designation since 2013.

Independence Hall (Courtesy Eric Kilby / Flickr)

Philadelphia has the requisite historical chops: UNESCO named Independence Hall, where 18th century diplomats wielded pens over multiple founding documents, a World Heritage Site in 1979. In order to qualify as a World Heritage Site, a place or building must meet at least one of ten selection criteria. The selection criteria require a site to have a historical, political, cultural, aesthetic, scientific, or natural attributes of “outstanding universal value” to humankind.

Though UNESCO plays no role in designating World Heritage Cities, OWHC stipulates that a World Heritage City must have at least one UNESCO World Heritage Site. At its 13th annual gathering, the OWHC acknowledged Philadelphia’s political significance, voting to include the city in their pantheon of over 266 heritage cities at their latest meeting in Arequipa, Peru.

Benefits accrue to member cities. Through the OWHC, municipalities can share information on how to protect their cultural assets and promote heritage tourism. Mayor Michael Nutter hopes that the designation will increase investment in the city and strengthen its (already lucrative) heritage tourism sector.

Eastern State Penitentiary, built in 1829, was one of the first prisons to prioritize behavioral reform over punishment (Courtesy Nicolas Raymond / Flickr)

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and an OWHC designation brings visibility to a city’s heritage, and encourages travel to chosen sites. Sites are sometimes damaged, however, when designated cities lack the tourism infrastructure to support the increase in visitors. Critics have also called out the OWHC’s list for its profound Eurocentrism. Though Philadelphia is a Western city, it does have the capacity to support increased tourism that the World Heritage City title may engender.

Rowhouses in Fairmount, a neighborhood first settled in the 1600s (Courtesy GooseGoddessS / Flickr) Bartram’s house in Bartram’s Garden, established c. 1728, the oldest surviving botanical garden in North America (Courtesy The West End / Flickr)