Linked to the objectives of sustainability of the United Nations, the reflection on the historic city promoted by UNESCO has favored the emergence of a new holistic paradigm that focuses on the capacity of culture to improve the quality of life of people and seeks to recover the historical link among culture, development and sustainability. Based on this context, this paper analyzes the main problems that face Spanish World Heritage Cities in terms of sustainability and livability, and the correlation between the new paradigm and the reality of its current management. This study explored sustainability indicators based on the evolution of the population and the number of visitors. The current protection and management model is reviewed based on the four basic tools identified by UNESCO: Regulatory systems, Knowledge and Planning tools, Financial tools and Civic engagement tools. The joint analysis of UNESCO’s Periodic Reports allows us to identify the shortcomings that point to a disconnection between heritage city management and citizenship. After analyzing the impact of the new paradigm in the Spanish reality, the need to continue deepening its dissemination and accelerating its implementation is evident. In the same way. it is essential to establish and implement models of citizen participation that favor the fulfillment of the sustainability challenges of historic cities.
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