AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 27/2007

A Bridge Too Far for UNESCO: World Heritage Dresden Gets Yellow Card

By Susanne Beyer

Dresden's Elbe Valley is a World Heritage site. But now UNESCO is warning that if the city goes ahead with plans to build a four-lane bridge across the valley, it could lose that status. The city has four months to decide.

Dresden risks losing its World Heritage status if it builds a four-lane bridge across the River Elbe
AP

Dresden risks losing its World Heritage status if it builds a four-lane bridge across the River Elbe

The urban panorama of Dresden's Baroque skyline and the majestic River Elbe have provoked many a poet and other sensitive types to fall in love at first sight. Although the city was extensively destroyed during World War II much of the famous architecture along the river bank has since been restored, including the city's beautiful cathedral.

While other cities have forced their rivers into concrete basins, Dresden left the Elbe in its natural riverbed. Its banks are a unique interplay of nature and culture -- so unique, in fact, that the Dresden Elbe Valley was awarded the much-coveted title of "World Heritage Site" three years ago by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

But now plans to build a bridge across the Elbe to remedy inner city traffic congestion have triggered a storm of controversy, which threatens to damage Germany's reputation as a cultural nation. What began as a local news story has developed, during the past days and weeks, into a problem for the whole country. Several government ministries are now dealing with the dispute. At issue is how Germany, the country which invented the preservation of historical monuments, treats its own cultural heritage.

Germany has more World Heritage sites than any other country -- a full 32 out of a total of 851. And there is great demand for the UNESCO seal of approval, which officially recognizes a country's historical or cultural sites as being of international importance. Heidelberg made a huge effort to have its historic city center and castle included on the list, but last week it failed to impress the UNESCO committee and Heidelberg is feeling hard-done-by. But then there are those people who could care less about the prestigious heritage status -- like Dresden's stubborn decision makers.

Saxony Ignores the UN

UNESCO already warned last year that the planned bridge would interfere so massively with the Dresden Elbe Valley that the city might have to surrender its place on the list of World Heritage sites. The Social Democrats (SPD), the Green Party and the Left Party on Dresden's city council share the same concerns. But Saxony's state government and its Governor Georg Milbradt, a member of the Christian Democrats (CDU), want to construct the bridge at all costs, and to keep to the original plans: a four-lane bulky bridge, a brutal gash across the landscape. Milbradt has already ordered the city to begin awarding construction contracts.

In forcing through the construction, the governor can point to a 2005 referendum, in which Dresden's residents voted in favor of the bridge. But at the time, they were not given the option of choosing between a bridge and a tunnel: It was just bridge or no bridge. Since then judges in Saxony and even the German Constitutional Court have ruled that the referendum has more legal weight than UNESCO's World Heritage Committee. The referendum is binding for three years and this time period will have elapsed in February 2008 -- which is why Milbradt wants to move quickly to make the construction of the bridge a fait accompli.

But many Dresden residents who voted in favor of the bridge in 2005 are now siding with UNESCO. Thousands of Dresden residents are taking to the streets to demonstrate against the bridge and Hanne Wandtke, an internationally renowned choreographer, cried out during a rally that she wants her vote back.

Meanwhile, the Stuttgart-based architectural office Schlaich has presented a model of an alternative filigree bridge but the Saxony government doesn’t want to know. Milbradt complains that he is being "put under pressure" by UNESCO and even speaks of "blackmail."

He is talking about the resolution UNESCO passed during the 31st session of its World Heritage Committee, held in Christchurch, New Zealand last week. Eighteen thousand kilometers (11,185 miles) away from Dresden, representatives of UNESCO's member countries met -- almost like the cultural equivalent of the UN Security Council -- in order to identify new World Heritage sites and to discuss Dresden.

On the morning of Monday Jan. 25 -- it was the middle of the night in Germany -- item 27 on the agenda was the decision on whether the Dresden Elbe Valley could keep its World Heritage status. The chairman of the session announced the topic and a debate started immediately. National representatives from Norway, Latvia, Morocco, Benin, Kenya, Israel, Peru and the United States spoke in turn, sometimes in English, sometimes in French or Spanish. But in the end their stance was perfectly clear. The committee announced that Dresden has four months to come up with an alternative plan. UNESCO would prefer not to make an example of Dresden, recognizing that the city is in a tricky situation. After all, Germany is the biggest financial contributor to the organization.

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