SF America’s first city with UNESCO World Heritage status?

There is not a single American city that enjoys coveted UNESCO World Heritage designation, an international categorization that brings attention, tourism, and preservation. Could San Francisco be first?

That’s the vision of a plan led by Karalyn Monteil, the former director of the nonprofit San Francisco Heritage, who will take up a new post at UNESCO in June.

When a city is declared a World Heritage Site, it rises above the local or national landmark category – it means that it is something important to all of humanity.

“Think of the pyramids in Egypt,” said Monteil. “Everyone in the world would like these to always be there, and people would come together to protect them.”

The idea of ​​declaring San Francisco a World Heritage Site is just one step closer to being a reality. Key stakeholders — including San Francisco planning director Rich Hillis and Historic Preservation Commission president Diane Matsuda — have agreed to create a task force to follow up on the nomination, Monteil said.

According to Monteil, it’s not just the beauty that makes San Francisco unique.

“We should also highlight San Francisco’s LGBTQ history and culture,” Monteil said. “Because that would make it the only World Heritage site in the world with an LGBTQ theme.”

The World Heritage Committee has already conducted an analysis of the gaps on its list that could give San Francisco a natural advantage.

“We already have 30 quaint Italian towns in Italy with a church on a hill, but LGBTQ isn’t anywhere,” Monteil said.

Strollers stroll from Baker Beach to Marshall Beach near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

Although it takes an average of three years to formalize a nomination, the city is not starting from scratch.

“San Francisco put so much effort into preparing historical context statements and landmark nominations,” said Monteil. “Many research results are available and have already been published.”

Still, the process would be lengthy and might encounter many hurdles.

“A lot depends on politics,” said Francesco Bandarin, director emeritus of the UNESCO World Heritage Center. “The mayor is very important.”

The naming itself also entails logistical challenges. One of the reasons American cities are not on the UNESCO list is that, unlike other countries, the US requires that all property owners agree to the World Heritage designation – an impossible task when considering the landscape of an entire city ​​considered, Bandarin said.

But by focusing on natural landmarks — like Golden Gate Park, the country’s largest park — and iconic single-owner landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, the city could push its proposal forward.

“It’s a global icon,” Bandarin said. “But it’s not a truly international city, and that would boost its status.”

Rio de Janeiro, a city already on the UNESCO list, could serve as a model where a complex of natural and cultural landscapes around the city were considered together to give the city World Heritage status, Bandarin said.

“Whether the process is lengthy or even successful, it’s time to inject some energy into San Francisco’s exceptional qualities,” said Tia Lombardi, board member of SF Heritage, who previously oversaw public affairs programs at the Presidio Trust.

“People forget how extraordinarily beautiful this city is,” said Monteil.


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