What do San Antonio, Timbuktu, and Paducah, Kentucky have in common? They’ve all been recognized in some way by UNESCO, the United Nations agency for education, science, and culture. The Paris-based agency operates one of the U.N.’s most recognizable brands with the World Heritage Sites program, whose designations are solid gold for tourism and create globally-recognized civic pride. It also supports cities’ cultural sectors with its Creative Cities Network, which on Tuesday announced 64 new members as part of the U.N.’s observance of World Cities Day.
But for U.S. cities, those benefits could be on the chopping block. In mid-October, the Trump administration declared that the U.S. would withdraw from UNESCO, claiming its member nations have an anti-Israel bias. Palestine became a UNESCO member in 2011, which prompted the Obama administration to stop paying annual dues of $80 million. But when the agency’s voting members recognized the Old City of Hebron in the Occupied West Bank as a Palestinian, rather than Israeli, cultural heritage site earlier this year, the current administration reacted by withdrawing the U.S. entirely (the Reagan administration pulled a similar move in the 1980s over a perceived pro-Soviet bias).
The decision could make many U.S. cities collateral damage in a geopolitical spat. Seven of the 21 World Heritage Sites on U.S. soil can be found in cities big and small, from the Statue of Liberty in New York to the ancient Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Illinois. While the U.S. pullout won’t threaten the status of these existing sites, it does potentially put on hold future designations of places like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Alabama Civil Rights Movement sites in Birmingham and Montgomery, and the Wright Brothers’ aviation landmarks in Dayton, Ohio. They currently sit on the U.S. “tentative list” awaiting an up-or-down vote from the countries party to the World Heritage Convention, an international treaty that UNESCO administers.
Multiple experts believe that the U.S.’s impending observer status, once the pull-out becomes effective on December 31, 2018, will make the country ineligible for future inscriptions on the World Heritage List until it rejoins the organization and starts paying its dues.
“World Heritage status is coveted by many cities,” says Lee Minaidis, deputy secretary-general of the Organization of World Heritage Cities. “The status can serve as an incentive to preserve historic monuments, to develop new economic activities or revive traditional arts and crafts, thus creating jobs and revenue, as well as to instill pride in the cities’ inhabitants for their cultural heritage.”
In San Antonio, where the city’s Spanish missions—including the Alamo—have been a World Heritage Site since 2015, the response was swift. “Withdrawing from UNESCO is a shortsighted move that is more about politics, not about sound public policy,” city councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, who spearheaded the designation process, told the local Fox affiliate. “The international bonds San Antonio has solidified as a result of the World Heritage designation are invaluable to us as a community and growing city. We must continue to work together, not isolate ourselves, to strengthen San Antonio’s status as a global city.”
The connection with UNESCO can be invaluable for cities, especially in the wake of disaster. In 2012, the Saharan center of Islamic learning in Timbuktu was nearly razed to the ground during Mali’s civil war. A team led by Timbuktu’s chief librarian ferreted out precious historic documents to safety in dramatic fashion. Once the hostilities ceased, UNESCO’s archaeologists, historians, and preservationists streamed in to help restore the city’s World Heritage Sites.
“Our cultural goods were almost completely destroyed,” Malian heritage consultant Hawa Deme, who served on her country’s delegation to the agency, tells CityLab. “UNESCO is the key partner that helped rebuild all that, like the mausoleums that date from centuries ago.”
That’s expertise that could serve the U.S. as Puerto Rico recovers from Hurricane Maria. The dramatic stone fortress perched on the edge of Old San Juan is a World Heritage Site administered by the U.S. National Park Service. As of mid-October, it remains closed to the public because of damage suffered during the storm.
But World Heritage Sites aren’t the only way that U.S. cities benefit from their relationship to UNESCO. Eight U.S. cities are members of the Creative Cities Network, a program that began in 2004 to acknowledge cities that excel in one of seven creative fields: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, music, and media arts. They form nodes in a global network, facilitated by UNESCO, to encourage peer-to-peer learning.
“UNESCO was anticipating the importance of cities and the importance of cultural and creative industries at the local level,” Program Manager Denise Bax says.
To add insult to injury, the Trump administration announced that it would be withdrawing from UNESCO while Iowa City, home to the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, was in the midst of hosting its ninth annual UNESCO City of Literature book festival.
Andrew Potts, who just wrapped up a two-year stint as executive director of US/ICOMOS, an NGO that advises UNESCO, called the timing “a kick in the gut to the communities that are fighting for 21st century economies in a global marketplace for their citizens—and then they get the rug pulled out from under them.”
“There was no messaging at all to any of the U.S. stakeholders in UNESCO’s programs, no indication that they were consulted,” he says. “The willful indifference to the tremendous amount of energy that Americans have been putting into education, science, and culture multilateralism is really disappointing. Who at the White House knew that they were making this announcement in the middle of a marquee event in Iowa that was in a UNESCO frame? No one knew and no one cares.”
The prevailing attitude in the face of Washington’s bluster seems to be soldier on. Paducah, Kentucky, self-professed Quilt City, USA, was an inaugural City of Crafts and Folk Art. Last month, it hosted the network’s first-ever international meeting, bringing representatives from as far away as Hangzhou, China, and Al-Ahsa, Saudi Arabia.
“Paducah’s dedication to culture, creativity, and global connection through the arts, led to the city’s designation nearly four years ago,” a spokesperson for the city’s Conventions and Visitors Bureau says via e-mail. “We will continue our work with our global partners towards our common goals, to foster creative industries for sustainable development.”
U.S. Creative Cities including Tucson (designated a City of Gastronomy in 2015) and Detroit (designated a City of Design that same year) rushed to affirm that they remain committed to their coveted status regardless of the federal government’s moves. The Trump administration’s decision did not affect Tuesday’s designations of San Antonio as a City of Gastronomy, Seattle as a City of Literature, and Kansas City as a City of Music. Those nominations were submitted back in June, but the future effects remain to be seen. A spokesperson says the agency is “evaluating the current situation” in light of the U.S. government’s decision and will inform cities that participate in UNESCO programs when more information becomes available.
Ultimately, it’s clear that cities see a value in their country’s relationship with this particular U.N. agency. “The losers in withdrawing from UNESCO are American communities,” Potts says. “In a globally competitive, creativity-driven 21st century economy, Paducah, Iowa City, San Antonio, and Philadelphia are all testaments to the benefits of international collaboration on science and culture.”
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated how many cities are part of the Creative Cities Network. It also incorrectly listed two cities that did not send representatives to the meeting in Paducah, Kentucky.