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Geographically, the Hoge Kempen area covers the following municipalities partly or as a whole: As, Dilsen-Stokkem, Genk, Lanaken, Maaseik, Maasmechelen, Opglabbeek and Zutendaal. At the heart of the area lies Hoge Kempen National Park, which is surrounded by more forests, heath land and scenic areas, village centres, streams and the former colliers of Winterslag, Waterschei, Zwartberg and Eisden.
Geologically, the area consists of the Kempen Plateau: a gravel sediment cone formed during the Ice Ages with very pronounced plateau edges due to the river Meuse cutting through its own sediment and resulting in the eastern drop.
The Hoge Kempen landscape has a typical, lean, gravel-rich sandy soil, mainly resulting in heathland, coniferous and ancient forests. Other striking landscape characteristics are the landmarks of the early 20th-century collieries, i.c.: headgear and slag heaps (spoil tips). The landscape is intersected by a few large stream valleys and includes some very rich natural spring areas near the eastern drop of the Kempen Plateau. Several villages, town centres, hamlets and garden cities (belonging to the mining districts) are dotted throughout the area, which also includes former gravel and sand quarries currently being transformed into scenic nature areas.
The Hoge Kempen site is a mixed, evolutionary cultural landscape. Its combined strengths ensure that criteria (iv), (vi) and (viii) - set by the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention - are met, criteria which reinforce each other greatly. The three criteria of Hoge Kempen make an entangled union. The geological formation of the subsoil - an underground coal layer and the barren, gravel-rich sand at the surface - influenced the economic activity and everyday life of the inhabitants of the region from early prehistorical times until this day. Due to human intervention (Neolithic throughout Modern times), inland heather vegetation developed on this sand, which was the basis for agriculture for centuries and also became the subject of an artistic and scientific movement at a later stage (19th century). The discovery of coal ensured that an entire industry developed employing people from all over Europe (1902 - 1980's). These two land-based economic phenomena had an enormous architectural and social impact, the effects of the latter still persisting, and contributed to the current Hoge Kempen landscape.
The unique feature that the Hoge Kempen area reflects within its landscape, is the transition from a rural to an industrial society, which obviously happened in a lot of places in the world but is still very visible in and even typical for the Hoge Kempen landscape.
(iv) The Hoge Kempen landscape materializes a unique and representative example of an important phase in western history: the radical turning point from a rural to an industrial economic system. Both systems are visibly represented next to each other and confront each other in the delicate mosaic that is the current Hoge Kempen landscape (garden cities on heath land plains, etc).
(vi) The Hoge Kempen cultural landscape is materially and immaterially connected to 19th-century, Western European landscape painting as a subject and as a work environment; it includes unique community expression of local, Southern and Eastern European cultures as a result of 20th-century migration flows organized and/or initiated by the mining industry.
(viii) Hoge Kempen is the best-kept example in Europe of an intact, sizeable river sediment cone formed during the most recent Ice Ages. All representative elements (pebbles, gravel deposits, glacial ground profiles, dry valleys, wind-borne sand deposits, drop) convincingly explain the (late) glacial formation of Western Europe.
National Park Hoge Kempen (5700 hectares) forms the core zone of the nomination site. It is recognized by the Flemish government, by IUCN and Europarc Federation. It's protected by international (Natura 2000) and national planning and conservation policies.
The majority of buildings of the former mining sites, other monuments, building groups, landscape or natural areas on the nomination site, are listed as monuments, sites and nature reserves, and are formally protected. In the case of built structures, the need for restoration is thoroughly examined, and current scientific standards are applied where needed.
Where (listed) buildings or features are given new functions, this is done respectfully, taking into account the historical and original components and the surrounding landscape or natural environment. Often the new function is situated in the cultural sector.
The four garden cities - belonging to the mining sites of Winterslag, Waterschei, Zwartberg and Eisden - still retain their typical street patterns, plantation instructions and architectural features. A selection of the buildings is presently listed as monument.
The Hoge Kempen's tangible and intangible heritage of heath land, agriculture and mining industry, are commonly known and typical for the area. Inhabitants are proud of their own heritage and many local heritage organizations (voluntary and professional) are active throughout the area. Exhibits and festivities belong to their activities, but research and caretaking of collections, libraries and archives is the core business - as is the case with many provincial and national heritages initiatives. This means that extended documentation (documents, photography, studies, sound recordings, areal maps, living traditions etc.) on the Hoge Kempen heritage values is available.
A database of all heritage features in the Hoge Kempen landscape (http://www.erfgoedkempen.be) has been set up and is being adapted and completed in progress.
The World Heritage List includes a total of 911 subjects (1/1/2011). A comparative analysis was
conducted, looking specifically at cultural landscapes in Europe. Within this group, all relevant and comparable sites were selected by means of thematic benchmarks, such as glacial landscape formation, heather vegetation, artists, land use, mixed heritage and mining history (with a focus on the last 3 benchmarks).
Based on these elements, 10 out of 911 files remained, which were studied more in detail with regard to their similarities and differences:
- Cornwall & West-Devon mining landscape (United Kingdom)
- Blaenavon industrial landscape (United Kingdom)
- Mont Perdu (France & Spain)
- Saint Kilda (United Kingdom)
- South Öland (Sweden)
- Rhine Valley (Germany)
- Hortobágy (Hungary)
- Val d'Orcia (Italy)
- Portovenere - Cinque Terre (Italy)
- Madriu Valley (Andorra)
There are few landscapes with industrial characteristics (only Cornwall and Blaenavon). The other landscapes are characterized by (pastoral) rural land use, and they tend to be located in mountain areas or focus on the wealthy local trading or cultural history (the Rhine Valley and Val d'Orcia). There are only two "mixed" cultural landscapes: Mont Perdu and Saint Kilda, which are not industrial landscapes. Submissions for criteria 4 and 5 are frequent. Criterion 8 only applies to Mont Perdu, which is located in the Pyrenees. Criterion 6 is only applied to Val d'Orcia, where the Sienese School of Painting was active.
Filtering relevant files from the Tentative Lists of 1502 items (spring 2010) was more difficult, as
some files are included in the lists for several years already. This means that their status may have changed, their supposed OUV may have become challenged or they may have been submitted to or currently awaiting approval for the World Heritage List. Unfortunately, Tentative List registrations don't always mention the category or criteria that would be considered. Some proposals are described in great detail, others in just a few sentences. Generally, the same benchmarks were used as in the World Heritage List comparison.
Eventually, 9 relevant files remained for a more detailed study:
- High Fens plateau (Belgium)
- colliery sites of Wallonia (Belgium)
- industrial centres of Ostrava (Czech Republic)
- mining region of Nord-Pas de Calais (France)
- mining and cultural landscape (Germany)
- Orheiul Vechi cultural landscape (Moldavia)
- Danube region natural and cultural landscape (Slovakia)
- historic mining heritage (Spain)
- Tramuntana Sierra natural and cultural landscape (Spain)
It is clear that the list mainly consists of industrial sites (or landscapes). It also includes 2 Belgian nominations. One, the High Fens Plateau, involves land use. The other involves four individual Walloon mining sites. This proposal was submitted in 2009, and deferred back by the Committee in 2010. The proposal that is most similar to the present subject is that of the mining region in northern France, which also represents an evolutionary cultural landscape.
The Walloon and French proposal both focus on the mining industry, while the Hoge Kempen dossier stresses the transitional phase from a rural to an industrial society. This is not unlikely for whole of the Western world, but the remarkable feature is that this phase is very visible in and even typical for the Hoge Kempen landscape.
This type of transitional phase - frozen in a landscape - so far is not illustrated by any other relevant World Heritage nomination or proposal (not even those on the Tentative Lists). Similar dossiers mainly concern mining phases or rural phases. Fortunately, the non-consolidating speed at which mining was introduced and terminated in Hoge Kempen, means that earlier landscape elements remain present in the area.