Intangible Heritage

What’s next for Tucson’s UNESCO World City of Gastronomy designation?

March 7, 2016

EditorialIssue 17: March/April 2016

You probably heard the news. After a two-year application process, on Dec. 11, 2015, Tucson joined the international Creative Cities Network of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World City of Gastronomy, the first such designation in the United States.

For the last nine years, I have served as the city’s historic preservation officer and city archaeologist. I was part of the archeological team that uncovered evidence at Tucson’s birthplace below “A” Mountain of agriculture extending back more than 4,000 years, and irrigation canals going back at least 3,500 years. I’ve studied the major transitions in the food history of the U.S.-Mexico desert borderlands, including the transition from foraging to farming during prehistoric times; the introduction of Old World crops and livestock during the Spanish colonial period; the shift to industrial cuisine after the arrival of the railroad in 1880; and the current revival of traditional foods and local food production that is reconnecting people to their heritages and this place.

So why is the city’s historic preservation officer and archaeologist now the lead contact for the city on this important designation? In other countries, historic preservation is part of what is called heritage conservation, including “tangible heritage” such as historic buildings and archaeological sites and also “intangible heritage” such as folklore, music, and food. When we emphasize the tangible and intangible heritage of our community to generate tourism, jobs, and income, we are engaged in heritage-based economic development.

That type of economic development is also based on the significant linkages between our thriving local food scene, locally owned businesses, and preservation of historic buildings. Independently owned restaurants and other local food businesses represent one of Tucson’s largest and fastest-growing economic sectors. There are more than 1,200 restaurants and drinking establishments, which employ more than 30,000 people; when grocery stores are included, food businesses provide 14 percent of all jobs in the city. Of the total number of restaurants and bars in the city, almost two-thirds (63 percent) are locally owned, non-chain businesses. This high rate of local ownership (the 2010 census says that only 41 percent of all U.S. restaurants are locally owned) is good news for our economy: Local First Arizona calculates that 73 cents of every dollar spent at locally owned businesses stays in the community, compared with only 43 cents of every dollar spent at nonlocally owned food businesses.

In the Old Pueblo, older buildings are favored by local food and beverage businesses (and avoided by chain restaurants and bars). This pattern is most pronounced in our downtown. More than 50 new downtown restaurants have opened since 2008, and all but four nestled into spaces in buildings constructed before 1965. Again, good news for our economy: a recent grant-funded study by the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation revealed that businesses located in areas of our city with predominately older, smaller buildings have more employees per commercial square foot than those in urban areas where newer, larger buildings predominate.

The presence of historic buildings and neighborhoods provides a visible connection between the present and the past, and they are valued because they convey the evolution and continuity of our community over generations. Conserving and reviving our intangible heritage, such as traditional foods and foodways, also helps preserve our community’s diversity. As a result of the World City of Gastronomy designation, Tucson’s heritage foods are newly perceived as patrimony, elements of identity, and economic assets all at once. Concepts of “heritage foods” and “local foods” are intertwined, and the community’s bottom-up efforts in food relocalization represent an initiative to reconnect with history and tradition as much as to reconnect local food producers and consumers. As Tucson works to develop urban agriculture, rebuild its borderlands foodshed, and increase the sustainability and resilience of the local food system, we should pursue a dialogue between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge, melding cutting-edge science and modern technology with very old lessons learned and connections to place, in the spheres of water management, agriculture, built spaces, nutrition, and the health of our desert environment.


Since the announcement of the designation, the question I hear most frequently is, “What now?” Well … a lot of things, and quickly. We are updating the official city webpage at to provide links to our application to UNESCO, information about the Creative Cities Network, and ongoing media coverage. (One of my favorite recent articles was published in the Phoenix Business Journal, titled “Arizona gets a world capital for foodies, and it’s not Phoenix.”)

We are already learning from, and connecting with, other UNESCO Creative Cities. City staff and the mayor’s new Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economy are studying the management structures of other Creative Cities to identify the most successful models to adapt for Tucson. Through our partners Visit Tucson and the Tucson-based U.S. chapter of the International Traditional Knowledge Institute we have made contacts with the cities of Ensenada, Mexico, and Parma, Italy—both also designated by UNESCO in 2015—to initiate relationships as sister Cities of Gastronomy. We have been contacted by other Cities of Gastronomy interested in developing international collaborations such as chefs’ networks to share innovative concepts of how to directly link farms to restaurants, and to compare ideas for food festivals and nutrition education.

We are getting the word out, planning exciting events, and most importantly, listening to you. As our main media partner, Edible Baja Arizona is soliciting comments, ideas, and a vision from readers about how to most effectively leverage this designation to make lasting change in our local food system.

So what now? The possibilities are up to us. ✜

Jonathan Mabry is the historic preservation officer for the City of Tucson.

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