Just in time

• Fremantle Society members Jenny Archibald, Ralph Hoare and Ron Davidson with former prime minister Gough Whitlam celebrating the saving of Fremantle Prison.

JEREMY DAWKINS is one of Australia’s most distinguished urban planners; a former chair of the WA Planning Commission, he’s taught in a swag of Australian universities and sat on dozens of boards and commissions. These days he lives in Sydney, but has always had a soft spot for Fremantle where he was the council’s planning boss during the heady days of the America’s Cup.

FREMANTLE tells a world-class story of community-led transformation, built on the coherence of its communities and urban form.

This fabulous microcosm of a city centre grew organically for 140 years. In the 50s, however, its custodians embraced post-war reconstruction, seeming to envy the bombed city of Coventry which was rebuilt from scratch.

Fremantle would be a new economic node. The West End would be rebuilt with a coastal highway pushed through, and High Street widened on both sides. 

Public institutions would be rebuilt and moved. The town hall would go so a ‘civic centre’ could be built – once the Fremantle Markets were cleared away!

Fortunately, these public works weren’t funded. 

Massive

But Fremantle did get the Myer building, Johnson Court and the council’s massive Henderson Street car park and Queensgate shopping centre and cinema.

The Fremantle Society’s formation in 1972 was a response to all this. 

Its founders, like those of the Paddington Society in 1964, knew ‘slum clearance’ and ‘urban renewal’ meant destroying precious social and built capital with soulless places.

The Society’s formation prompted many candidates to stand for election to the council. 

Each election, the 18-member council moved from renewal-through-redevelopment to revaluation of the city’s social and physical capital. 

By 1980, this cultural transformation was at full speed, leading to citizen-centred policies and services, Australia’s earliest sidewalk cafes and first pub brewery, and to imaginative planning. Essential for this transformation was the wisdom and subtle leadership of one of Fremantle’s greatest sons, Stan Parks, city manager (and manager of mayor Bill McKenzie), and a planning committee with names like MacGill, Lauder, Whittington, Newman, Latter and Gallop.

Hoping to work around the council’s dogmatic and counter-productive planning department, they created the position of development officer to change the city through direct intervention. 

I was appointed to that role in March 1979. 

Seeing the council wanted creative urban planning, I wrote Fremantle in the Year 2000 and distributed it to every resident, business and ratepayer in 1980, and wrote a succinct town planning scheme to distinguish between destructive and desirable development. 

We blocked the former. We facilitated and supported the latter, cutting approval times to just a few days. My motto was ‘conservation through development; development through conservation’. 

I sought approval to appoint a city architect, filled with distinction by Agnieshka Kiera.

Fremantle in the Year 2000 was a comprehensive set of priorities which would lead to the kind of city depicted in maps at its front.

It said: “This poster has been sent to you to let you know what is happening and to encourage discussion with your neighbours and friends. ..We hope you will wish to pin it up.” 

I saw Fremantle in the Year 2000 on many local fridges.

The city needed investment and change: its survival as a commercial, retail and admin centre was in the balance. 

Connections

Fremantle in the Year 2000 sought to create the conditions for this in many ways, including public initiatives such as finishing what JS Roe had planned – a few new street connections including Parry Street, Queen Street and Paddy Troy Mall which allowed a pedestrian city square and traffic to be removed from Henderson Street. It gave the city centre access to the sea at Arthur Head, recreated the coastal landscape, and conserved 89 archaeological sites.

Most have forgotten what the city was like in 1980, and find it hard to believe what that brief list tells us; traffic tangles and queues past the town hall, Myer in Newman Street and through Kings Square to Henderson Street. The space between the markets and the oval pavilion was fenced off. 

Car and motor bike sales and vehicle workshops dominated the block between the town hall and South Terrace; the only way from one to the other was a hike via High or Henderson Streets.

When the right developer arrived, we negotiated for the internal street and open pedestrian links of Fremantle Malls. 

At Arthur Head the land had been divided between four state agencies for depots and sheds, while the Port Authority dumped its debris and relics into the sea. 

Creating an A-class reserve allowed the city to remove 150,000 tonnes of fill, and the sea to recreate Bathers Beach.

The planning department’s meagre funds were leveraged into millions from Hawke government grants and America’s Cup projects. 

One of the latter rescued the town hall from neglect, reconstructing its nationally significant decoration and connecting the council offices to the hall and Kings Square, giving public access to the council chamber and bringing the councillors down to the people from their eyrie on the fourth floor.

As a result of all this, our big ideas for 2000 were completed before the 90s, assuring the city of a future, and potentially enabling the council to take a mature, considered approach to the gradual, continued evolution of the city centre, progressively healing the mistakes of the preceding decades.

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