UNESCO honours Europe’s industrial legacy

Belgian Mine.jpg

This article is part of our special report Industrial revival.

SPECIAL REPORT / Former French and Belgian industrial mining districts were put on the UNESCO World Heritage list this month, joining a swelling number of European venues attempting to convert industrial grit into viable tourism and leisure industries.

The 120,000-hectare Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin featuring old mining pits and 140-metre-high slag heap was mainly chosen because of its workers' homes and villages, which date to the mid-19th century.

The high standard of industrial architecture was also a critical factor in the selection of  four Wallonian sites – forming a 170 kilometre-long strip straddling Belgium from east to west. UNESCO wants to protect the early industrial “utopian architecture” of the collieries and villages, which were built at the end of the 17th century.

UNESCO's industrial heritage listing

The former pits appear in this year’s World Heritage list alongside the more exotic site of Xanadu, the remains of Kublai Khan’s former legendary capital. But they continue a tradition that began in Europe when UNESCO listed Poland’s Wieliczka-Bochnia salt mines in 1978.

The UN body has listed as cultural heritage sites “Industrial Heritage Monuments and Properties" yet started to include "mining landscapes" or "mining regions" as a whole only in 1997.

Today, out of more than 60 industrial sites protected by the UNESCO, 24 relate to the mining industry, of which 15 are European.

The prestigious UNESCO recognition enables these often-deprived areas to attract redevelopment capital to fund preservation and tourism development.

The Blaenavon district in South Wales – the world's major producer of iron and coal in the 19th century – was listed in 2000.  It now boasts a museum of coal mining of international significance, with the conservation of Blaenavon Ironworks contributing to economic regeneration in one of the United Kingdom's poorest districts.

Cross-border application is waiting for UNESCO clearance

Europe’s dominance of the list is a testament of its glorious industrial heritage, and lobbying by the Stockholm-based International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage created in 1978, which recommends the best sites to be listed by UNESCO.

It is backed up by groups such as the European Route of Industrial Heritage, a body that seeks to preserve the industrial legacy of Europe across its earliest axis – from the UK, through the Netherlands and into Germany.

The group organises an annual event called the ExtraSchicht which celebrates the interplay of culture and former industrial plants, acting as a showcase for revival.

Although the event is based around the Essen-based Zollverein World Heritage Site in Germany’s Ruhr district, for the first time next year it will be staged with countries including the Czech Republic, France and Norway.

This reflects a new breed of cross-border UNESCO listing application: the 800-year old Ore Mountain mining region (Montanregion Erzgebirge) bordering Germany and the Czech Republic is the next European area vying to receive the accolade.

“The European Route of Industrial Heritage (ERIH) welcomes Europe’s initiative to get mining sites listed as UNESCO heritage,” said Christiane Baum, ERIH’s secretary-general. “Examples in the ERIH network like Colliery Zollverein in Essen/Germany, Voelklingen Ironworks (Saarland/Germany) or Big Pit in Blaenavon (UK) show that the appreciation of the sites increased tremendously since the listing and had a positive impact and economic effects on the whole area around the sites,” Baum said.

“Since its very beginnings, the aim of ExtraSchicht has been to arouse interest for the 400 kilometres of the route, and to play the structural and technical monuments of industrial history, museums and sites of the transformation with artistic productions. This is because the former production sites are not places for melancholy memories, having long since developed into lively spaces of industrial culture and attractive venues,” said a spokesman for ExtraSchicht.

“The success and potentiality of industrial heritage enhancement depends on many factors: first the conservation of material remains and technology, but also the interaction of these with other cultural resources, and with other industrial heritages. In this sense it might play the role of catalyst for cultural patrimony more broadly, especially in the context of UNESCO-listed territories,” said Francesco Calzolaio, the Venice-based president of Venti di Cultura and Member of Europa Nostra’s Industrial and Engineering Heritage Committee (IEHC).

“In the case of the new listed mining areas, as for many European cases, the listing arrives when the institutions already demonstrated their capability to build the sense of identity of the citizenship, and of their history, around the material and immaterial industrial heritage."

“In this way they reinforce also the cohesion of European citizenship, because industrial heritage is the cradle of the identity of Europe, being the first industrialised world,” Calzolaio concluded.

“Our Industrial Heritage has long been ignored in Europe because there was a perception that people did not want to visit such areas. Yet we see in the UK seven million people a year visit our Heritage Railways and now our old industrial sites and museums are attracting more and more visitors. I have often wondered how is it you are seen as cultured if you visit Ancient Athens or The Coliseum in Rome but if you visit a preserved railway you are seen as some kind of "odd ball",” commented Brian Simpson MEP (Socialists & Democrats; UK), the chairman of the Parliament’s transport and tourism committee.

“At last under Commissioner Tajani the European Commission has recognised the importance of industrial tourism to the EU and for the first time our industrial heritage has been recognised as an important part of the Tourism Action Plan. I am passionate about industrial heritage and what it could bring to our old industrial areas, and I welcome any initiatives that will encourage people to see firsthand how our forefathers lived and worked in the years 1820 to 1970,” Simpson added.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a place (such as a forest, mountain, lake, desert, monument or building) that is listed as of special cultural or physical significance.

The list is maintained by the international World Heritage Programme administered by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, composed of 21 states parties which are elected by their General Assembly.

The programme catalogues names and conserves sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Under certain conditions, listed sites can obtain funds from the World Heritage Fund.

The programme was founded with the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16 November 1972. Since then, 189 nations have ratified the convention.

  • July 2013: Or Mountain Region hoping to win UNESCO World Heritage Site status

Subscribe to our newsletters