Kraków City Centre with the Wawel Castle in the background (Tatra Mountains on the horizon), March 2019

Explaining the benefits of living in a big city, especially one that has a reputation for its cultural heritage, supported by a long list of ‘MUST SEEs’ and ‘MUST GO TOs’, is hardly a challenge. Likewise, prioritising the usual downsides of urban lifestyle is not difficult, either. Still, global statistics leave little room for doubt that more and more people worldwide choose to live in big cities. There are of course great many reasons why this is the case, some deeply personal, some much closer to an objective statement. As the pressure on urban ecosystems of old keeps mounting to meet new demands and the overall progress humanity has made in the past few decades, ever more interesting challenges rise on the horizon for cities worldwide.

Urban & Countryside Stereotypes

People who avoid cities, generally prefer the comforts of the proverbial peace and quiet…and lots of lush greenery around, of course. In other words, much of the city-or-countryside debate has always revolved around some of its most fundamental dichotomies, largely depending on your personal preferences, i.e. whether you generally prefer urban buzz to ‘leave me alone’ surroundings.

Needless to say, in an ideal, albeit rather hypothetical world, a successful marriage between immediate access to the best possible healthcare, schooling and cultural offer, and the natural benefits of living in an isolated, countryside home, would be just perfect, only to some of us, however, and largely in theory alone.

The Rising Importance of ‘Quality of Life’ as a Driver of Change

Whether they like it or not, cities, especially those visited by millions of tourists and thousands of investors every year, must be prepared to face the many challenges attached to their iconic ‚urban legend’ status. Over the past few years, in particular, the experience of some of the most popular destinations in the world has shown that many of those challenges can be really difficult to address, or, are altogether new in many respects.

In today’s world, when travelling from one end of the planet to another takes seconds to organise, competition between cities is moving towards ever more creative attempts and strategies. As a result, a sound urban development strategy doesn’t seem to cut it any longer, not if you really want to be part of the global urban-beauty pageant, not to mention boasting a truly unique status in any of the key categories cherished by tourists and other visitor groups.

Some aspects of urban lifestyle, however, appear to be increasingly gaining in importance across the international media landscape. The list has at least one common denominator, which can be summed up with a four-word heading: THE QUALITY OF LIFE. Whether it’s air, public transport efficiency or promoting ever more greenery across city landscapes (incl. rooftops, terraces and bridges), historically at odds with those favouring more concrete…solutions, today’s urban developers, decision-makers and administrators are increasingly aware that such factors can no longer be underestimated, not if a city takes its global ambitions seriously, whether its cultural heritage, tourism, events hosted by the city, or, even the outcomes of local elections.

It all starts with questions

Many an ambitious city mayor knows that the road to ‘unique’ and ‘exceptional’ in the eyes of outsiders (and, in many respects, locals alike), is ridden with challenges which tend to be quite difficult to predict, let alone address. The list of potential difficulties usually starts with what to some is the “most obvious” category, i.e. Are we talking about a city that is capable of keeping its streets, squares and pavements clean? On a more strategic level, if your city is one with a development vision, the following questions simply cannot be avoided:

  • Who are the visitors coming to your city and why?
  • Who would you like to see more of?
  • What are the key associations people have with your city, where and why?
  • What are the 3 most important “international brand vehicles” of your city?
  • What makes your city truly “unique” compared to other (historic) capitals as well as other world culture and heritage centres?
  • Can your city be described as “friendly” in the eyes of [a long list of stakeholders]?
  • How to best cope with the key risk factors, potentially affecting the reputation and the international image of the city?
  • Is your city consistent (in its urban development decisions/vision, architecture choices, etc.)?
  • Does your city implement bold, forward-looking solutions or does it prefer not to take risks and simply follows others’ best practice, mostly relying on tried-and-tested recipes?
  • Does your city set the trends for others or follow?

These are merely a few of the many questions faced daily by many local-government officials, leaders and mayors. Inevitably, therefore, today’s urban development debate has become much more complex and includes areas that were rarely in focus in the past, such as:

  • How to protect cultural heritage and its individual character from contemporary world’s ‘standardizing’ trends, the negative impact of globalisation and/or ‚turistification’?
  • How to protect your city’s cultural landscape from excessive exploitation of the so-called irrenewable historical heritage?

For a lot of people, however, the list of key questions still favours the thinking driven predominantly by economic gains. Unsurprisingly, they would be keen to first pose questions such as “How to best measure the tangible value of city-organized events, festivals, conferences and exhibitions, using the language of material benefits?” In the coming publications on Kraków Heritage, we will, of course, undertake to address these questions as well.

ICE Congress Centre, Kraków, Poland

But why host world heritage summits and congresses, like UNESCO or OWHC?

There are many reasons. Perhaps the single most important one has more to do with humility than pride. When trying to give a simple answer to a complex question, it is always useful to revert to an analogy: If you are one of the world’s most renowned neurosurgeons, it doesn’t mean that your reasons for attending international conferences and symposia in your field is no longer valid. Quite to the contrary, in fact. There is great value to be found in our collective experience, knowledge sharing and, therefore, becoming the host for such a debate. As we come closer to June 2nd 2019 and the opening ceremony of the 15th World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities, we will be sharing with you some of the most important developments, interesting personal stories, places, statistics, as well as inviting you to become part of the discussion across our #krakowheritage / #owhc2019krakow social media channels. Stay tuned!

 

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