What is a World Heritage site?

Selecting UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The Sydney Opera House is recognized as a World Heritage site for its excellence in design.
The Sydney Opera House is recognized as a World Heritage site for its excellence in design.
Doug Menuez/Getty Images

Although a country technically retains official ownership of World Heritage sites within its borders, UNESCO states that the sites belong to everybody. Using that definition, you and I hold stock in 832 cultural sites, 206 natural sites and 35 mixed properties [source: UNESCO], as of October 2017. We are partial owners of the Great Wall, Venice and Vatican City. Feeling giddy yet? You can also lay claim to Independence Hall, the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. Pretty cool.

A site must meet at least one of these ten selection criteria to make the World Heritage List. The first six criteria relate to cultural sites, while the remainder relate to natural ones. A summary of these criteria is listed below, followed by an example of a site that qualifies in that category.

  1. Represents an architectural masterpiece, such as the Sydney Opera House, which illustrates a feat of engineering and modern design with its shell structure.
  2. Displays an important exchange of human values, like the Speyer Cathedral, which dates back to the Holy Roman Empire and served as the burial place of German emperors.
  3. Bears unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or civilization. An example is the Agra Fort in India, a 16th century monument that houses a number of palaces and mosques.
  4. Exemplifies a type of building that illustrates a significant stage in human history. The Megalithic Temples of Malta, a group of seven giant temples on the islands of Malta and Gozo that show the importance of temple-building, qualified for this criteria.
  5. A traditional human settlement that is an outstanding representation of a culture, especially one that has survived despite environmental pressure. The Curonian Spit, a long sand peninsula in the Baltic Sea, was made a World Heritage site for people's efforts to stop its erosion since prehistoric times.
  6. Associated with events or living traditions of outstanding universal significance, such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the only building standing after the atomic bomb exploded over the city in 1945.
  7. Contains fantastic natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty, such as the majestic Kilimanjaro National Park, which is home to myriad endangered species.
  8. Ilustrates major stages of earth's history, such as the Messel Pit Fossil Site in Germany, which contains well-preserved fossils from the Eocene period that are more than 30 million years old.
  9. Captures significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the development of communities of plants and animals. Shirakami-Sanchi, the last remaining stand of Siebold's beech trees in northern Japan where 87 species of birds live, meets this criteria.
  10. ­Contains important natural habitats for conserving biological diversity, such as the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, which is home to some of the last remaining okapi -- a relative of the giraffe -- among other animals.

[source: UNESCO]

Along with the above criteria, management, protection and integrity of nominated sites also factor into the decision. So who decides what gets on the list and what doesn't? Find out who's behind the decision-making process on the next page.