Bridge Over Troubled Waters Dresden's World Heritage Site Status in Jeopardy

Dresden's Elbe Valley is in danger of losing its UNESCO World Heritage site status because of a planned bridge. Now a court has ruled that construction should go ahead -- despite the implications for Dresden and other German UNESCO sites.

The Elbe river divides the historic German city of Dresden into two parts. Now the city's population is divided over a bridge to be built over that river.

Two years ago, the Dresden population voted to build a new bridge over the Elbe -- even though the Elbe Valley is a World Heritage site. As a consequence, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) put the green landscape on its so-called "red list" of endangered heritage sites, "with a view to also consider ... delisting the site from the World Heritage List in 2007 if the plans are carried through," as the organization wrote in a press release. It would be the first time any site had been struck off the World Heritage List, which identifies sites around the world of exceptional cultural or natural value.

Reacting to the UNESCO decision, a Dresden court imposed a building ban in August 2006. But now that decision has been revoked. Saxony's Higher Administrative Court in Bautzen ruled on Tuesday that the €160 million construction project for the Waldschlösschen Bridge should go ahead, despite the possibility that the area will lose its World Heritage status as a result.

In so deciding, the judges gave the public referendum from February 2005 to build the bridge more importance than the maintenance of World Heritage site conventions. Two years ago, half of the city's population participated in a referendum over the bridge, which was approved by a 68 percent majority. However, the Dresden citizens cast their vote without realizing that the planned project could endanger the Elbe Valley's World Heritage site status, which it has held since 2004.

The city is now divided over the issue. While the conservative interior minister of Saxony, Albrecht Buttolo, hailed the decision as a "victory for local democracy," the Green Party called it a "disaster for the city." Bundestag vice-president Wolfgang Thierse is also against the bridge: Tuesday was, in his words, a "terrible day" for Germany.

Politicians and conservationists are worried that other German applicants for World Cultural Heritage status will suffer in the future -- a fear confirmed by the negative reaction of the German Commission for UNESCO (DUK) to the ruling. DUK general secretary Roland Bernecker said on Tuesday that the decision would raise profound questions about Germany's ability to fulfill international cultural conventions.

"Should this kind of legal understanding prevail, Germany would be unable to guarantee the maintenance of UNESCO World Heritage site conventions," he said. This could jeopardize the prospects of other German candidate sites joining the World Heritage List within the next few years.

Whether the Elbe Valley will really lose its heritage status will be decided at the next UNESCO World Heritage site meeting in July. Germany currently has 32 UNESCO World Heritage sites, out of a total of 830 sites in 138 countries worldwide.


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