A delegation of San Antonio leaders has convened in Bonn, Germany for the 39th Session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and an anticipated Sunday decision on the U.S. bid to see the Missions and the Alamo named a World Heritage site.
You can watch live-streamed deliberations of the 21-country committee, which is meeting June 28-July 8, and at least for now, is grappling with existing World Heritage sites under serious threat of damage and destruction.
Civil war, terrorism, the collapse of autocratic government, and the aftermath of a devastating earthquake threaten sites in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Click here to read about threatened sites in Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan and Congo. There is intensifying concern about the destruction of ancient and sacred sites by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The committee also approved a five-year protection plan for the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where the government has been on the defensive after international environmental groups Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Foundation presented evidence to the Committee that mining practices and a lack of government oversight were degrading the Reef and placing it at risk.
“Heritage is under attack today. In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, we see the brutal and deliberate destruction of heritage on an unprecedented scale. This is a call for action,” declared the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova in UNESCO's opening declaration, an appeal to all parties to cease the destruction.
“Our response to ignorance and criminal stupidity, must also have a cultural dimension: Knowledge, the sharing of Islam’s millennial learning and wisdom, sharing the message of Palmyra, the Venice of the Sands, that is like a bridge between the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome, the Persian Empire and the Arab culture from ancient times to the present,” said the Director-General before speaking of the launch in Baghdad three months ago of the #Unite4Heritage campaign.
The Committee session is being held at the World Conference Center in Bonn, the post-World War II capital of Germany until the federal government moved back to Berlin in 1999, nearly a decade after Reunification of West Germany and East Germany.
Sunday is San Antonio Day
In two days, the focus of the Committee will turn to San Antonio and the U.S. bid, which received an important endorsement from the International Council on Monuments and Sites in advance of the annual UNESCO meeting.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Mayor Ivy Taylor, Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3), San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott and San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez, among others, will meet over dinner Friday with U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO Crystal Nix-Hines to review the U.S. bid. Ambassador Nix-Hines, who is based in Paris, will make the formal presentation and field questions from Committee members on Sunday, and a decision is expected to be made in the same session.
"We have a strong delegation here, so people know we support the initiative," Judge Wolff said in a Thursday interview. Officially, we are observers, not supposed to be doing a lot of lobbying, so we have to be careful. We think the decision will be Sunday about 1 p.m. (6 a.m. CST). Sometimes the Committee chairman will make a motion that if there is no objection the World Heritage designation is approved, and sometimes it comes to a vote."
(Readers who want to watch the live-streamed presentation and discussion can bookmark this link.)
If the Missions and Alamo are granted the coveted World Heritage designation, local officials anticipate a new wave of cultural tourism in the city. The experience of other cities and communities around the world with World Heritage sites suggests the designation itself is not necessarily enough to generate that kind of economic activity and cultural tourism. The designation has to be matched by local efforts to make a visit to the site a memorable experience. For San Antonio that likely means investing in the blighted neighborhoods and avenues that lie between downtown and the Missions.
Mayor Taylor said the challenge can be seen as an opportunity to increase City efforts to make the urban core a more attractive place to live, work and visit. Taylor said she has long advocated for city policies to incentivize inner city redevelopment and the use of bond monies to fund more affordable housing. The attention World Heritage designation would bring to San Antonio's near-Southside would be one more reason for the new City Council to sharpen its focus on such initiatives, she said.
"I have wanted to do something on housing since before the 2012 bond," Taylor said Thursday, reached by phone in Bonn. "There was a group of us that tried to put together a last-minute package back then, but we were too late, so I'm very excited that there is a lot of interest now on the Council in doing it for the 2017 bond."
The mayor's SA Tomorrow initiative, a three-tired comprehensive planning process, anticipates San Antonio 2040, a city that will grow by one million people and double its geographic reach unless new policies contain the sprawl. Policies could be devised to incentivize developers to move from suburban green fields back into the city.
There also is a growing debate over the City's plans to undertake the first new annexation efforts in decades. Such annexation brings in new tax revenue, but with it, considerable infrastructure and service obligations.
The future cost of continued sprawl and annexation will have to be considered in the context of how the City also dedicates resources to fund the continued revitalization of its urban core -- not just the downtown and Broadway Corridor, but also the Eastside, Westside and Southside. Affordable housing is considered key to that redevelopment.
Mayor Taylor said she wants to see a plan that starts small, wins citizen support, and can then be scaled up as confidence in the plan grows with it. She expressed reservations about a call by Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert Jr. for the City and County to jointly invest $200 million in a new housing plan that was reported earlier this week in the Express-News.
"I'm cautious about Commissioner Calvert's idea," Taylor said. "We have to make sure we have the voters' support, and that we know exactly how the money will be spent, and through which agencies and organizations it will flow. Accountability is critical. I think it might be smarter to start smaller, and build on something that works, build on success, and after that, expand and do more."
Sister City Pursuits
In addition to Mayor Taylor and Councilmember Viagran, the City's delegation includes Chief of Protocol and Head of International Relations Sherry Dowlatshahi and International Relations Communications Specialist Jean-Luc Mette, a German native. The group is exploring the possibility of developing a Sister City relationship with a German city while it is in Bonn for the World Heritage session.
San Antonio has nine Sister City relationships, but none on the European continent. An effort during the administration of Mayor Phil Hardberger to establish a Sister City relationship with Dresden, Germany was not successful. Cities often establish sister city relationships to build cultural ties that can then lead to economic ties.
The City is now focusing on the German cities of Darmstadt, known as the "City of Science" in Germany, and Essen, which has won designation as the European Green Capital 2017, an annual recognition given by the European Commission. Both cities would connect San Antonio to Germany's research and development-driven economy.
"We went to Darmstadt today, and we met with the Mayor (Jochen Partsch) there," Mayor Taylor said. "We signed a letter of intent to exchange information about our two cities, and to build a relationship that could lead to a Sister City agreement. They call themselves the 'City of Science' and they have a focus on science and cyber, and they once were home to a U.S. military base that closed in 2008.
"The mayor was very welcoming and there is talk of them visiting us, perhaps for Fiesta," Taylor said. "It's a smaller city, less than 200,000 people, but with a lot going for it. They were having a big festival today, similar to Fiesta, with a downtown carnival, celebrating the American liberation of their city at the end of WWII. They have their own Sept. 11, which was in 1944 when the British bombed their city and almost destroyed it, and then the Americans came in 1945 and they said they were liberated. It was interesting to hear people say we liberated them."
Mayor Taylor will lead the San Antonio delegation to Essen on Friday, both cities easily reachable from Bonn by Germany's excellent train service.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly calculated the time difference between San Antonio (CST) and Bonn, Germany. Europe is seven hours ahead of CST. The decision will be made at about 6 a.m. CST.
*Featured/top image: San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor and Darmstadt Mayor Jochen Partsch shake hands after signing the letter of intent as Councilmember Rebecca Viagran and Darmstadt look on. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.