The historic centre of Vilnius was the first object in Lithuania listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Twenty five years later, tensions between development and heritage preservation remain.
Vilnius has preserved a layout of a medieval city, UNESCO said when it listed it in 1994, with a wide variety of historical buildings in fascinating natural settings.
The blend of the natural and the man-built is what makes Vilnius Old Town unique, says Vidmantas Bezaras, the head of the Culture Heritage Department.
“And this is where we often make mistakes,” he adds, explaining that overdevelopment on the city's riverbanks erodes this unique balance.
An ongoing development project on the slopes by the river Vilnia drew particular protests from the public, provoking rallies and appeals to UNESCO.
The world heritage preservation agency has recommended that Vilnius adopt a management plan, but the document has yet to be prepared. Nor has the city drafted a heritage impact assessment, also demanded by UNESCO.
The Ministry of Culture says that one of the pressing issues is to make the process of preparing heritage projects less bureaucratic.
“But the most important and essential problem is the way we ourselves, residents and owners, relate and value what we have,” says Culture Minister Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, adding that educating local politicians and owners about historical heritage is key.
A special body, the Old Town Renewal Agency, is charged with supervising that development abides by UNESCO rules. However, it has little real power to fine or stop threatening projects.
The agency's head, Gediminas Rutkauskas, says that at least attitudes are changing and developers are more sensitive to the historic context of their projects and aware of their responsibility.
“Before, the attitude was, to put it roughly: tear down, build up, and do it as fast as you can,” Rutkauskas says.
Vice Mayor of Vilnius Vytautas Mitalas also says that both the city authorities and residents are more enlightened now. The city is offering incentives for owners investing in heritage preservation.
“There will be tax exemptions for entities working to adapt, renovate, restore cultural heritage objects in the Old Town according to heritage recommendations,” Mitalas says, referring to rules adopted by the city council this year.
Founded in the early 14th century as the seat of Grand Duke Gediminas, for several hundred years Vilnius exerted a strong influence on the architectural and cultural development in Eastern Europe. Historians also note its multiple layers: Vilnius can be approached as a Baroque treasure, a centre of Yiddish culture and a Ruthenian city.
Three more sites in Lithuania are on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites: the Curonian Spit, the Kernavė Archaeological Site and the Struve Geodetic Arc