Unesco Weighs Changes to Stonehenge’s Cultural Heritage Status

A new report also cited Venice and the Great Barrier Reef as sites that might be placed on the World Heritage in Danger list

A view of the iconic rocks of Stonehenge on green grass, with a sloping hill visible between two stones in the distance and a line of traffic
A proposed government plan will move the A303 highway, pictured here in the distance behind Stonehenge's iconic structures, underground. But Unesco warned in a report Monday that the efforts might endanger the site's OVU, or outstanding universal value. Highways England

Unesco caused an international stir on Monday, when the organization published a report detailing dozens of historic sites that might soon face changes to their esteemed heritage status.

The report was submitted by the World Heritage Committee, a body of the United Nations that maintains a list of over 1,000 officially designated World Heritage Sites. Places are considered for this honor if they are deemed to offer “outstanding universal value to humanity,” such as the Taj Mahal in India or the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador.

In particular, the committee recommended that some sites be added to the list of World Heritage in Danger or be stripped of their heritage status entirely. For instance, it recommended that the historic Liverpool waterfront lose its heritage status if major ongoing development work in the area, including the construction of a major soccer stadium, moves forward as planned. These modern additions have resulted in “serious deterioration and irreversible loss of attributes,” and a loss of outstanding historical value of the port area, which served as a major hub for the transatlantic trade of enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries, per the report. (The committee also recommended to remove the Selous Game Reserve, a protected wildlife reserve in Tanzania, for a marked increase in poachers and logging in recent years, per the Agence France-Presse.)

If these sites lose their official status, they also lose access to funding for conservation, an international support network and the boost in tourism that a heritage designation typically imparts.

In each case, the committee announced plans to finalize changes in heritage status in the future, either at an extended virtual conference hosted in China this July or at the committee’s 2022 conference, set to take place in Kazan, Russia.

Stonehenge, the hulking Neolithic rock formation built 5,000 years ago in what is now England, is recommended in the report for inscription in the World Heritage in Danger List, unless significant changes to planned government renovations occur. Last fall, the British government approved a plan to drastically renovate the landscape surrounding the immensely popular tourist destination, with the goal of reducing traffic and pollution at the site.

Currently, the A303 road that runs past Stonehenge supports about twice as much traffic as it was designed to accommodate. The government plans to dig a massive tunnel and move this two-lane highway underground—a $2.2-billion public works project.

Supporters of the plan argue it will decrease gnarly traffic bottlenecks and offer visitors a clear view of Stonehenge’s landscape, unimpeded by cars. On the other hand, some archaeologists argue that the construction work necessary to create the tunnel will result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of Neolithic artifacts.

The World Heritage Committee previously condemned the plan in 2019, saying it would have an “adverse impact” on the “outstanding universal value” of the site, as BBC News reported at the time.

This past Monday, the committee had a harsher warning, as Valentina Di Liscia reports for Hyperallergic. “The proposed tunnel length remains inadequate to protect the [outstanding universal value] of the property,” the organization wrote.

The committee requested that plans be modified to accommodate a longer tunnel, so that the entry points do not have a “highly adverse and irreversible” impact on the nearby Stonehenge site, reports Kaya Burgess for the London Times.

Unesco further requested that the United Kingdom government send an updated report on the status of Stonehenge’s conservation plans, ahead of its 45th session in 2022, when the committee will discuss whether Stonehenge should be added to the World Heritage in Danger list.

Other sites noted in the report include Venice, Italy and its surrounding lagoons. Unesco recommended that the site be added to the World Heritage in Danger list, due in part to the “threat” of major cruise ships that continue to dock in the city center, despite being banned by the Italian government in April. As Julia Buckley reports for CNN, the committee also cited the impact of mass tourism and climate change, which threatens to irrevocably alter the fragile lagoon ecosystem, as causes for concern.

In a similar vein, the committee recommended adding Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the “in danger” list, as Livia Albeck-Ripka reports for the New York Times. The report notes that the outlook for the natural wonder of the world has “deteriorated from poor to very poor” in the last decade, due to climate change as indicated by mass coral bleaching events that took place in 2016, 2017 and 2020. The committee also wrote that the Australian government has failed to meet key targets of its Reef 2050 long-term sustainability plan.

Climate activists touted the report as a rebuke of Australia’s conservative government, which has ties to the coal industry, the Times notes. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, meanwhile, slammed the decision in interviews with the press, telling Australian radio station 4BC that “[t]he Unesco process has been appalling.”

In the report, the committee recommended changes to the Reef 2050 plan going forward, including “stronger and clearer commitments, in particular towards urgently countering the effects of climate change, but also towards accelerating water quality improvement and land management measures.”