Eastern Freeway: A Heritage Commentary

By Kali Myers and James Lesh

With its latest determination on Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway, it would seem that the Heritage Council of Victoria is sending a message to the heritage sector:

evidence needed.

Contrary to the expectations of the heritage professionals involved, the Heritage Council will not add the Eastern Freeway to the Victorian Heritage Register.

This decision is quite remarkable: even the parties not in favour of the nomination – including Boroondara City Council, North East Link Project and Department of Transport – had gone to the August 2020 hearing having ‘“accepted” that the Heritage Council was likely to be satisfied that [the freeway] is a place of State-level heritage significance.’

After a nomination from the Victorian Government, Heritage Victoria recommended the Eastern Freeway: Stage One be heritage listed in late 2019. (The subsequent two stages of the Eastern Freeway were also nominated by a local resident.) At the time of nomination, one of the authors of this article wrote that the Eastern Freeway was ‘likely to be state heritage listed’.

Expert opinion universally favoured registration. The documentation received by the Heritage Council in support of a state listing was prepared by leaders in the field: Heritage Victoria, the National Trust, GJM Heritage, Lovell Chen and Biosis.

What happened on the road to listing?

For the Eastern Freeway to become state heritage listed it was required to meet the thresholds for either of these two criterion:

CRITERION A

Importance to the course, or pattern, of Victoria’s cultural history.

CRITERION D

Importance in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a class of cultural places and objects.

Further arguments that the Eastern Freeway might meet the thresholds of Criterion E (Aesthetic Significance), Criterion F (Technical Achievement) and Criterion G (Social Significance) were also received.

Ultimately, the Heritage Council determined that the Eastern Freeway did not meet the threshold of significance for any of these state criteria.

Yet the Heritage Council was quite explicit that Eastern Freeway could be of heritage value, stating that they ‘agree[d] with the experts that what is understood and appreciated as heritage is constantly changing and a modern freeway might be considered to be part of it.’

Road testing heritage practice

The issue highlighted by the Heritage Council was that insufficient evidence to reach a determination in favour of listing had been received. Only material before it can be considered in decision making.

The main argument mounted in favour of Criterion A (Historical Significance) was that the Eastern Freeway symbolised suburban expansion and a new mode of freeway construction. The Heritage Council suggests that claims to this historical significance were not sufficiently anchored in either archival evidence or in the existing literature.

Historical significance requires evidencing a historic juncture in time, reflected through the heritage place. Instead, the Eastern Freeway appeared, from the submissions and hearing, to be an ordinary event in Melbourne’s suburban and transport history; from railway suburbs to mega-freeway sprawl.

The Heritage Council also described as ‘paradoxical’ and ‘somewhat perverse’ the argument that the 1970s anti-freeway protests at the place were evidence of its cultural heritage value insofar as the protests resulted in Stage One of the freeway not extending west of Hoddle Street. Noting the circularity of both claiming that a place’s fabric evidences its reduction in fabric, and that its fabric can stand as a monument to its existence’s opposition, the Heritage Council stated that to have listed the place on the basis of this argument would have been ‘a surprising outcome.’

A major basis of the nomination for Criterion D (Principal Characteristics of a Class of Places) was the evidence that Stage One was the first freeway in Victoria to comprehensively apply considerations of aesthetic and motoring experiences. Yet the Heritage Council again noted the insufficient provision of evidence of comparisons to other earlier or later freeways in order to support this argument.

Driving along the Eastern Freeway

The Heritage Council noted the complete absence of any community views regarding the aesthetic and motoring experience of using the freeway. No professionals involved in the proceedings provided historical or social evidence from the public to prove this experiential claim. No members of the public were spoken to. No social historical archival research was undertaken.

The lack of community voice became even more apparent in the Heritage Council’s determination that the threshold of significance had not been met for Criterion E (Aesthetic Significance) and Criterion G (Social Significance). One test for assessing aesthetic significance is the public recognition of the place as being of high aesthetic quality – yet no evidence from architectural criticism, newspapers or community sentiment was offered to mount this claim.

Similarly, without a compendium of historical or contemporary social views on the freeway to counter the almost 400 submissions received by the Heritage Council in opposition of the place’s registration, the claim for the place’s significance in line with social value or community expectations could not be substantiated. Instead, the public seemingly got its way and quashed the listing proposal.

The lack of historical data or community surveying meant the Heritage Council was unable to accept the heritage claim that the Eastern Freeway has meaning or value to Victorians.

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

What is so striking about the Heritage Council’s determination is not that it has declared the Eastern Freeway to not be of cultural heritage value, but rather that it has unequivocally stated that it was simply not presented with sufficient evidence that would enable it to properly consider the place as cultural heritage. 

In the absence of evidence with which to assess the place against the criteria, the Heritage Council was left with no choice but to – against expectations and expert opinion – leave the Eastern Freeway unregistered as a heritage place.

The Eastern Freeway may well be of cultural heritage significance at a state level. Victoria may well have lost the chance to inscribe one of its most valuable twentieth-century urban environments as heritage, thereby protecting it from impending variations posed by the development of North East Link. We simply don’t know.

Once again, the Heritage Council has raised fundamental methodological, analytical and evidentiary issues in heritage practice. Yet the future of our historic environments depends on the heritage sector and the approaches and tools it uses to mount arguments and draw evidence for significance.

Rigorous research, diverse evidence, critical analysis and persuasive arguments have always been indispensable towards identifying, protecting, managing and interpreting our heritage places.

The Eastern Freeway decision suggests that the future of heritage practice will depend on people-centred methodologies and renewed conceptual and practical approaches, to realise its lofty objective of cultural stewardship.

Dr Kali Myers is a historian and cultural heritage practitioner.

Dr James Lesh researches urban history and heritage conservation at the Australian Centre for Architectural History, Urban and Cultural Heritage (ACAHUCH), University of Melbourne.

James and Professor Rebecca Madgin (University of Glasgow) have co-edited the forthcoming book: People-Centred Methodologies for Heritage Conservation: Exploring Emotional Attachments to Historic Urban Places (Routledge, 2021). Kali has contributed a chapter to this volume: “‘It’s only a joke if you don’t take the fitness industry seriously’: Photographs as Archives of Place Attachment at the Early-Twentieth-Century Gym”.

Photograph: Eastern Freeway, c. 2019. Victorian Government.

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