Bridge could cost Dresden its UN world heritage status

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The Independent Online

The works of 18th-century Baroque artists won Dresden its reputation as "Florence on the Elbe" and a multi-billion dollar post-war reconstruction effort has since restored its bomb-shattered remains almost to its former glory.

Yet the capital of the east German state of Saxonyfaces the prospect of losing its hard-won and recently gained status as a Unesco world heritage site because of an apparently unwinnable dispute over a road traffic bridge project.

Despite opposition, Dresden's city government this week announced its intention to press ahead with plans for the construction of an 800m-long, four-lane bridge that will cross the Elbe just upstream from the city, in an attempt to reduce growing traffic congestion.

Last year the formal reconsecration of the city's symbolic church became the focus of global media attention. More than €130m (£88m) was spent on an 11-year scheme to reconstruct the building destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945. Unesco and environmentalists insist that the bridge will destroy the historic and panoramic view of the city.

Birgitta Ringbeck, a delegate from Unesco's German committee, has said that the bridge project is a "national disgrace", and has informed the Saxon state government that Dresden will lose its world heritage site status, granted in 2004, if the project goes ahead.

"This will be a first - so far no German city has ever been struck off the list," she said last week.

Dresden's city councillors point to a city-wide plebiscite in February last year which resulted in a two-thirds majority voting in favour of the bridge.

Jan Mücke, a liberal councillor and fervent bridge supporter, said: "Of course there will be discussions about this at an international level and this will not be nice for Germany. The bridge is wholly legitimate from a democratic point of view."

The project's backers claim that Unesco has failed to suggest any alternatives to cope with the city's traffic problems, and argue that democratic principles are being trampled on by the UN organisation.

The city council stresses that under German law the outcome of a plebiscite can only be overturned by a second plebiscite, which needs the approval of two-thirds of its members. They say another round of voting is unlikely because more than two-thirds of the city's council members support the project.

Unesco counters that Dresden applied for world heritage site status of its own free will, and that as a holder of the title the city inevitably renounces some of its sovereignty.

Germany's Green Party this week demanded that an attempt be made for national reconciliation. Germany's foreign and culture ministries, Unesco's normal discussion partners, have kept out of the dispute. The German media have largely opposed the project.

Next week Dresden reopens its 17th-century collection of artefacts procured by the former king of Saxony, August the Strong.