City of Bath: UNESCO designation in no danger

Editor’s note: For the past half-year Clive Doucet has traveled through Asia Minor and Europe examining some of the world’s most ancient human settlements. In that time he visited ten Paleolithic and Neolithic sites, and dozens of still-occupied settlements from the Roman era. He reports that he toured the sites “by tram, bus, ferry, subway, overnight express train – and one private car rental”.

This post is his last installment filed from abroad, and, as Clive has now returned to Ottawa to take up a position as a Visiting Scholar at Carleton University’s College of the Humanities, the “On Cities” feature will once again be written from his home base.


There are no high rises in Jane Austen’s Bath. The one shopping centre I have been able to find is approached by foot and from the outside looks the same as an 18th century building. The buildings themselves are constructed from a honey-yellow limestone that glows in the sunlight and glowers in the rain.

You can find all of the houses and apartments that the Austen family ‘let’ in Bath, they’re all a comfortable walk one from the other. The Austen’s family wasn’t rich. Jane’s father was a clergyman, farmer and school teacher and with eight children had to work hard to make ends meet. Yet, they all did very well. Two of her brothers became Admirals of the Fleet. Another became a clergyman like his father and took over the parsonage at Stevenson where Jane had been raised.  Like most families, the Austen’s had mixed luck. She had one brother who was born with a serious mental handicap. Another who went bankrupt as a banker and hurt many of his friends and family in the bank’s failure. Cassandra and Jane both lost their ‘men’ to sudden death.

Success is written in many registers and if independence and accomplishment count for anything, the family enjoyed extraordinary success. Jane was writing at a time when women were not supposed to attach their name to accomplishments that men would be honoured to have, but she defied convention, refused to marry for position and lived to see her own books published under her own name. Her six novels are not only still in print but she is loved and read the world over. There have been so many ‘series’ and films made of ‘Emma’, ‘Persuasion’ that a walk around Bath feels a bit like a walk around a movie set instead of a city.

I keep expecting to turn around a corner and see the movie set of Baroque Bath disappear into the modern mish mash of high rises, franchises, big boxes and parking lots, but it never happens. I asked a local where all the highrises were? And she pointed to a brass diamond slashed inside a circle – the sign which indicates a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entire city of Bath has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for the beauty of stone buildings, the consistency and coherency of its architecture and the tightness of its urban form.

Today, you can still walk down the same paths and streets, city parks and area woods that Jane walked in and created the famous scenes between characters like Captain Wentworth and Miss Anne Elliot. They’re still here. They haven’t been torn down or torn up for a big box store or a ten story building. To my North American eyes, which are so accustomed to seeing old neighbourhoods torn apart like old rugs, it’s all a little hard to believe, but it’s real.

Like any exceptional place, modern Bath has attracted the attention of the rich and famous. The actor Nicholas Cage has a home here as does John Clease of Monty Python fame. No doubt, one day their names will be enshrined on a plaque and attached to their houses as the famous from the past have been, but I doubt they will have an Exhibition Centre devoted to their lives and careers or public walking tours of their favourite haunts. Jane Austen does.

One of the many things that I have learned on this long jaunt through Turkey and Europe is how seriously the Europeans take the UNESCO World Heritage designation.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a cave in the country celebrating a Palaeolithic site or the beautiful banks of the Seine in Paris or an entire city like Bath, that designation is regarded as pure gold and it is for the world sits up and pays attention, bringing tourists and affection from the most distant countries.  This is a great thing for any city lucky enough to get a UNESCO designation.

Looking at the way, Ottawa has reacted to the designation of the Rideau Canal as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is difficult to see how that designation will be retained once the conversion of the park into a shopping and housing complex begins. Lansdowne Park was originally built on an inlet of the Canal and since 1868 has been integral to the public urban landscape of the canal. It’s conversion will change the character of the banks of the waterway with a bus turnaround beside the canal, the loss of the heritage designation for the Horticulture building and the loss of historic sight lines and views of the Aberdeen Pavilion. Unless there are special rules for North American designations, I can’t see how we will keep the UNESCO designation in Ottawa.

photo by Neil Howard

8 comments

  1. Mr. Doucet should take a tour of Lansdowne “Park”.  What he will find is a scene from the History Channel show Life After People.  Lansdowne is not a park.  It is an ugly parking lot with a couple of derelict buildings.  The entire site is surrounded by an ugly chain link fence.  Access to this urban rot is effectively blocked.

    The city now has a plan to turn to site into a place where people are welcome.  It will be a sports and entertainment hotspot where people can live, work and play.  Ottawa residents clearly reject Mr. Doucet’s vision last election.  Time for Mr. Doucet to move on.

  2. We all agree that Lansdowne Park badly needs to have the park put back in it. What the issue is how to do it. Every poll has shown is that at least 50 per cent of Ottawa residents don’t believe the solution is giving away the city’s oldest public space to a group of developers for commercial and residential development. The city has many malls, many condos, it has only one Lansdowne Park. This is the issue.

    As for a stadium, the city’s own studies show, Lansdowne doesn’t even land in the top 5 sites being loaded with old dump, environmental hazards and impossible to provide with rapid transit to which is critical for a city wide sports and enterainment venue.

    These are the issues. They’ve always been the issues and my particular electoral fate doesn’t change them.

  3. I think it’s a real stretch to imply that redeveloping Landsdowne Park will have any affect on the UNESCO status of the Rideau Canal. You can’t access the canal from Landsdowne without crossing the busy street that serves as a barrier between the two sites. You can’t even see the canal from most of Landsdowne!

    I just read the UNESCO description of the Rideau Canal. Landsdowne Park is not mentioned once. In fact, this is part of the historical description:

    “As with many canals, the Rideau Canal seems to have formed a catalyst for development. Ottawa grew around the canal as it runs southward from the Ottawa River, and elsewhere towns sprung up on the canal’s banks. This is typical of economic development associated with canals, and mirrors the development of towns following canal building elsewhere in the world.”

    So commercial development is actually part of the canal’s heritage.

    (As a side note, Bath almost lost its UNESCO designation in 2009. So it’s fair to say that even European cities that consider the designation “pure gold” struggle to balance heritage requirements with the needs of a modern metro area for new housing and commercial development).

  4. The canal’s original purpose was military.  Using Clive Doucet’s logic, we should build barracks and ammo depots in order to preserve the UNESCO designation.  I think Ottawa residents have heard enough from Clive.  With only 14% of the vote last election, not much else need to be said.

    • Steve,

      Speaking of logic I am a bit confused by yours ; if I read you right, you’re implying that only people who get the most votes for mayor have worthwhile things to say about the city.

      Of course it’s a farcical stand to take, but to take it to its “logical” conclusion: if we were to (hypothetically) accept electoral standing as the measure that permits people to comment, then it would follow that Clive has more right to comment than only two other people in Ottawa – Mayor Watson and Larry O’Brien.

      After all, Clive got thousands more votes than all the people that didn’t even bother to run in the first place.

  5. Dear Virginia,

    You are quite right Lansdowne Park has had a zillion commercial purposes, everything from selling the first electric stoves, to horse racing, farmer’s markets, to boat racing, to demolition derbies.   It is a Victorian Era Exhibition Grounds which functioned as a park space and also as kind of public theatre set upon which the commercial life of the city played out.  The only thing it hasn’t had is what it is about to get – permanent retail or commercial use.  Throughout the life of the park, everything had to be ‘struck’ like a theatre set, so the next group could move in and sell their wares, advertise, race, whatever. 

    What the mall/condo development  approved by Council does is permanently alienate the Exhibition Grounds (much of which was donated to the city by farmers) to three private developers forever.  This permanent alienation of the park was the one thing, that was never intended to happen either by the original creators of the Park or 140 years of subsequent management..  During the war not even truck gardening was allowed on this site as this was seen as too permanent.  

    Whether this will jeapordize the UNESCO World Heritage designation, I don’t know.  What I do know is in Budapest, in Paris, along Midi canal,the banks of these rivers and canals are all considered integral parts of the UNESCO designation.  What happens on the banks especially in the urban areas matters. The designation isn’t just about the water and the locks.  Clearly, this doesn’t seem to be the case in Ottawa.  There appears to be a different set of rules for North America, that was the only point I was making.

    Yours truly,

    Clive Doucet

  6. “Looking at the way, Ottawa has reacted to the designation of the Rideau Canal as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is difficult to see how that designation will be retained once the conversion of the park into a shopping and housing complex begins. Lansdowne Park was originally built on an inlet of the Canal and since 1868 has been integral to the public urban landscape of the canal. It’s conversion will change the character of the banks of the waterway with a bus turnaround beside the canal, the loss of the heritage designation for the Horticulture building and the loss of historic sight lines and views of the Aberdeen Pavilion. Unless there are special rules for North American designations, I can’t see how we will keep the UNESCO designation in Ottawa.”

    Clive,

    Ever been to Carcassonne? 

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