We must protect Melbourne’s 20th-century heritage – here’s how to do it rightt

This article was originally published in The Age on 2 July 2023.

The City of Maribyrnong has abandoned its local heritage protections for interwar and postwar housing in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

The decision was heralded as a win for housing supply and affordability. But there is another side to the argument – will we look back in 50 years time and rue this decision that may well allow the destruction of this unique era of our history, architecture and social fabric? It’s something we need to consider as we move forward.

The multi-year conservation project failed not due to a lack of heritage merit. Protections for Melbourne’s 20th-century heritage are as compelling as ever. It was an extraordinary era of social change and migration, industry and manufacturing, and design and architecture – all of which is embodied by the heritage homes of this period.

Rather, the conservation project fell flat because of poor local planning and outdated heritage approaches. Instead, innovative heritage planning could have enabled the adaptation and evolution of the proposed heritage areas to meet our future housing needs, while also retaining key aspects of our history and architecture.

These events provide lessons for conserving 20th-century heritage, especially in the suburbs. They follow parallel events in the City of Bayside, where protections on mid-century modern homes were also abandoned. They also raise questions to do with how councils go about achieving their legal obligations to protect 20th-century heritage.

Lesson one: Engage communities from the start

Residents were not informed that the City of Maribyrnong was seeking new heritage overlays until interim protections were about to be put in place. So, the community was left entirely in the dark for months. It was assumed that heritage would not be supported. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The situation was worsened by the homeowners who had to rethink their home extensions, contributing expense, frustration and inconvenience for them. Community buy-in is crucial for heritage but was not achieved here.

Lesson two: Adopt people-centred approaches

Communities must be involved in defining the terms of their own heritage. Instead, the heritage planning process was largely top-down, appeared shrouded in secrecy and felt authoritarian to residents. Only after the heritage overlays had been drafted were residents engaged for their views. Unsurprisingly, of the 200 public submissions, only 16.5 per cent, or 33 people, supported them. A further online petition opposing heritage protections received 600 signatures. Surveys, forums and workshops should instead be used to give residents the opportunity to articulate their local heritage. The outcomes from these community activities must then guide future protections.

Lesson three: Clearly scope heritage projects

The consulting firm engaged to develop the heritage protections notes that the terms of reference for the project changed multiple times. This is poor practice. The scope of heritage projects needs to be clearly defined from the beginning. This means setting appropriate boundaries for precincts and streets, time periods, architectural styles, historical themes, and community activities that will shape the eventual heritage protections. Ethically, the heritage profession has a special obligation to advocate for involving communities throughout the entire process.

Lesson four: 20th-century suburban heritage is not 19th-century inner-city terrace housing

Mid 20th-century suburban housing is unique. It is different to dense inner-city terraces or older housing estates on small blocks. The idea that we can adopt traditional conservation models for this period of residential heritage continues to be rejected across Melbourne. It’s not as simple as identifying significant interwar and postwar streetscapes and houses and then instituting blanket heritage protections. Critics are questioning heritage-as-usual, and this especially applies to the next generation of protections targeting later 20th-century heritage.

Lesson five: Re-evaluate 20th-century suburban heritage 

Relatedly, the cultural significance that we find in 20th-century housing is distinctive. We need to ask: in what ways is interwar and postwar housing important to us? Homeowners, including migrants, first pursued the suburban frontier for its freedom, excitement and opportunity.

The suburbs offered the space and peace to raise growing and healthy families. Today, this tradition needs to continue, including in any heritage-listed 20th-century areas. And, in Melbourne’s western suburbs, the history of industry and manufacturing is also important to foreground in heritage protections.

Lesson six: Choosing the right protections for 20th-century suburban heritage

The planning and design rules for 20th-century suburban heritage areas need to fit with the reasons these areas are important. New rules must empower residents to pursue their present-day version of the Australian dream. They must also allow densification (such as subdivisions and apartments) and environmental upgrades (such as solar panels and high-performance windows).

Locally, Melbourne’s western suburbs are rapidly growing in population and have their own microclimate, both of which must uniquely be considered when creating planning controls and building homes in heritage areas. All these factors mean rethinking how we design and plan for 20th-century suburban heritage.

Lesson seven: The future of heritage depends on innovation

The 20th century has been rightly called the problem child of heritage. Protecting our 20th-century suburbs requires new heritage outlooks. We need to think of heritage as about guiding reasonable and necessary change, while sustaining cultural continuity and communities. Unlike Maribyrnong and Bayside, the City of Melbourne has listed postwar office blocks.

So, conserving the mid-20th century at a local level is not an impossible feat. How we plan, identify and conserve our more recent past needs to be people-centred. It also needs to be fitting to our interwar and postwar suburban streets and homes and the people who call these heritage areas home.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *