The origins of OWHC can be traced back to 1972, when the General Conference of the UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, whose provisions empowered the UNESCO World Heritage Intergovernmental Committee to inscribe annually on the World Heritage List cultural and natural sites, submitted for listing by member states.
After discussions at the Second International Symposium of World Heritage Cities, the Organization of World Heritage Cities was created by delegates from 56 participating cities. Adopted at that time was the statute, specifying the mission, powers and goals of the organization. OWHC is headquartered in Quebec City that played host to the First International Symposium of World Heritage Cities in 1991.
The initiatives of OWHC cover a number of areas, notably the information and training of municipal managers among others. OWHC symposia and seminars deal with strategies aimed at preserving and developing historic sites, while the organization works towards heightening awareness among UNESCO, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and World Bank.
Since its establishment, OWHC has set a number of goals:
- contribute to the Convention's implementation concerning the International Charter for the Protection of Historic Cities and Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage;
- encourage the co-operation and exchange of expertise and information on regional and international levels among historic cities in close collaboration with a number of other organizations that pursue similar goals;
- ensure better links among research projects undertaken by experts by co-operating with specialized organizations
The paramount authority of the Organization of World Heritage Cities is the General Assembly, composed of the mayors of World Heritage Cities. It meets every two years. Elected by the General Assembly are eight mayors who make up the Board of Directors, the body that meets at least once a year.
In the coming years OWHC will focus on creation of the data bank on historic cities and launching the electronic communications network that will link member cities via the Internet.
Another constituent body of the organization is the General Secretariat, directed by the Secretary General, who is appointed by the General Assembly. He is responsible for day-to-day administration of OWHC, the execution of mandates adopted by members and personnel management.
The General Secretariat's work is supported by Six Regional Secretariats, including Budapest for Central and Eastern European Region, Bergen for North-West European Region, Guanajuato for Latin America Region, Cordoba for South Europe and Mediterranean Region, Kazan for Euro-Asia Region and Tunis for North Africa and Arab States Region.
Out of five official languages of OWHC - English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic - the first three are the working languages. The organization's logo comprises three icons, aimed at demonstrating the international character and fundamental mission of OWHC.