As if Pope Francis’ visit in September wasn’t enough, Philadelphia just earned another global distinction.
In early November, Philadelphia was named the first World Heritage City in the United States, joining the ranks of Paris, Florence, Jerusalem, Cairo and 289 other historically significant cities around the world.
The two-year process to secure the title began after Philadelphia joined the Organization of World Heritage Cities in 2013, and it was led by a collaborative effort between the city government, the Global Philadelphia Association and various community leaders, including some from Penn.
Art history professor David Brownlee served on the executive committee of the Project World Heritage Working Group, where he played a key role in making the case for Philadelphia. Brownlee was responsible for writing much of the material that was presented to the Organization of World Heritage, detailing Philadelphia’s history as the birthplace of the U.S., its significant historical sites and architecture, as well as the city’s contribution to art and culture.
“The argument I made was that Philadelphia has been a city of ideas and invention in every period of its history, not just the Revolutionary War era,” Brownlee said. “Every era of our history and every part of our region and every ethnic group has a story to tell, and much of my work has been to keep the story as broad and inclusive as possible.”
Anastasia Shown, a School of Social Policy & Practice lecturer and community outreach consultant for the South Asia Center and Middle East Center, sat on the Board of Directors of the Global Philadelphia Association and aided in the efforts to secure the World Heritage City title. Shown encouraged Penn’s Area Studies Centers and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to become members of the Global Philadelphia Association, which helped the group recruit more members and draw esteem.
“I am not a Philly native, but I consider myself a global citizen, and it is exciting to live, work and raise a family in a city that is globally engaged,” Shown said.
Penn President Amy Gutmann serves on the board of the Philadelphia World Heritage Committee, which led the effort to petition the Organization of World Heritage Cities for the honor.
A study commissioned by the Global Philadelphia Association estimated that if properly marketed, the honor could cause tourism to increase by 10 to 15 percent, which would generate about $150 million per year in expanded economic activity.
Brownlee said that there are benefits to be had besides increased tourism. “Those of us who teach, those of us who are interested in social change and human justice and all of us who are interested in historic preservation can make use of this title as part of our argument for more [economic] support and for more ambitious goal-setting in our activities.”
Shown agrees that the potential impact of the title is enormous. “We can foster stronger ties with other World Heritage Cities to create education, research and business partnerships. And research from the U.N. Office of Disaster Risk Reduction showed that cities with a strong heritage are safer, more cohesive and more resilient after disaster.”
To spread the word about Philadelphia’s World Heritage designation, Shown and the South Asia Center and Middle East Center created the Philadelphia Heritage tool kit, an online resource with lesson plans across different disciplines and activities for teachers to educate their students about Philadelphia and world heritage. Shown also partnered with the Penn Museum to hold the first World Heritage Teacher Workshop on Nov. 14 to inform educators on how to use the tool kit.
“While earning the title is a great honor, I also see it as a great challenge. We really have to accept our responsibility to make something out of this,” Brownlee said. “Philadelphia has always had a good story, and we now have one more tool to do something great.”
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