Prague’s UNESCO status questioned but authorities play down concerns

Prague, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Prague’s historic city centre has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992. However, membership in the prestigious club could come under threat, at least according to a report by UNESCO experts who visited the Czech capital this summer. The Czech Minister of Culture has pledged to look into the matter, but City Hall officials say that the matter has been exaggerated.

Prague,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
Prague is a beautiful city and likes to show it off. Indeed, every visitor who arrives at Prague Airport is confronted with posters highlighting that the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

However, a recently published report produced by a joint UNESCO and International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) monitoring mission contains some worrying conclusions in its executive summary.

Namely, it states that the Czech state has not responded to the concerns, recommendations and requests regarding the number of large-scale development projects proposed within the site’s buffer zone.

Furthermore, it recommends that a high-rise limitation plan should be adopted in order to avoid the spoiling of Prague’s historic urban landscape.

Josef Štulc is the head of the Prague branch of ICOMOS, whose representatives were part of the monitoring team. He says the mistakes mentioned in the report point to serious negligence on the part of the state in adhering to UNESCO World Heritage conditions.

“We already broke the International Council’s 70 meter maximum building height recommendation once, when we allowed the construction of the 140 meter tall V-Tower in Pankrác. Now more of these high-rise buildings are being considered for construction.

“It is not just that. The report also states reservations to the new metropolitan plan, or the risks connected to the prepared Building Act. There is plenty of criticism here.”

Culture Minister Lubomír Zaorálek says that there is no immediate danger of the Czech capital being removed from the heritage list, but he did pledge to look into the issue in more detail.

“We will send a statement on this matter and further debate on the issue will also take place. It is possible that our conclusions will be sent to UNESCO sometime next year.”

Pankrác highrises,  photo: Šjů,  CC BY 4.0
A less concerned reply came from Prague City Hall’s deputy mayor for territorial development and planning, Petr Hlaváček, who attended discussions with the UNESCO team.

He says that UNESCO’s issue is primarily with the state and dismissed the concerns around the metropolitan plan.

“They say that if the metropolitan was to be adopted in its current state it would pose a potential threat. However, this is a document that is currently going through consultation, so there is no threat right now. It is necessary to be consistent while reading this report, to be just and not disinform.”

The Prague Institute for Planning and Development is in charge of the metropolitan plan project. Its spokesman, Marek Vácha, says that the Prague administration was actually hoping UNESCO experts would provide advice on how to deal with the city’s mass tourism problem.

He also admits that Prague’s UNESCO status can be a hindrance in its urban development.

“The UNESCO conservation ring extends over a radius of roughly nine kilometres. It includes the historic and wider city centre. That means coming up with development plans is not easy. If we cannot build quality architectural buildings in Pankrác for example then it is no surprise that tourists only hang around in the centre.”