Last edited 15 May 2022

Urban landscape and the delisting of Liverpool - maritime mercantile city

Liverpool waterfront.png
Liverpool waterfront, 2007. The nomination document avers that the Pier Head Group ‘form a dramatic manifestation of Liverpool’s historical significance … [whose] vast scale … allows them to dominate the waterfront when approaching by ship’. (© Dennis Rodwell, 2007).

I have followed the Liverpool World Heritage story since the turn of the millennium, from the preparatory stages leading to the 2003 nomination onwards. At times this has been at close quarters, through direct connections with the responsible personnel in Liverpool City Council, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Much of what has been represented as central to the unfolding saga, institutionally as well as in the public domain, does not correspond with my familiarity and records.

The 2021 delisting of Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City serves to call attention to the challenges of managing urban heritage sites that are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List, especially those that are subject to vibrant development pressures. This article focuses on the procedures involving the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and its advisory body ICOMOS from the 2003 nomination through to the 2021 delisting. It questions whether the system helped or hindered the management of the property, and whether it is appropriate to focus responsibility for the discord that led to the delisting on the State Party (the United Kingdom) alongside Liverpool City Council.

Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City is the third property to be struck from the UNESCO World Heritage List. The 2007 delisting of the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, inscribed in 1994, is easy to explain: the site had become unviable as an oryx sanctuary, and the delisting was supported by the State Party (Oman). The 2009 delisting of Dresden Elbe Valley together with the 2021 delisting of Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City are less easy to justify; both were opposed by the State Parties concerned, Germany and the United Kingdom respectively.

The preamble to the 1972 World Heritage Convention demands ‘an effective system of collective protection of the cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value, organized on a permanent basis and in accordance with modern scientific methods.’ The operation of this system requires what I term the ‘Critical 3Cs of Effective Protection: Certainty, Clarity, and Consistency’

The path to inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage List entails a State Party’s preparation and submission of a nomination, its evaluation by the relevant advisory body, and its determination by the World Heritage Committee. This is a linear process. There is no provision for back stops or return loops. As a matter of clear principle, if something is not in the Justification of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) at the time of inscription, for whatever reason, it is effectively not part of the OUV.

The delisting of Dresden Elbe Valley in 2009 is attributed to the construction of the Waldschlößchenbrücke across the river Elbe. The project for a bridge at this location first appeared in the Dresden General Construction Plan of 1859–62. The ‘as-builtdesign project featured in the 2003 nomination for Dresden Elbe Valley, was endorsed in the ICOMOS evaluation that supported the site’s inscription in 2004, and its subsequent construction provoked the delisting. This case is a contested precedent.

The City of Liverpool has known widely fluctuating fortunes. Ascendant from the late 18th to early 20th centuries and heralded as the ‘Second City of the Empire’ (after London), its descent following the First World War was perceived at times to be terminal. From the 1990s onwards, a coincidence of interests invoked the ambition for Liverpool to recover the status of a ‘World City’, effectively from a standing start. This anticipated a volatile situation, with the clear potential for a heritage versus development conflict. The dynamics called for extreme care, and clear adherence to the ‘Critical 3Cs’.

The inscribed World Heritage Site comprised a total area of 136 ha across six contiguous or linked components; the buffer zone totalled an area of 750 ha. A core theme in the State Party’s 2003 nomination document and management plan was urban landscape, a term that has been familiar in the management of historic cities across Europe for at least a century. The nomination affirmed that the surviving urban landscape testified to the historical role of Liverpool as a great port city, defined its ‘tangible authenticity’, and that the focal point, the Pier Head Group, ‘form a dramatic manifestation of Liverpool’s historical significance … [whose] vast scale … allows them to dominate the waterfront when approaching by ship’. The emphasis on urban landscape is such that the term features 49 times in the nomination document. The term historic urban landscape also features; subsequently adopted by UNESCO in the 2005 Vienna Memorandum and the 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape. The boundaries of the nominated site were carefully delineated to the purpose of safeguarding the authenticity and integrity of the property.

The 2004 ICOMOS Advisory Body Evaluation set out the State Party’s Justification under criteria ii, iii and iv.

For criterion iii, this reads: ‘… The urban landscape of the site, including its architecture, layout, dock complexes and transport systems, combined with the comprehensive cultural and historical records held on the site, form[s] a unique testimony to the commercial acumen and mercantile strength of the British Empire in the period from the early 18th century to the early 20th century. No other port in Britain, the former British Empire or the world bears such testimony.’

For criterion iv, the documents reads: ‘The nominated site is a complete and integral urban landscape that includes an outstanding architectural and technological ensemble of buildings, structures and archaeological remains. …’

Notwithstanding, the same 2004 ICOMOS Advisory Body Evaluation deleted all reference to the urban landscape in its recommendation for the inscription of Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City, and it was the ICOMOS text that was adopted by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, not the State Party’s.

The timing for this deletion coincided with contestation between UNESCO and ICOMOS over the nature of urban heritage and the management of historic cities. Through the 2000s, ICOMOS challenged the term urban landscape, formulating and promoting its 2011 Valletta Principles for the Safeguarding and Management of Historic Cities, Towns and Urban Areas, contemporaneously and dissociated from UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape. In effect, Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City found itself in the crossfire of this dispute.

The implications of the deletion of urban landscape could not have been more serious. First, it signalled to the State Party and the City of Liverpool that the urban landscape was not a factor that determined the inscription of Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City and would not (the correct ethical position) be monitored as such. Given the volatility of the aspiration to recover the status of a ‘World City’, the impacts of this repudiation on the integrity of the urban landscape were foreseeable and serious.

Second, the 2006 UNESCO-ICOMOS Reactive Monitoring Mission could and did not comment on any issue affecting the urban landscape. This Mission was prompted by projects for the Museum of Liverpool and Mann Island, described the ‘… state of conservation of the site in its widest urban context, its integrity and authenticity’ as ‘good’, that ‘… redevelopment initiatives, in progress or proposed, aim at carefully re-establishing the city’s coherence through the enhancement of its numerous remaining historical features, the infill of vacant lots and the redesign of the public realm’, and that the OUV of the property was not threatened.

Third, the 2011 UNESCO-ICOMOS Reactive Monitoring Mission, focused on the ‘Liverpool Watersproject, invoked – retrospectively by seven years relative to the 2014 inscription – the 2011 UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban landscape. This triggered the processes that led to the deletion of Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City from the World Heritage List in July 2021.

At the July 2021 Session of the World Heritage Committee, equating the project for Everton Football Stadium at the northernmost boundary of the World Heritage Site with the ‘tipping point’, ICOMOS claimed to have lost patience with the State Party and City of Liverpool’s alleged failure to comply with ICOMOS’s own contradictory decision-making processes. Previously, on 5 February 2020, World Heritage UK had written to the Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre proposing as a way forward a boundary change to the World Heritage Site to exclude Bramley-Moore Dock. This conciliatory offer was not taken up.

My view is that the UNESCO-ICOMOS system has, by moving the goal posts between nomination and inscription, demonstrably failed Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City, its management as well as its World Heritage inscription. This strongly suggests that the system’s modus operandi has some distance to go before the ‘Critical 3Cs of Effective Protection’ are recognised and applied, and the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS need to sort their acts out if the ‘mantle of UNESCO stewardship’ (as another author has termed it) is to have more merit than Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes.


This article first appeared in TICCIH Bulletin No. 95, 1st Quarter 2022, published by The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage. It was written by Dennis Rodwell, Architect-Planner, Consultant in Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Urban Development.

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