By the mid-2000s, all Australian states and territories had adopted some type of heritage legislation, with the Burra Charter serving as the model for most. In most localities, the public now demands that local authorities consider the existing character of a neighbourhood when issuing development permits.
Nearly twenty years later, Australia’s housing crisis is assuming catastrophic dimensions. We sorely need to build more housing, both public and private, to get us out of it. Given the other ongoing crisis (climate emergency), new housing needs to be dense and vertical rather than sprawl horizontally as the Australian Dream dictates.
But a quest for compact, infill housing goes against historic preservation mandates because, in urban Australia, historic buildings aren’t castles and palaces. Most come in the form of single-family houses – ranging from humble Queenslander cottages to Victorian Italianate mansions. Tall apartment towers can dwarf those.
Can the conflicting needs of housing densification and heritage preservation be reconciled? To answer that question, let’s look at the various “uses and abuses” of historic preservation. The following discussion is based on a recent study that my colleague, Vanessa Neilsen, and I conducted in Brisbane.
Urban aesthetics and scenic environments are associated with better health and wellbeing. The historic preservation movement emerged in the 1970s out of popular pushback against the ugliness of urban renewal. In the post-war period, construction activities were transforming the fabric of older Australian cities, and not in a good way. The application of modern architecture and urban design principles was producing poor-quality, cookie-cutter housing, monotonous public spaces, and social marginality.
In comparison, historic districts appeared much more visually pleasant. People came to praise the decorative façade details, the small scale, and the stylistic variety that modernism had rejected. Had the modern movement come up with attractive design and better craftmanship on the ground, in addition to grand theory, the pro-heritage sentiment may not have been as strong. People may have been less concerned about losing the aesthetic value derived from older buildings.
Heritage as collective identity
Even if it’s less-than-pleasing to the eye, built heritage is useful in other ways. It imparts individuals and groups with a sense of personal identity by evoking nostalgic ties to the past. It enables people to establish themselves in specific geographical and historical contexts, turning alienating space into place. Placemaking is particularly important given Australia’s short history of European settlement.
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Moreover, by displaying symbols from a collective history, built heritage reminds local communities of their shared identity. This may help foster social harmony, which is vital for the effective functioning of cities. However, the definition of “heritage” varies by background. While some individuals may take pride in a particular aspect of built heritage, others may consider it unimportant or even undesirable. For example, one study found little interest in Anglo heritage among Indigenous Australians.
Social class, in addition to ethnicity, plays a major role in built heritage concerns. In Australia, the “heritage and preservation” combo is primarily an upper-middle-class fetish. Starting in the 1970s and ‘80s, the gentrification of Australian inner cities spurred a variant of heritage preservation, led by individual homeowners, rather than the government. Upwardly mobile households that moved back into the cities from the suburbs rehabilitated working-class housing which was cheap and derelict but had “character”.
After a time, only those with more financial means could afford to pay a premium for historic houses (including “crappy wooden structures” as my colleague Thomas Sigler puts it). Now, purchasing and renovating a historic house – often by “gutting” and modernising the interior – has come to confer social status. This is reinforced by the fact that older houses can be quite expensive and time-consuming to maintain: a simple paint job cost thousands of dollars for more ornate houses.
Heritage as political power
Economic power is usually connected to political power. What is preserved (and in what form) is determined by the power holders of a particular era. For example, some commentators have noted that the Australian heritage experience has been packaged to exclude less palatable aspects of the past, such as colonization and convict history.
In some cases, pro-heritage stances stem from a desire to maintain low densities in one’s suburb in the hope of avoiding overcrowding and traffic congestion. Concern with stylistic integrity veils NIMBYism. By agitating to limit new housing supply in high-demand areas – ostensibly to preserve heritage housing – homeowners can also ensure that the prices of their properties remain high.
Heritage as embodied carbon
Finally, it is worth noting that any existing building, regardless of historical value, embodies carbon. Its construction will have required some amount of raw material, energy, and water. By preserving an existing building, the demand for resources is reduced. Manufacturing and transporting building materials is associated with carbon emissions. Remember that building activity produces 18 per cent of emissions, as well as 40 per cent of Australia’s landfill waste.
Moreover, heritage housing tends to employ renewable materials and passive means to obtain thermal comfort rather than being covered in glass or relying heavily on air-conditioning in the summer. That’s another aspect of its environmental value in a warming world.
How do we marry old and new?
Highly successful juxtapositions between old and new buildings abound in Europe, Latin America, North America, and Asia. Where the height difference between heritage housing and apartment buildings is a concern, volumes can be stacked and modulated. We need to draw inspiration from these ingenious examples in the contemporary era rather than cling to the memory of failed urban renewal efforts in post-war Australia or mass housing estates in Soviet Europe and China. Dense and tall housing does not have to be ugly. On the contrary, if done right, it can turn into the built heritage of the future.