How World Heritage sites are declared: 10 criteria explained


Definition of Cultural Heritage

For the purposes of the World Heritage Convention, the following are considered as “cultural heritage”:

  • Monuments: architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, cave dwellings and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science
  • Groups of buildings: groups of separate or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape, are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science
  • Sites: works of man or the combined works of nature and of man, and areas including archaeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological points of view.

World Heritage Criteria

The Criteria for Selection: To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of OUV (Outstanding universal value) and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.

There are 10 criteria for World Heritage inscription.
Criteria (i) to (vi) relate to cultural properties and are therefore assessed by ICOMOS, and the remaining criteria (vii) to (x) relate to natural properties and are assessed by IUCN.

While many properties may only meet some natural or cultural criteria, mixed properties will meet some natural as well as some cultural criteria. Nominations of mixed properties are evaluated by both IUCN and ICOMOS.

Criterion 1: Masterpiece

Represent a masterpiece of human creative genius

This criterion relates to an outstanding example (perhaps the peak or a landmark example) of a style evolved within a culture having a high level of artistic, technical or technological skills.

Under criterion (i) what is required is a masterpiece of human creative genius. Some prehistoric structures have become icons for the creativity and technical sophistication of prehistoric peoples for instance; in other cases, the collective works of a community can be deemed to have achieved the status of a masterpiece. Some industrial structures are also seen to have risen above the functional to embody creativity to the point of genius.

How World Heritage sites are declared
Example 1
Taj Mahal, India

Taj Mahal represents the finest Indian architectural and artistic achievement through perfect harmony and excellent craftsmanship in a whole range of Indo-Islamic sepulchral architecture. It is a masterpiece of architectural style in conception, treatment and execution and has unique aesthetic qualities in balance, symmetry and harmonious blending of various elements. Hence it falls under World Heritage sites criteria making it a World Heritage site.

How World Heritage sites are declared
Example 2
Sydney Opera House, Australia

Inaugurated in 1973, the Sydney Opera House is a great architectural work of the 20th century that brings together multiple strands of creativity and innovation in both architectural form and structural design. A great urban sculpture set in a remarkable waterscape, the building has had an enduring influence on architecture. Therefore this Opera house also falls under

Criterion 2: Values / Influences

Exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design.

The key phrase in this criterion is ’interchange of human values’. The physical assets of a property can be said to relate to an interchange of ideas and this can be interpreted in several different ways:
• The property may be the embodiment of an idea or concept imported from another region or area;
• Alternatively, the property may itself have prompted the interchange of human values through inspiring ideas that influenced other areas; and
• Thirdly, there could have been a two-way flow of ideas, with the property displaying some sort of cultural fusion or local adaptation that could be deemed to be emblematic in some way.

How World Heritage sites are declared
Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, Australia

The Royal Exhibition Building and the surrounding Carlton Gardens, as the main extant survivors of a Palace of Industry and its setting, together reflect the global influence of the international exhibition movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement showcased technological innovation and change, which helped promote a rapid increase in industrialisation and international trade through the exchange of knowledge and ideas.

Criterion 3: Testimony

Bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.

This criterion considers processes – cultural traditions that have, normally over a long period of time, defined a way of life or civilization in a geo-cultural region. Such traditions may still be living or may have disappeared in which case the testimony is their memorial.

The traditions may be ways of building, spatial planning, or urban patterns or maybe intangible but with precise tangible results – such as for instance rock art images which can reflect ideas or aspects of cultural traditions.
The keywords are ’exceptional testimony’. The testimony is the evidence of a cultural tradition or civilization and must clearly be found in the nominated property.

Agra fort under World Heritage site
Agra Fort, India

Near the gardens of the Taj Mahal stands the important 16th-century Mughal monument known as the Red Fort of Agra. This powerful fortress of red sandstone encompasses, within its 2.5-km-long enclosure walls, the imperial city of the Mughal rulers. It comprises many fairy-tale palaces, such as the Jahangir Palace and the Khas Mahal, built by Shah Jahan; audience halls, such as the Diwan-i-Khas; and two very beautiful mosques.

Criterion 4: Typology

Be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.

The essence of this criterion is that the property must in some way demonstrate that it is associated with a defining moment or moments – or significant stage(s) in human history. The property may have been prompted by that moment, or may reflect its impact. The historical moment needs to be deemed to be of outstanding importance.

The stages may relate to political or economic history, or equally to artistic or scientific history, which had far-reaching consequences. The property must illustrate a significant stage in human history, in an outstanding way. Such a stage needs to be assessed in a regional and global context, and the stage must be important in that context.

How World Heritage sites are declared
Hallstatt-Dachstein / Salzkammergut Cultural Landscape, Austria

The Hallstatt-Dachstein alpine region is an outstanding example of a natural landscape of great beauty and scientific interest which also contains evidence of fundamental human economic activity. The cultural landscape of the region boasts a continuing evolution covering 2500 years. Its history from the very beginning is linked primarily with the economic history of salt extraction. Salt mining has always determined all aspects of life as well as architectural and artistic material evidence. Therefore, making it a World Heritage site under criterion- 4, i.e.typology.

Criterion 5: Land-use

Be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.

The key phrase is ’land-use’. There must be some reasonably long period of time associated with the settlement or use in order for it to be considered traditional. The settlement or use must also be an outstanding representation of a culture or human interaction with the environment. That is, the settlement or use must be important within the life of the culture, or the human interaction must have universal relevance.

Neusiedlersee Cultural Landscape- World Heritage site
Fertö / Neusiedlersee Cultural Landscape, Austria/ Hungary

The Fertö-Neusiedler Lake has been the meeting place of different cultures for eight millennia, and this is graphically demonstrated by its varied landscape, the result of an evolutionary and symbiotic process of human interaction with the physical environment. The lake and its surroundings are an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement and land use representative of a culture. Hence, it is a world heritage site in this category.

Criterion 6: Associates

Be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria).

This criterion relates to associations that may not have a tangible impact within the property, but can be clearly and directly demonstrated. The starting point for this criterion must be that the events, traditions, ideas, beliefs or artistic or literary works are of outstanding universal significance.

Then the way these events, traditions, ideas, beliefs or artistic or literary works are demonstrated directly or tangibly in the property needs to be set out. This criterion may only be used if the physical aspects of the property are of Outstanding Universal Value, it preferably satisfies at least one other criterion, and it can be protected for agreed attributes that convey Outstanding Universal Value.

World heritage site
Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Japan

The Committee decided to inscribe the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) on the World Heritage List, exceptionally on the basis of cultural criterion (vi). It is a stark and powerful symbol of the achievement of world peace for more than half a century following the unleashing of the most destructive force ever created by humanity. Therefore it is a World heritage site.

Criterion 7: Natural Beauty

Contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.

Two distinct ideas are embodied in this criterion. The first, ’superlative natural phenomena’, can often be objectively measured and assessed (e.g. deepest canyon, highest mountain, largest cave system, highest waterfall, etc.). The second concept, that of ’exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance’, is harder to assess.

This criterion applies to natural properties which are seen as having exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance. The application of this criterion should not be confused with the recognition of the aesthetics of cultural properties and cultural landscapes that is currently expressed through the use of the cultural criteria.

Monarch Butterfly biosphere is a Heritage site
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Mexico

The 56,259 ha biosphere reserve lies within rugged forested mountains about 100 km north-west of Mexico City. Every autumn, millions butterflies from wide areas of North America return to the site and cluster on small areas of the forest reserve, coloring its trees orange and literally bending their branches under their collective weight. Henceforth, it is a World Heritage site.

Criterion 8: Changes

Be outstanding examples representing major stages of Earth’s history, including the record of life, significant ongoing geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features.

Properties where discoveries have led to radical changes in our understanding of Earth history and geological processes are considered, rather than very narrow ranging and highly specialized features. In view of the specialized nature of some geological nominations, IUCN takes advice from geological experts. This criterion involves four distinct, although closely linked, natural elements relevant to geological and geomorphological science, as follows:

  • Earth’s history
  • The record of life
  • Significant ongoing geological processes in the development of landforms
  • Significant geomorphic or physiographic features
Selection of World heritage site- Whale valley
Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley) , Egypt

Wadi Al-Hitan is the most important site in the world to demonstrate one of the iconic changes that make up the record of life on Earth: the evolution of the whales. It portrays vividly their form and mode of life during their transition from land animals to a marine existence. It exceeds the values of other comparable sites in terms of the number, concentration and quality of its fossils, and their accessibility and setting in an attractive and protected landscape.

Criterion 9: Biodiversity

Be outstanding examples representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals.

The assessment of this criterion depends on the scientific knowledge and understanding of Earth’s ecosystems and the ecological and biological processes associated with their dynamics. To assess this criterion in an objective manner, IUCN and partners have developed a number of global thematic studies such as on forests, wetlands, marine and coastal areas, mountains, small island ecosystems and boreal forests.

Rain forest of Madagascar is a Heritage site under UNESCO
Rainforests of the Atsinanana, Madagascar

The Rain forests of the Atsinanana are critically important for maintaining ongoing ecological processes necessary for the survival of Madagascar’s unique biodiversity, which reflects the island’s geological history. The rain forests are inscribed for their importance to both ecological and biological processes as well as their biodiversity and the threatened species they support. Many species are rare and threatened especially primates and lemurs. Hence, it is a world heritage site.

Criterion 10: Habitats

Contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of Outstanding Universal Value from the point of view of science or conservation.

There are a range of tools available to help assess this criterion, including the IUCN Red List, Centers of Plant Diversity, Endemic Bird Areas of the World, Conservation International’s Biodiversity Hotspots, and WWF’s Global 200 Ecoregions for Saving Life on Earth.

Socotra island, World heritage site
Socotra Archipelago, Yemen

Socotra Archipelago, in the northwest Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden, is of universal importance because of its biodiversity with rich and distinct flora and fauna: 37 per cent of Socotra’s 825 plant species, 90 per cent of its reptile species and 95 per cent of its land-snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world. The site also supports globally significant populations of land and sea birds including a number of threatened species. The marine life of Socotra is also very diverse. Therefore, it is a world heritage site under criterion 10.

  1. ICOMOS publications- Monuments and Sites
  5. Preparing World Heritage Nominations (Second edition, 2011)
    Published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

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