UNESCO World Heritage Cities Programme

"Historic places and traditional knowledge developed over centuries in response to local climatic and geographical conditions. They can be a key tool to promote climate action and resilience."

© © UNESCO / Medina of Marrakesh (Morocco)

As part of our use:positions series, we asked the team at UNESCO World Heritage Cities Programme to share their insights about the relationship between cultural heritage and sustainable urban development. 


What is the UNESCO World Heritage Cities Programme?

The World Heritage Cities Programme is one of six thematic programmes formally approved and monitored by the World Heritage Committee. The programme is structured along a two-way process, with:

  1. the development of a theoretical framework for urban heritage conservation, and
  2. the provision of technical assistance to States Parties for the implementation of new approaches and schemes.

The World Heritage Cities Programme regularly organises international events that bring together heritage experts, site managers, elected officials and other stakeholders. These events explore topics relevant to heritage conservation and management today, from good practices and case studies to global links between heritage, climate change and sustainable development.


What value does cultural heritage have for sustainable urban development – and for the future of cities?

Sustainable Development is a concept, an approach, an aspiration, and an urgent need. The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the African Union Agenda 2063, and the UN New Urban Agenda are among several major international agreements towards sustainable development. The World Heritage Sustainable Development Policy (2015), adopted by the World Heritage Committee, provides concepts and principles linking conservation of the Outstanding Universal Value of World Heritage properties with sustainable development.


What is needed today to support the conservation of world heritage cities? What are the biggest challenges? 

Today, climate change has become the defining issue of our time, and its impact on heritage is already a reality. In every part of our globe, our cultural and natural heritage sites are threatened by bush fires, droughts, floods and storms. The subsequent uprooting of communities due to climate change is also putting entire ways of life at risks. This includes the practice and transmission of living heritage, traditions, performing arts, social practices and festive events.

However, the vulnerability of these sites can also be reframed as a source of resilience and knowledge. World Heritage sites serve as climate change observatories to gather and share information on monitoring, mitigation and adaptation practices, and also helps raise awareness on the impacts of climate change on human societies, biodiversity and ecosystem services. Historic places and traditional knowledge developed over centuries in response to local climatic and geographical conditions. As such, they are a repository of accumulated knowledge and experience on resource maximisation, and can be a key tool to promote climate action and resilience.

Another challenge is urban development in World Heritage properties.

Rapid and uncontrolled urbanisation is affecting the conservation of different types of World Heritage properties. Factors related to buildings and development (commercial development, housing, industrial area,  and visitor facilities, major visitor accommodation and associated infrastructure) are present in nearly half of the properties that have gone on Reactive Monitoring; they are present in 37.5% of the SoC reports presented to the World Heritage Committee.


What are helpful tools and resources provided by the UNESCO World Heritage Cities Programme, where to learn more? 

World Heritage Canopy is a living platform of innovative strategies and practices that integrate heritage conservation with sustainable development. Through case studies and practical examples, the platform aims to inspire and guide local actions that contribute to and align with major global commitments including the 1972 World Heritage Convention, the Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Explore the World Heritage Canopy by clicking here


The UNESCO World Heritage Atlas, an atlas of the World's historic cities and settlements, is a technical aid for implementing the 2011 HUL Recommendations, a platform for cultural mapping and urban heritage and a resource for education, capacity building, and participation.

Explore the World Heritage Atlas here 

Get involved! Are you or your colleagues currently working on a cultural heritage initiative? We invite you to contribute case studies, recommendations for publications, reports or other useful resources for our use picks format or announcements for events, conferences, awards and other ongoing activities related to the topic.

Visit our Cultural Heritage webpage for more information about global cultural heritage initiatives.