Is the village of Riverside so important to world culture that it deserves designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site? On Jan. 16, the Riverside village board gave its blessing to one of the village’s residents to find out.
Paul Stack, a local attorney and former village president, admitted his proposal was “a pretty high reach. It has to be important to the overall world culture.”
But, he said, “the more I thought about it, the more I looked, the more I believed we would be listed.”
Now that he has the board’s blessing, Stack said he will begin to assemble a committee to do the research to determine how to tackle the application process, which will be a long one.
Stack said he wants to assemble a team of five or six people who are not involved in village government and who are not on any village commissions in order for the committee members to fully focus on the UNESCO application.
Anyone who is interested in participating is asked to contact Riverside Village Manager Peter Scalera.
“The first thing we have to do is collect information and educate ourselves on a variety of things,” said Stack. “Then we have to really dig into the historical aspect of Riverside.”
Riverside has already been designated a National Historic Landscape District for its landscape design by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Being designated a World Heritage Site is the highest level of recognition for cultural significance that can be awarded by UNESCO, which is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Just 21 properties in the United States have been designated World Heritage Site, almost all of them natural areas, such as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Yosemite National Park. Also on the list are structures like the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall and Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.
But there are examples of specific urban and village areas that have also been named World Heritage Sites, including the city center in Salzburg, Austria, and the fortress city of Carcassonne.
According to Stack, Olmsted’s design of Riverside is just as unique and had a real impact on international land use and planning in the century and a half that followed it.
Riverside, said Stack, meets two of UNESCO’s five criteria for being a place of “outstanding universal value,” including being an example of a type of “landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history.”
Where Riverside was “way, way ahead of the curve” with regard to planning and land use was its use of covenants to put restrictions on what property owners could do with their properties. Riverside’s deep setbacks, for example, restricted placement of homes on lots. The restrictions were used well before zoning codes were written.
“The effect of what Olmsted did showed restrictions could be put on ownership of property,” said Stack. “This kind of zoning is still in effect.”
Riverside was also designed with social goals in mind, said Stack. Its landscape promotes the kind of tranquility and fraternity that the members of the Riverside Improvement Company, many of whom were Civil War veterans, sought in the wake of the terrible conflict.
“Riverside came out of the Civil War,” said Stack. “They wanted the quiet, stillness and tranquility.
“Riverside wasn’t a utopia, but he was trying to set up what he believed to be an ideal suburb.”
The application process will likely take years to complete, and Stack said he doesn’t expect his committee to have an application complete for at least three years. And then the process is just beginning.
First, the application must be submitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which will decide whether to put Riverside on its tentative list of UNESCO sites. That list is then forwarded to the State Department, which would submit it to UNESCO for consideration.
It could then take years for UNESCO to make any kind of determination. The organization still has not made a determination on any of the applications of 13 sites in the United States submitted in 2008.