Historic blend

TOD JONES is associate professor in geography at Curtin University. His research interests include cultural and heritage enterprises. In this THINKING ALLOWED he argues that a renewed focus on Fremantle’s heritage could help give the city a much-needed economic boost. A strategy that may come up at The Fremantle Network’s “How to make Fremantle a better place” discussion on September 24.

THE brilliance of heritage is that it can simultaneously achieve many things.

A successful historic city attracts people to start businesses and spend time and money there.

It binds together a diverse community through its strong sense of place.

It has a diverse economy that can weather downturns.

All of this activity maintains beautiful historic streets and buildings.

The problem with heritage is that it is hard to simultaneously achieve many things.

Bad planning decisions and poor design in one building reduce the entire precinct, and are present for decades.

Failed investments destroy the historic building stock and take away from the place identity that drives activity and investment.

The feelings of loss and regret can be devastating.

Great historic precincts have a strong alignment of uses, forms and values that develop through long processes of people living and moving through them, and making decisions based on what works well in that place.

In the case of Fremantle, strong economic growth from the gold rush led to local investment in high quality buildings that expressed business confidence and community pride.

They were built for and maintained by a prosperous community. Prosperity is a key part of how urban heritage forms and remains lively and fresh.

The challenge today is to foster Fremantle as a historic urban centre with strong place identity, dynamic and diverse uses and activities, and high quality contemporary design that complements the high quality design of past generations.

Below I suggest four principles that Fremantle’s supporters should embrace to address this challenge:

Quality design 

Pursue quality design that works with and complements the diverse historic buildings and places.

The streets and buildings of Fremantle have survived and evolved over many generations, so they draw their characteristics from the lessons of earlier times.

For instance, retail spaces have high ceilings that allow air flow and a sense of space, and glass shopfronts allow high value items to be displayed.

Fremantle needs to avoid design that mimics heritage buildings or pursues a generic model.

Generic fit-outs that try to reproduce the same corporate design do not work in Fremantle.

Diverse places

Support a diversity of places and uses in its historic precincts.

The West End has always had a diverse population and set of uses, and this is why it has historically thrived.

Diversity is important for surviving downturns and sudden shifts, such as online retail.

A larger resident population in the historic CBD supports different types of shops, and provides a steady stream of customers and workers.  While single-use zoning is a thing of the past, Fremantle should still be wary of too much of the same idea or design.

Diverse places and uses will require Fremantle residents to rediscover what it is like to live in a vibrant, urban centre.

These are noisy, busy places. Bylaws need to encourage diverse urban activities, including clubs, youth activities, live music and diversity in public spaces.

These expectations should be clear to residents in Fremantle’s historic urban areas.

Sustainable development

Sustainable development principles for renewing buildings and streets.

Sustainable development principles tend to fit Fremantle because it was designed to be a walking city as it predates trains and cars.

While difficult to navigate by car, it is a fantastic place to walk and ride.

Streets should be oriented towards these modes of transport that encourage interactions and do not require extensive areas of car parking.

This needs to be done in a way that works with car drivers and gently encourages them to take other forms of transport.

Another principle of sustainable development is reuse.

In this regard, Fremantle’s shopping malls present an exciting opportunity. The malls are underused and undervalued.

Diverse voices

A place for diverse voices now and in the future.

The most economically successful heritage cities have an organised set of business owners and public figures that understand and support the retention and use of heritage.

These groups take many different forms, but all of them invest in historic cities to build civic pride, business confidence, and place identity.

Fremantle also needs to have programs in place to up-skill and assist groups that could be displaced by its likely success.

Many similar places have focussed too much on attracting wealthy residents, and have lost their character when the preceding organisations and inhabitants have been forced to go elsewhere.

Strong policy frameworks and good governance are not enough.  Prosperous historic precincts require consensus and commitment from residents, workers, businesses, institutions and building owners that want a vibrant urban centre with a strong place identity.

This is a rare opportunity in Australia.  Fremantle will never be the Perth CBD, and we should not want to reproduce it.

Fremantle offers a human scale, where the daily activities of a diverse and dynamic set of people and businesses can care for and maintain a unique historic precinct.

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