The romanticism of John Ruskin apart, Bruges has long had a tradition of civic engagement around the question of conservation of its urban heritage. Particularly during the post war years the development of the city has been closely monitored by a series of motivated individuals, heritage pressure groups and politicians in opposition – who have often been successful in mobilising public opinion to influence city policy, championing conservation and preservation.
It is therefore no surprise that the designation of the city centre as UNESCO World Heritage Site some 10 years ago, was accompanied by the establishment of an umbrella group within the city. “SOS Brugge” has adopted the position as vociferous guardian of the urban heritage under the UNESCO banner and has recently reignited discussion by pressing forcefully on the alarm bell. Apparently independently, this watchdog organisation has mobilised UNESCO inspectors to visit the city and draw up a “state of play” report which mentions that “ there are signals appearing which demonstrate gradual erosion of the singular universal values of World Heritage in respect of the Historic Centre of Bruges”.
While it is not so clear how formal any UNESCO position may become as a result of this initiative, the topic is once more reignited in the public arena. Quite apart from political positioning, which undoubtedly plays some role, the polarised opinions once again remind us of the ongoing and challenging tensions in our most historic and also by definition contemporary cities.
Dries Van den Abeele of SOS Brugge:
“ The city authorities have underestimated the pre-conditions to be respected as World Heritage Site – you may not just build what you want, there are those who think that wind turbines can be built next to the city gates or modern offices constructed next to the railway station, or that a 19th century convent can be demolished to make way for new apartments. The conditions imposed to respect the historic urban landscape as a whole are not being met by policy makers who want to instigate change”
Patrick Moenaert, Mayor of Bruges:
“ To lose UNESCO classification would be terrible. Neither is it the objective to preserve the city like a picture postcard within which nothing can be altered. Bruges is not a shrine but a city which lives and must continue to live in the 21st century”
If, as is suggested, the situation in Bruges will be subject of discussion at the UNESCO end July congress in Brazil, it might be a debate worth following. Graz and Edinburgh revisited?
URBACT Pole Manager