The famous Elbe Valley in Dresden became a member of an exclusive, and not altogether desirable, club on Thursday. UNESCO, meeting in Sevilla, Spain this week, removed the site from the coveted World Heritage list of global sites honored for their unique contributions to culture and natural beauty -- making the valley just the second site ever to have been removed from the list.
Many in Germany have been expecting the decision ever since the eastern German city began building a bridge through the valley in 2007. UNESCO placed the Elbe Valley on its list of endangered sites in 2006 in response to the bridge plans and delayed a decision on whether to remove the site last year.
"The decision unfortunately does not come as a complete surprise," Walter Hirche, president of the UNESCO Commission in Germany, said in a statement. "I had hoped for much more openness with regards to the bridge plans."
A List that Includes Dresden and Oman
Dresden now joins the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, which was removed from the list in 2007 after the country decided to reduce the size of the protected area by 90 percent to explore for oil.
UNESCO said the €160 million bridge destroyed the "universal value" of the 18-kilometer-long section of the valley which had been protected. The group proposed that the city build a tunnel instead, but was rebuffed. In repeated lawsuits, Dresden courts have been wary of blocking construction of the bridge given that 67.9 percent of the city's residents voted in favor of the structure as a solution to traffic woes. Critics have pointed out that voters were unaware at the time of the referendum that the bridge could result in the loss of the Elbe Valley's UNESCO status.
Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz tried in vain to convince UNESCO to wait until the bridge was finished before making a decision. She felt that once the committee saw the bridge, they would be convinced that it did not irreparably harm the appearance of the valley. The decision means that Dresden will no longer be eligible for money from a €150 million pot set aside for the maintenance of Germany's UNESCO sites, the number of which has now fallen to 32.
It may not stay that way for long, however. The World Heritage Committee is also considering this week whether to add the Wadden Sea tidal flats on the North Sea coast, one of Europe's richest biospheres (known as the Wattenmeer in German), to the list.
Another German UNESCO site, the graceful Lorelei Valley on the Rhine River, almost became the next World Heritage List casualty after communities in the region revealed plans in May to build a bridge across the river at the site. But after UNESCO voiced concern, the state of Rhineland-Palatinate elected to consult closely with the World Heritage Committee to ensure that the valley maintains its status.