Liverpool’s world heritage status now faces a significant threat. Since we started working with Engage Liverpool a few months back and started a series of events that looked at boundaries and why they are important, the proposal for new Everton Football Club stadium – which would sit inside the boundaries of the World Heritage Site on Bramley Moore dock – has shifted gears somewhat. Liverpool City Council has proposed to UNESCO that the site boundaries be moved to allow the new stadium to be built without affecting the status, but UNESCO has refused to consider this idea.
So much of the online discussion around the issue has been poor quality, entirely lacking in context for why a city is given World Heritage Status in the first place and what it actually means. It’s set off on an ‘us against them’ type discussion – UNESCO is setting rules for us about what we can and can’t develop here etc.
In a way, it’s that type of thinking that leads a place to make ill-judged decisions about its future – exactly the type of mentality that has led to the UK crashing out of Europe and being widely mocked for doing so.
But it’s easy to understand, too. Especially when the arguments for it are presented in a way that makes it appear that we’re being kept from developing the city, from a brighter future with more new buildings that become physical symbols of the growth of a place and of growing what we have here. The prevailing arguments on Twitter are that UNESCO is against developing a new stadium on the waterfront at all, and that we don’t need world heritage status to show that we’re a global city. Both of these simplistic takes on the situation are specifically designed to mislead – they’re an opinion that skirt the edges of the story.
The third and final event in our series with Engage, Beyond the Boundaries, happened shortly after this discussion kicked-off again on social media and these one-sided perspectives threatened to completely shape the narrative of the situation. The event was designed to look at how are areas outside the Liverpool boundary relate to the areas inside it and, more specifically. how the history and heritage of the wider city region fed into us having a site that might be considered a world heritage site at all.
Attendees, mainly representing heritage sites across the city region, gathered to tell their story. We discussed the importance of storytelling, of heritage buildings as a place to house discussions and stories of an area over a long period. And, as it develops, of how they evolve to serve different needs but remain treasured community assets. We discussed the need to preserve the significance of these buildings, the things that make them special and treasured, whilst ensuring that they’re relevant, sustainable and serve their communities well.
Also discussed was the idea that we might better connect these spaces – our parks, cemeteries, libraries and landmark buildings – through wayfinding and signposting – both within the boundaries and outside. And connect them for all people, whether they travel on foot, bike, car or public transport. Creating clear sight lines across the region and linking the stories of the site and the people that lived and worked there, and tying those stories together between sites.
‘How do these sites positively impact our physical and mental health and wellbeing? Can we do more to celebrate and link these heritage venues as primarily public spaces?’ we asked.
It was argued that for the venues that surround the city centre, it can feel like they’re just sitting outside looking in and the city centre venues don’t reach out. The city centre, the world heritage site, gets all the attention – and it’s up to them to share some of that attention and bring them into the conversation. What is outside the boundary is ultimately linked to what’s within it – Liverpool’s mercantile and shipping heritage was made possible by the labour of people who travelled across several boundaries to get within the current boundary of the world heritage site.
We now find ourselves at the end of this series of events about boundaries and how we feel about them; about what boundaries in a place are important to us and what aren’t – but the overall discussion about the boundaries of the world heritage site is far from over.
This series has introduced me to the idea of ‘outstanding universal value’; the idea that something about our city is unique in the world in what it has contributed to the story of humanity. How will the decisions we make today about our city affect how we are perceived in terms of our contribution to humanity when my son, now three and a half, is my age? The phrase and the idea that it represents has made a lasting impression on me.
Having spent a good part of the past three months thinking about the history of the city in relation to the heritage of our built environment, I’m left wondering how we could possibly even be in the situation where we might lose our world heritage status at all. Yes, Everton FC is entitled to build a new stadium. If they can afford to do so, why not? But is the price of what our city perceives as progress – the desire to build new things, to evidence growth through developments like new stadiums and waterfront apartments – too high? If it is, does it come at the cost of losing a designation that marks Liverpool as a unique city? The docklands are a vast space – is there another site on them where a stadium could work that doesn’t involve us filling in a dock and pissing off UNESCO?
And, if we are to develop as a city, which I absolutely think we should, are we trying hard enough to build things that might be considered outstanding? Things that in 100 years will be celebrated as showing that Liverpool offered something of unique value to humanity, right now?
But what I’d really like to see and be involved in is more informed discussions around the world heritage site and the importance of heritage to us as a city now – the types of discussions that we’ve been having in this series. Discussions that go beyond the simplistic perspective of development vs UNESCO and whether or not we’re a global city if UNESCO say so or not. Discussions about what value our heritage sites offer us today, and how the protections that we have in place around them might protect the future of things that we value as the people that live here.
And so, if anyone fancies a chat about any of that, pick a date and a pub and I’ll look forward to seeing you there.