The UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The site covers an area of approximately 4.5km2 and contains nearly 4,500 individual buildings as well as ancient monuments, designed landscapes, and conservation areas.

Edinburgh throughout the ages

Modern day

About the UNESCO World Heritage Site

Edinburgh has long been celebrated as a city of international importance: an ancient royal burgh, the medieval Old Town alongside the world renowned eighteenth and nineteenth century classical New Town, all situated in a spectacular landscape of hills and valleys beside the wide estuary of the Firth of Forth.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognises World Heritage Sites as places of outstanding cultural, historical or scientific value. For each site, the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) is described in terms of the attributes which make it exceptional from a global perspective.

As a result, they are intended to promote peace and intercultural understanding as well as the protection of our shared cultural and natural heritage.

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention provides an international framework for protecting our heritage while achieving sustainable tourism and economic development within World Heritage Sites. The United Kingdom National Commission for UNESCO estimate that World Heritage sites in the UK generated £66 million in tourism revenue from April 2014 to March 2015.

What makes Edinburgh exceptional in an international context? These are the qualities that led to it becoming a World Heritage Site:

  1. The survival of two contrasting styles of urban development: the organic multiple layers of the medieval Old Town and the enlightened, spacious, ordered elegance of the New Town.
  2. The city’s fine collection of neo-classical monuments that reflect its status as Scotland’s capital. These monuments contribute to the richness and diversity of the townscape and their subjects represent a variety of personalities who were significant in their time.
  3. The dramatic hills and green spaces of the landscape, plus key buildings of the Old and New Towns give Edinburgh its iconic skyline that has inspired generations of artists, writers, visitors and residents.
  4. The survival and condition of Edinburgh’s historic buildings, many being authentic examples of their time – a noteworthy and rare quality.
  5. The Old and New Towns embody the changes in European urban planning from inward looking, defensive walled medieval cities, through 18th and 19th centuries formal Enlightenment planning, to the 19th century revival of the Old Town with its adaptation of a Baronial style of architecture in an urban setting.

The contrast between the organic medieval Old Town and the planned Georgian New Town provides a clarity of urban structure unrivalled in Europe. That contrast between these two distinctive townscapes, each of exceptional historic and architectural interest, which are linked across the landscape divide, by the North Bridge and by the Mound, creates the outstanding urban landscape.

The Old Town stretches along a high ridge from the Castle on its dramatically situated rock down to the Palace of Holyrood. It is characterised by the survival of the little‐altered medieval “fishbone” street pattern of narrow closes, wynds, and courts.

The national tradition of building tall on narrow plots created some of the world’s tallest buildings of their age.

Gladstone’s Land, the Canongate Tolbooth and St Giles’ Cathedral are distinctive buildings here.

The New Town, constructed between 1767 and 1890, is framed by an uncommonly high concentration of planned ensembles of ashlar‐faced, world‐class, neo‐classical buildings, associated with renowned architects, including John and Robert Adam, Sir William Chambers, and William Playfair.

Integrated with the townscape are gardens that provide private and public open spaces. Some of the finest public and commercial monuments of the neo‐classical revival in Europe survive, reflecting its continuing status as the capital of Scotland since 1437, and a major centre of thought and learning in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, with its close cultural and political links with mainland Europe.

The New Town set standards for Scotland and beyond, and exerted a major influence on the development of urban architecture and town planning throughout Europe.

UNESCO requires those responsible for a World Heritage Site have a way to manage it. In the UK, this takes the form of a management plan. This should:

  • Include the vision and goals for preserving and enhancing Edinburgh’s OUV
  • Explain the special qualities and values of the Site
  • Lay out policies to protect the Site
  • Provide support for monitoring future developments planned for the Site

The three partners responsible for managing the site are The City of Edinburgh CouncilHistoric Environment Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage.

The Council’s planning system identifies listed buildings and conservation areas. The Local Development Plan requires that all new development in the city considers the World Heritage status, and any potential impact on it.

Buildings of architectural or historical interest are listed as category A (national or international importance), B (regional or more than local importance), or C (local importance).

Protect the historic character of an area. Not only buildings, but also features such as trees, parks, paving and street furniture.

Listed buildings and conservation areas are not meant to stop change. They make sure that change happens in a managed way, so that the unique character of the World Heritage Site can be maintained.

The management plan provides guidance on how to achieve this – in a sustainable way that balances the needs of communities and visitors, protects the environment, supports a vibrant cultural scene and strengthens society.