Heritage at Risk

The Human Factor

Urbanisation, political turmoil and mass tourism pose significant threats to Europe’s monuments and landscapes. Old buildings are demolished for new ones. Entire neighbourhoods make way for the construction of railways and subways or other urban development. Tourist sites can attract so many people each year that their popularity becomes more harmful than beneficial. Elsewhere, monumental buildings are seen as symbols of oppression and become targets of hate and protest.


Since the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago, urban areas have expanded in every European country, every region and almost every city. Providing housing for Europe’s growing population, and the infrastructure necessary to support it, has profoundly changed the appearance and spatial order of cities, and blurred the boundaries between the urban and the rural.

Take, for example, urbanisation in mid-19th century Paris. At the time, the city was considered overcrowded and unhealthy. In 1853, directed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine, rigorous renovation works began. Medieval neighbourhoods in the city centre were demolished, making way for broad boulevards, squares and parks.

Although living conditions improved as a consequence of the modernisation, people were also critical that not more of the historic sites and streets had been preserved. Haussmann’s ideas were put into practice in many other cities, such as New York and Barcelona.

Klarakvarteren, or Klara, is a 17th century quarter of Stockholm that was largely demolished during the 1950s. In the name of progress, the neighbourhood went through an extensive urban renewal project, with over 450 buildings being torn down and many houses rebuilt. Before the demolition, the area was characterised by small shops and workshops. Afterwards, it was mainly office buildings. The general public, among them writers and journalists, strongly condemned the demolition.

The changes that took place in the urban landscape of Klara are clearly illustrated by these pictures showing the view from the City Hall Tower towards the north-east. The autochrome photograph was taken in 1924 by Gustaf W. Cronquist. The newer picture shows Klara in May 2009. 

Use the slider below to compare images of Klara before and after its renewal.

Fortified Churches in Transylvania, Romania

The Transylvania region of Romania has a number of remarkable fortified churches and villages from the Saxon period which, in 1993, were designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Preserved since the late Middle Ages, the villages are dominated by their fortified churches which illustrate a variety of building styles from the 13th to the 16th century.

The physical fabric of the fortified churches is fragile and they are at risk of structural collapse and environmental damage. As noted by the Hungarian art historian Zsombor Jékely, historical monuments which do not have communities supporting them (in this case, the Saxons who settled in Transylvania during the 12th-13th centuries largely disappeared in the 1980s) are especially vulnerable.

The rich medieval architectural and artistic heritage of these churches is under threat and in urgent need of protection and preservation. With this in mind, an Emergency Fund for Heritage was created by the Romanian Ministry of Culture in 2016 to support, safeguard and preserve the fortified churches and other endangered monuments.

Political power struggles

Buildings housing political authorities often become symbols of power and as such, they can become targets of hatred, no matter how high-quality their architecture may be. People in revolt attack or set fire to them in protest. New regimes destroy them and replace them with symbolic architecture of their own.

The Storming of the Bastille sparked the French Revolution on the afternoon of 14 July 1789. The Bastille, a medieval building in Paris used as a political prison, represented royal authority and was attacked by a large crowd who destroyed much of it.

The current Place de la Bastille occupies most of the Bastille’s original location. In 1989, the Opéra Bastille was built on the square to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of the storming. The former building itself is outlined in brick on the location where it once stood.

The Palace of the Republic (Palast der Republik) in the centre of Berlin housed the parliament of the German Democratic Republic from 1976 to 1990. The Palast was completed in 1976 and included auditoria, art galleries and restaurants.

In 1990, the Palast became vacant following German reunification, and in 2003 the Bundestag voted for its demolition. This decision met with mixed feelings from many ‘Ossies’, as citizens of the former German Democratic Republic are nostalgically called.

The Palast was demolished between 2006 and 2008 to make way for the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace, the former residence of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which had been demolished after World War II.

The hazards of tourism

Mass tourism took off in the late 1800s when UK travel agent Thomas Cook pioneered the concept of affordable group travel tours. By establishing relationships between tour operators, transportation companies and hotels, Cook was able to get deep volume discounts on travel services and pass those savings along to customers. And so travel became affordable for more people, who were then able to visit the famous cultural heritage sites of Europe.

Over the years, increased welfare (higher income, more holidays) and decreased travel costs (cheap flights and accommodation) have led to ‘overtourism’ - the point at which the needs of tourism become unsustainable or even detrimental to a given destination, causing problems such as physical and environmental damage, pressure on infrastructures and increased living costs. This has been known to lead to social unrest, protest and resistance against tourism in some European cities.

One of the most-visited cities in the world, Venice, Italy, offers a unique combination of nature and culture and has been given the status of World Heritage Site. The number of inhabitants is 260,000 while the number of annual visitors is 24 million. On some days, the centre of Venice reportedly receives 60,000 visitors. Needless to say, these large numbers put a strain on Venice’s infrastructure. Another problem is the ongoing gentrification: houses are sold and converted into hotels or restaurants, causing Venice to lose its intimate character.

In recent years, calls have been made to prevent the influx of tourists from cruise ships. In 2015, cruise ships were banned from the Giudecca Canal, but the ban lasted only three months before being reversed by the Regional Administrative Court.

The UNESCO-protected Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia, doubles as ‘King’s Landing’ in the popular fantasy series Game of Thrones.

The city’s fame has been good for business but has also sparked a constant flow of visitors. Last year, more than 1.2 million people visited the Mediterranean harbour town, that is home to just 42,000 locals.

The city government recent ‘Respect the City’ campaign aims to limit the number of daily visitors and plan for a more sustainable development of Dubrovnik as a tourist destination.