So why would the world’s No. 1 tourist destination, which regularly earns recognition for everything from its courtesy, romance and restaurants to its outdoor activities and arts, need another accolade? Because Charleston is much more than all that. Being designated as a World Heritage Site would recognize the city’s outstanding universal value.
A recently formed Charleston World Heritage Coalition is working toward applying for the honor based on some of the city’s most notable government, institutional and church buildings. The buildings tell the story of architectural styles spanning four centuries, early American architects, skilled slave craftsmen, early philanthropy and early inclusivity for immigrants and religious refugees.
And by the time the necessary and extensive research is completed, the buildings will have more stories to tell about their history and the city’s connections to the wider world.
The process is exacting and the odds of winning the designation are small. The last four applications by the United Kingdom to inscribe sites on the list all failed.
But the coalition here, the result of local businessman Stephen Ziff donating enough money to get the process rolling, is enthusiastic.
One advantage this application would have is that World Heritage Sites must have preservation plans. Charleston’s commitment to preservation is nothing new, and is backed by law. The Board of Architectural Review, for example.
At present, the World Heritage list includes 981 places of cultural or natural importance. Canada and Mexico both have cities with World Heritage Site designation, but not the United States. Grand Canyon National Park, Independence Hall, Everglades National Park, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, yes. But no city. Not yet.
If the local effort succeeds, expect the tourist industry to reflect the victory. Some travelers, including Mr. Ziff, make it a point to seek out World Heritage Sites while traveling.
But other sites have enjoyed additional benefits. Businesses have shown an interest in visiting and locating nearby. The economy has improved. And the community’s pride has grown.
While Charleston has safeguards, World Heritage Sites also are held to high standards. Dresden in Germany was deleted from the list in 2009 because of a bridge that was judged to have undermined its universal value.
The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage program has been asked to intervene in Edinburgh, Scotland, where a developer plans to build hotels near the famous Royal Mile. The Old and New towns of Edinburgh are a World Heritage Site.
Some will question whether seeking the designation is worth the effort and expense — up to $1 million. What difference does it make for residents?
But those same people will agree that Charleston is an extraordinary place and its public buildings tell an important story. It would make a splendid addition to the list of World Heritage Sites.