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Historic Site of Lyon by Adeline Danthon

    The city center of Lyon became a World Heritage Site recognized by the UNESCO in 1998 [1]A perimeter of 5 km² was delimitated in order to protect and promote the high density of historical monuments inside of this area [1]The city center of Lyon is indeed the testimony of 2000 years of History, boasting monuments and urban dispositions of five different periods. Thanks to a careful city planning over the centuries, nothing was ever destroyed [2] and all these monuments coexist in harmony.

    Gallo-Roman period

    Founded in 43 BC, Lyon (or Lugdunum as it was called at that time) quickly became a strategic location in terms of international trade. Its position at a confluence between two major rivers, the Saône and the Rhône Rivers indeed made it the perfect spot to establish a city [3]. Nowadays, the Ancient Theater of Fourvière and the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls are still impressive testimonies of that time when Lyon was the capital city of the region of the Three Gauls, encompassing France, Belgium, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Luxembourg as well as parts of Germany and the Netherlands.

    Medieval period

    Even though Lyon lost its major political role in the Middle Ages, the city then became an important religious center for the whole region. The high concentration of churches, cathedrals and basilicas in the districts around the two rivers is a proof of the religious notoriety of the city [4]. The Saint-Nizier Church, the Basilica of Saint-Martin d’Ainay or the Saint-Jean Cathedral for example are all boasting different features typical of the evolution of Christianity in Lyon.

    Renaissance period

    Due to its proximity with Italy and its good location between two rivers, Lyon was a very dynamic center for business and trade. The wealth of the city attracted numerous doctors, artists or philosophers who contributed to the development of Lyon. In the 16th century, the population of the city increased by 50% in only fifty years, being home to 60 000 inhabitants [5].The well preserved Renaissance buildings in the old Lyon district still showcase the grandeur of the city at the time.

    Modern period

    The 17th and 18th centuries marked an important era in the urban development of Lyon. The Presqu’île discrict became the new city center influenced by the strong industrialization of Lyon, which was the main working city of France. Modern and dynamic, Lyon stayed an important place in terms of economics and developed its role as a new financial center for the country [6]. The majestic buildings and squares in the districts between the two rivers still show how powerful the city was during this modern era.

    Contemporary period

    In the 19th century, the division between the religious class and the working class took a new turn. The two hills of the city, facing each other, became somehow rivals. With the construction of the impressive Basilica of Fourvière, the Fourvière hill was nicknamed “the hill that prays”. On the other hand, the Croix-Rousse hill which was home to the silk workers and factories became known as “the hill that works” [7]. The numerous secret passages of this same district played an important role during the Second World War, turning Lyon into the French Capital of Resistance [8].

    Taking into consideration all these aspects, the distinction awarded by the UNESCO recognizing its city center as World Heritage certified Lyon as a perfectly preserved example of city development and town planning through the ages [9].

    Managerial challenges

    No managerial issues were mentioned by the UNESCO itself regarding the Historic Site of Lyon. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that the World Heritage site must face challenges because of its nature itself. This UNESCO perimeter covers a great part of the city center of one of France’s biggest metropolitan area. Lyon is a dynamic city that is going under perpetual changes [2] and people do live and work within the delimited perimeter. As a whole part of the city itself, the historic site must face the same planning or even political challenges as the rest of the city [10]. In terms of ownership, only 25% of the area belongs to national, regional and municipal governments. Thus 75% of the World Heritage Site is actually privately own [11]. The local community that lives within the perimeter as well as all the stakeholders of the four administrative districts of the historic city center are expected to work together in order to preserve not just one monument but a whole 5 km² of the city [10].

    Furthermore, as there is no legal protection status that is provided by the classification as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO [11], the historic center of the city is dependant of several actions and plans developed by the municipality and the state in order to ensure its preservation [12].


    [1] Patrimoine Lyon, 2011. Secteur UNESCO [Online] Available at [Accessed November 6]

    [2] Denis Trouxe for Only Lyon - Tourisme et Congrès, 2012. Lyon au Patrimoine de l'UNESCO [Video Online] Available at [Accessed November 7]

    [3] Patrimoine Lyon, 2011. Lyon Gallo-Romain [Online] Available at [Accessed November 6]

    [4] Patrimoine Lyon, 2011. Lyon Médiéval [Online] Available at [Accessed November 6]

    [5] Patrimoine Lyon, 2011. Lyon à la Renaissance [Online] Available at [Accessed November 6]

    [6] Patrimoine Lyon, 2011. Lyon Moderne [Online] Available at [Accessed November 6]

    [7] Patrimoine Lyon, 2011. Lyon Contemporain [Online] Available at [Accessed November 6]

    [8] Traboules by Only Lyon - Tourisme et Congrès, 2013. Histoire des Traboules de Lyon [Online] Available at [Accessed November 9]

    [9] UNESCO, 2013. Historic Site of Lyons [Online] Available at [Accessed November 6]

    [10] Aas, C., Ladkin, A., Fletcher, J. (2005). Stakeholder Collaboration and Heritage Management. Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 28-48.

    [11] UNESCO, 1997. Advisory Body Evaluation for the Historic Site of Lyon [Online] Available at [Accessed November 9]

    [12] Municipality of Lyon, 2013. Périmètre UNESCO [Online] Available at [Accessed November 9]

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    Comments (5)

    Viewing 5 of 5 comments: view all
    Adeline thank you so much for the presentation you gave us about Lyon. Now I regret that I said no to the trip to Lyon between the 4-7 December, but I would have missed taking care of your class. I will miss the festival of light as well…
    I think it is a great example of the place that is a so-called ‘lived heritage’. This site is not only about the monuments and signs from the bygone times, but also where the actual people live. It represents a much bigger challenge to the managers of the city to keep it in the same shape as when it was subscribed to the WHS list. Do you think that they are managing well? Do they succeed in connecting the Lyons great history with the contemporary culture in France? Are they a good example of a dynamic World Heritage Site?
    Best regards,
    Posted 15:40, 12 Nov 2013
    Adeline, thank you for a very nice and organized discription of the city development based on different periods. I have never been to France and it was very useful for me to be informed about this famous city and a heritage site at the same time. It is a very interesting fact that the 75% of it is privately owned. That would never happen in Belarus, my country, so it hard for me to imagine how a heritage site can be owned by private persons. If I hopefully visit Lyon some day, it will be great to be informed about it in advance.
    Posted 22:41, 12 Nov 2013
    I really like that article. You identified the most important elements of the history of Lyon that shaped the face of the city in the past and even more important today. At first I was wondering why you do not describe any specific buildings in detail, but as you mentioned that the whole city is world heritage I think this is not necessary.
    Posted 17:43, 13 Nov 2013
    Now I seriously think of visiting Lyon, even if you are not the first mentioning about its "extravaganza". The paper really showed the significance of the history in shaping the WHS, I really liked it. However, I believe there might be other issues if you dig in deeper or look up at their management plan. Another alternative might be just presenting the challenges of being 75%-private-owned WHS site, that would have made the paper more intriguing :).
    Posted 11:59, 15 Nov 2013
    Thank you very much everyone for your feedback.

    Albina - It is too bad that you will miss the Festival of Lights this year, but I hope you will have the opportunity to attend this event another year. It is really beautiful, and even though the city is crowded it is worth it. In regards to your question, I think this same festival is a good way to show how Lyon wants to connect the past and the future. Most of the Lights are located in the WH area, and they showcase the heritage sites in a very dynamic and futuristic way. It is also worth mentionning that a whole new district, Confluence, which is not part of the WH area but is the meeting point between the two rivers, and thus just at the border with the historical center of the city, has been entirely reconstructed and is now an example of a futuristic and sustainable district. But on the other hand, Confluence is part of the Presqu'ÃŽle area with the whole WH site, and the two districts are well connected together, and work together to form a dynamic and attractive city center. So I think that yes, Lyon is indeed a good example of a dynamic World Heritage Site.

    Ogla - If you do visit Lyon some day, please let me know. I would love to be able to give you advices, or even to show you around if I'm in the region !

    Ingmar - Yes, there are so many monuments in the World Heritage area that I could not describe all of them. I just wanted to mention a few in order to illustrate this article.

    Fahmi - Yes please, make sure to visit and just like Olga, I will show you around ;) Another issue that I can think of is the one of degradation. A lot of people do not realize, or do not even know that the district is World Heritage, and there are a lot of grafittis on the buildings (mostly in the Croix-Rousse district) for example. Managing a site is difficult, but when it's a whole living city, it becomes even more complicated...
    Posted 14:03, 18 Nov 2013
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