Date: June 15 2012
The recent announcement that Canberra may be considered for national heritage listing needs to be seen within the context that it is now almost 40 years since a remarkable shift occurred in Australians' attitude to their history. Linked to this was the implication that we have a cultural heritage worth protecting. During the 1950s and '60s a focus on heritage values evolved as a grass roots movement through organisations such as the National Trust and historical societies. Government inaction contrasted with this. Urban renewal under the modernist banner wrecked historic areas and environmental matters were ignored, as was protection of Aboriginal places.
This changed with the Whitlam Labor government in 1972. The concept of the ''national estate'' was adopted by the Labor Party to circumscribe the idea and scope of Australia's heritage. Whitlam established the Hope Committee Inquiry into the National Estate which led to government funding for heritage and the inception of the Australian Heritage Commission.
The Register of the National Estate was put in place to look after the totality of our heritage places: ''Things that you keep'' in the pithy words of the then Tasmanian premier, Eric Reece.
Notably, and serendipitously, the advent of the Whitlam government coincided with the adoption by UNESCO of the World Heritage Convention. Whitlam went on to be a major supporter of the visions and values inherent in UNESCO.
The Register of the National Estate, with the demise of the heritage commission, was replaced by the Commonwealth Places List and the National Heritage List during the Howard government years.
Australia's national heritage comprises exceptional natural and cultural places that contribute to national identity. It is defined by the critical moments in our development as a nation and reflects achievements, joys and sorrows in the lives of Australians. The National Heritage List has been established to list places of outstanding heritage significance to the Australian nation. It includes natural, historic and indigenous places.
When a place is nominated for inclusion on the list, the Australian Heritage Council assesses the heritage value of that place against nine criteria.
These include for example a place's importance in the course of Australia's history; possession of uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of Australia's history (this applies to cultural places, not just natural); special association with the life or works of a person, or group, of importance in Australia's history; demonstrating a high degree of creative or technical achievement at a particular period; demonstrating aesthetic characteristics valued by a community; importance as part of indigenous tradition. Assessment must also take account of the application of a ''significance threshold'' test. It is worth noting here that Australian practice is in line with established international heritage practice. The test helps the council to judge the level of heritage value of a place particularly by inquiring into just how important are these values.
A values-based approach to heritage considerations is now critical to the process of heritage management. ''Whose values?'' is a recurring theme in heritage considerations because, in the end, heritage is to do with people, celebrating who we are and why we feel attachment to places and ideals from our history that inhere in our public and private memories.
In national heritage terms, to reach the significance threshold a place must have outstanding heritage value to the nation: it must be important to the Australian community. To determine this, a nominated place is compared to other similar types of place and may bring into play local, regional, national and international considerations. Currently the council is considering two 2009 nominations for Canberra (I should indicate that I submitted one of the nominations) and has issued for public comment a discussion paper, ''Celebrating Canberra: A nation's cultural and democratic landscape''.
The recognition internationally of Canberra as a remarkable and outstanding example of 20th century planning is a foundation for the AHC proposal, as is the understanding of the overwhelming importance of landscape elements in defining and articulating the morphology of the city: the city in the landscape par excellence. Aligned to this is the landscape city as an expression of Australian democratic idealism and associated values popularly seen in the term ''bush capital''.
The history of the city is taken from Federation in 1901 when the constitution made provision for a federal capital. Allied to this is the subsequent recommendation of the Canberra site in 1909 by Charles Scrivener following an instruction for him to bear in mind that his choice should be made with a view to securing picturesqueness. The Griffin plan of 1912 (and subsequent amendments) with its basis of landscape as the dominant element in the city's form and meaning met the ideals of Australia at the time with picturesque landscape imagery seen as underpinning national identity and democratic ideals.
The landscape theme in planning was then extended by John Sulman and underpinned by the innovative work of Charles Weston and later Lindsay Pryor. It was later given impetus by the National Capital Development Commission (1958-88) with the Y Plan and inception of the National Capital Open Space System cementing in place the significance of the hills, ridges and valleys of the city and reflecting back to Griffin. The proposed listing also recognises the contribution of a number of politicians and professionals.
Canberra as symbolic heart of the nation is recognised through it being the place where democratic debate takes place, where commemorations are held marking milestones in our history.
To reflect the nominated Canberra national heritage values a boundary proposed by the Australian Heritage Council includes the central national area of Canberra, the Land Axis and Water Axis, Lake Burley Griffin, the layout of the early garden city suburbs as defined in the 1925 Gazetted Plan, and the undeveloped inner hills. Additionally the Y-Plan road system and the location of the new towns is recognised.
At last we have a government-appointed body recognising the importance of Australia's national capital through its historic and symbolic significance, its role in facilitating public engagement in the political process, and as a showcase internationally of cutting-edge 20th-century planning.
That the proposed listing spans the period of the city's beginnings and ends in 1988 should, however, be food for thought.
Professor Ken Taylor is at the Research School of Humanities and the Arts, ANU.
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