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.