Historic heritage

As currently recognised and protected in Australia, historic heritage is the tangible evidence and places associated with Australia’s inhabitants and visitors since the arrival of the first European migrants, including evidence and places related to explorers and other visitors from 1606. It includes underwater cultural heritage, and can include heritage that has shared history or meanings between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Historic heritage significance is generally considered to have historical, scientific, aesthetic, social and spiritual value (Australia ICOMOS 2013).

Australia’s historic heritage is important, as the physical evidence of Australia’s more recent human history often provides otherwise unobtainable information about the past. It includes iconic features, places and landscapes that help define Australia, and it provides an important sense of place and connection. Historic heritage can also have aesthetic value. By contributing to social values and the character of area in which we live, work and recreate, historic heritage can contribute to individual and community wellbeing. Historic heritage can also generate economic benefits through tourism and re-use, although such use requires a well-managed and sustainable approach.

Types and condition of historic heritage

Tangible historic heritage comprises objects and collections of objects, features, sites, site complexes, serial sites (sites that are historically connected, but distant from each other), routes, areas and landscapes including cultural landscapes, which are landscapes that contain interrelated natural and cultural elements. Tangible historic heritage comes in many forms, such as historic buildings, dams, railways, mines, building foundations, archaeological deposits and shipwrecks. Some heritage is movable heritage (i.e. designed to be moved from place to place).

Much of Australia’s historic heritage relates to the development of settlements and urban areas. Much also relates to aspects of Australia’s economic development, such as mining, agriculture and forestry. Other important heritage themes for which there are lesser amounts of historic heritage include exploration, the establishment of transport and communications infrastructure, defence of Australia, education, provision of health services, scientific endeavour, immigration, and the cultural life of Australians. Many aspects of historic heritage are Indigenous heritage sites; Indigenous sites of resistance, dispossession and massacres; pastoral stations; missions; churches; government educational and training facilities; and facilities and records related to the Stolen Generations (First Peoples Relations 2021).

Australia’s tangible historic heritage includes:

  • iconic places such as the Sydney Opera House, New South Wales, and the Mawson’s Huts Historic Site, Antarctica
  • classic examples of buildings and objects such as bush huts, art deco suburban homes and the Australian windmill
  • landscape-scale heritage, which is important for conserving significant heritage settings and for allowing historical relationships between cultural heritage items, and these and the land, to be understood
  • smaller, partial and more ‘ordinary’ remains, which can help us understand the past and may be the only historical record.

Intangible heritage is also a part of historic heritage. Included in this are significant inherited traditions or living expressions, such as (UNESCO n.d.).

  • oral traditions
  • performing arts
  • social practices and rituals
  • festive events
  • knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
  • knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

Intangible heritage is not generally protected under heritage legislation in Australia. However, intangible values that are attached to heritage places can be protected, generally by recognising them as social or spiritual values, or as an important traditional use of a place

The condition of Australia’s historic heritage is poorly known because very few places undertake condition monitoring or other condition evaluation (McConnell 2021d, McConnell 2021c). Where condition monitoring does occur (e.g. for government assets and some specific places of major importance and use), it it is not well reported. The general lack of resources for the on-ground management of historic heritage and the very high proportion of works applications for listed places, along with anecdotal information, suggest that the condition of historic heritage is variable and, at best, moderate and declining.

Recognition and protection of historic heritage

Recognition and protection of historic heritage vary for terrestrial and underwater heritage.

Historic heritage on land is primarily recognised and protected through inclusion on heritage lists. At the national level, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) provides for significant historic heritage to be listed on World Heritage, National Heritage or Commonwealth Heritage lists (see Heritage recognised under the EPBC Act).

At the state and territory level, historic heritage is protected by inclusion on state or territory heritage registers. At the local level, protection is generally provided by inclusion in local statutory planning instruments (e.g. planning schemes) and heritage-specific provisions (e.g. codes, overlays).

Underwater cultural heritage is managed separately from terrestrial cultural heritage. The Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (Cth) (replacing the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976) provides protection in Commonwealth waters, and various state and territory legislation protects underwater cultural heritage in other Australian waters and inland waters. There is some overlap of Australian Government and state and territory responsibilities.

Because heritage must be identified and assessed to be included on a statutory heritage list (except for some underwater cultural heritage), many places and objects of historic heritage significance remain unlisted.

Historic heritage on land

More than 400 terrestrial places are listed on Commonwealth Heritage lists (see Heritage recognised under the EPBC Act) for their historic heritage significance. There are also around 15,400 historic heritage places listed on state and territory heritage registers (Figure 13). No information is provided for local government listings, as these data are difficult to source.

Figure 13 Total number of historic heritage listed sites on state and territory statutory registers, end June 2020

ACT = Australian Capital Territory; NSW = New South Wales; NT = Northern Territory; Qld = Queensland; SA = South Australia; Tas = Tasmania; Vic = Victoria; WA = Western Australia


  1. Figures for the ACT and the NT include a small number of Indigenous and natural places.
  2. The Tasmanian Heritage Register is significantly larger than other state heritage registers because it includes many local places as a result of the mass listing that occurred when the register was created.

Source: McConnell (2021d)

The overall rate of listing of historic heritage at the state and territory level is relatively uniform, with only a small number of places continuing to be added to what are quite large registers in most cases (Figure 14). This has not changed appreciably for most jurisdictions since the 2016 state of the environment report (Mackay 2016a); however, South Australia and Tasmania had noticeably low rates of listing in 2016–21.

Figure 14 Number of historic heritage places added annually to state and territory statutory registers, June 2016 to June 2020

Underwater historic heritage

The Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (Cth), which replaced the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (Cth), protects shipwrecks, submerged aircraft and other underwater cultural heritage from the low water mark out to the extent of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from unpermitted actions by Australians. The new legislation is seen as ‘a major achievement for Australian underwater cultural heritage. It provides improved protections, including the broadening of protection to sunken aircraft and other types of underwater cultural heritage (including Indigenous underwater cultural heritage) in Commonwealth waters’ (DAWE 2018).

The Underwater Cultural Heritage Act aligns with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which Australia is a signatory. However, Australia is not a signatory to the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which provides the basis for protecting underwater cultural heritage from unauthorised actions by foreign persons or foreign vessels. Ratification of the 2001 convention is an important step in fully protecting Australian underwater cultural heritage, and in participating in the global community’s response to the looting and destruction of underwater cultural heritage. Ratification will extend Australia’s powers to better protect underwater cultural heritage in the EEZ and contiguous zone, and from actions by foreigners and foreign-flagged vessels. Currently, the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act does not protect heritage beyond 12 nautical miles off the Australian coast.

Under the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act, remains of vessels (shipwrecks and aircraft) and certain associated objects that have been in Australian and Commonwealth waters for at least 75 years are automatically protected. Other underwater cultural heritage with cultural heritage significance in Australian (and Commonwealth) waters, and in some cases beyond Australian waters, is protected. Some articles can be protected even if removed from these waters. Underwater cultural heritage can also be protected within declared protected zones (DAWE 2018).

Underwater cultural heritage within state and territorial coastal waters is jointly protected under the relevant state and territory legislation, and Commonwealth legislation. Shipwrecks are protected by the Commonwealth’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act to the lowest astronomical tide mark along the coast, whereas submerged Indigenous sites and submerged aircraft are protected by state and territory legislation out to 3 nautical miles (McConnell & Janke 2021).

As there is considerable intersection between Australian Government and state and territory responsibilities, underwater cultural heritage is managed through a collaborative arrangement coordinated through the Australian Underwater Cultural Heritage Program. The Australian Government maintains the Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database and oversees the operation of professional officers. National and state and territory responsibilities are clarified in the Australian Underwater Cultural Heritage Intergovernmental Agreement (2010).

There are some 8,800 identified and protected historic shipwrecks, sunken aircraft and other underwater cultural heritage sites in Australian and territorial waters (Figure 15). The actual number of underwater cultural heritage sites is likely to be greater. Of these identified sites, only a relatively small number have been physically located.

New South Wales had a relatively high rate of newly discovered vessels added to the Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database from 2015 to 2020 (Figure 16); however, this is probably largely due to the NSW Rivers Project (see case study: The NSW Rivers Project – recording underwater cultural heritage in inland rivers). Many of the sites listed by the Australian Government between 2016 and 2020 were vessels and aircraft sunk in World War 2.

Underwater cultural heritage also includes Indigenous heritage. The Deep History of Sea Country project resulted in the first confirmed ancient underwater archaeological sites from the continental shelf, located off the Murujuga coastline in north-western Australia.

Figure 15 Number of underwater cultural heritage sites protected under Commonwealth legislation and state and Northern Territory legislation, 30 June 2020

DAWE = Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment; NSW = New South Wales; NT = Northern Territory; Qld = Queensland; SA = South Australia; Tas = Tasmania; Vic = Victoria; WA = Western Australia

Note: These figures are approximate, as they are taken from the Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database, and from state and territory heritage agencies with responsibility for underwater cultural heritage, and there may be overlaps and omissions. They do not necessarily reflect the number of sites on individual UCH databases, which may include many more sites. The NSW figure is extremely high because it includes coastal waters that overlap with Commonwealth waters.

Source: McConnell (2021d)

Figure 16 Number of underwater cultural heritage sites added each year to state and territory statutory databases and registers, June 2016 to June 2020

DAWE = Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment; NSW = New South Wales; NT = Northern Territory; Qld = Queensland; SA = South Australia; Tas = Tasmania; Vic = Victoria; WA = Western Australia

Note: These figures are approximate, as they are taken from the Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database, and from state and territory heritage agencies with responsibility for underwater cultural heritage, and there may be overlaps and omissions.

Source: McConnell (2021d)

Case Study The NSW Rivers Project – recordingunderwater cultural heritage in inland rivers

Based on information provided by Dr Brad Duncan, Senior Maritime Archaeologist, Heritage NSW

Rivers have been central to the lives of many diverse Indigenous communities over countless generations, central to subsistence, transport and all aspects of their living cultures. In colonial Australia, before the introduction of road and rail networks across Australia, rivers acted as highways to the interior, linking agricultural land and other natural resource industries with local national and international markets. Rivers also facilitated social contacts between townships and across borders. With more than 50 river systems in New South Wales alone, documenting the archaeological remains and heritage sites (both above and below water) of riverine cultural landscapes provides a view of the diverse ways of life in Australia’s interior and coastal waterways.

After the discovery of several wrecks in the Murray and Kalang rivers, Heritage NSW began to investigate wrecks and other types of archaeological sites in and around New South Wales waterways. This has evolved into a collaborative project with the Department of Archaeology, University of New England. The project has a major ‘citizen science’ component, with more than 60 volunteers who live in New South Wales inland and coastal river communities assisting with wreck site reporting, documentation and specific field surveys. Community groups and historical societies are also contributing by recording oral histories and identifying previously undocumented sites.

The project, which has been operating since 2010, has contributed significantly to the identification of underwater and terrestrial cultural heritage in the inland rivers of New South Wales, with more than 700 new sites in 30 different waterways being identified.

Projects such as these, which systematically identify and record archaeological information on a statewide basis, are extremely important in improving the recognition and protection of cultural heritage. This project is also contributing to filling a major gap in underwater cultural heritage knowledge and a historic heritage thematic gap more generally.

Figure 17 The wreck of the PS Rodney

Photo: Dr Brad Duncan, Senior Maritime Archaeologist, Heritage NSW

Gaps in heritage registers

Listed places represent a diversity of types of places and geographic coverage of Australia, but not all of Australia’s significant historic heritage places are listed. Some indication of what remains unlisted can be gained from reviewing existing historic heritage lists and registers. Agency data provided to this review indicate that there are significant imbalances and regional or thematic gaps in what historic heritage is listed, with different jurisdictions having different types of gaps (McConnell 2021d).

Thematic gaps in land-based historic heritage identified by agencies at the state and territory level include cultural landscapes, rural heritage, 20th century development and architectural heritage, Indigenous heritage, migrant heritage, LGBTQIA+ heritage, women’s heritage, group settlement and soldier settlement. Tasmania noted that all themes except urban built heritage and rural estates are under-represented. Early colonial heritage and science heritage are 2 other areas considered under-represented in listings (McConnell & Knaggs 2018, McConnell 2020a).

Nationally, although some work has been undertaken to address some historic heritage thematic gaps (Crocker & Davies 2005, Pearson & Lennon 2010, AHC 2016) and a key regional gap (Macfarlane & McConnell 2017), very few of the identified places have been listed (see National Heritage). Identified studies undertaken at the state and territory level to address thematic gaps in the past 5 years are:

  • a thematic review of institutions attended by Aboriginal people in Western Australia (2016)
  • an assessment of agricultural and other dams in Western Australia’s wheatbelt and goldfields regions (2020)
  • 4 regional studies of bridges in Western Australia (2016–19)
  • a thematic study of post–World War 2 churches in South Australia (2020)
  • the architecture of Harry Seidler in Victoria (2017)
  • a thematic study of LGBTQI+ heritage in Victoria (McConnell 2021d, Willett et al. 2021).

Australia has a considerable amount of heritage that has a shared Indigenous and non-Indigenous history, such as Indigenous missions; pastoral stations; frontier war sites; and sites associated with significant Indigenous rights actions, recent achievements and significant people. Very little of this heritage, except for missions, is included on historic heritage registers or lists.

The lack of recognition for these sites of shared history speaks to wider deficits in truth telling that must be core to finding ways to tell our stories in a more complete and inclusive way. It has been noted that (HCOANZ 2020), ‘telling the truth about Indigenous history is the foundation for an understanding on the basis of which all Australians can come together in acknowledgement of a shared past and a shared future’. Many places of significance to the shared history of Australia are extremely sensitive to Indigenous communities, containing difficult stories often centred on racism, discrimination, loss and horrific violence (Ryan et al. n.d.). Given the huge potential to cause further harm if these narratives are mishandled, these types of heritage must be understood and managed entirely within an imperative that Indigenous communities are enabled to exercise free, prior and informed consent (HCOANZ 2020).

Cultural landscapes, including historic cultural landscapes, continue to be under-represented on national and state and territory lists and registers (e.g. Lennon 2016) (see also McConnell 2021d). This gap means there are significant cultural landscapes that are at risk, and in some cases in the process of being lost (e.g. in the Cumberland Plain and Camden area west of Sydney; also see case study: Lake Burley Griffin and lakeshore landscape) (Morris & Britton 2001, Lennon 2016, Morris & Britton 2018, Ramsay 2020).

For underwater heritage, different jurisdictions have identified thematic gaps as aircraft heritage, submerged Indigenous heritage, submerged cultural landscapes and, in the Northern Territory, pre-colonial underwater heritage (e.g. Chinese, Dutch, Macassan). One state indicated that only shipwrecks and submerged aircraft were well represented.

Most jurisdictions have also identified regional gaps in systematic surveys of underwater cultural heritage:

  • In Tasmania, only the waters of the Tasman Peninsula and Sarah Island have been comprehensively surveyed.
  • In the Northern Territory, 50% of the coastline is yet to be surveyed.
  • In Victoria, the east Gippsland coast is yet to be surveyed.
  • In Western Australia, the regional gaps are in the north-west (Exmouth Gulf, and the Onslow and Port Hedland areas) (McConnell 2021d).

Targeted regional and thematic surveys and assessments are needed to eliminate major thematic and regional gaps, and to develop more comprehensive registers for terrestrial and underwater historic heritage.

Objects and collections

Historic heritage objects are generally managed by galleries, libraries and museums, which operate through their own legislative frameworks, and have separate policies and guidelines (e.g. Russell & Winkworth 2009). The Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 (Cth) prevents significant cultural heritage objects from being removed from Australia.

Historic heritage legislation applies generally to places rather than objects – except in relation to the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (Cth) – providing protection for objects that are on-site and part of a listed place. Thus, ex situ objects, collections and archaeological materials from nonlisted heritage places, or items of movable cultural heritage, have limited statutory protection. Objects and object collections not in collecting institutions are consequently often poorly protected and curated, except where there is a clear legislative or regulatory mandate to do so. An example is the Heritage Act 2017 (Vic) in relation to excavated artefacts from listed places and movable heritage, and the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (Cth). The Underwater Cultural Heritage Act has greater provision for objects and collections; it can protect associated artefacts of shipwrecks and submerged aircraft, regulate the trade and sale of notified protected artefacts, and manage artefacts in community possession. More than 500,000 artefacts are managed though the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act.

Case Study Objects as cultural heritage: The Australian Antarctic Division’s heritage collection

Sources: McConnell et al. (2015) and Wishart (2020)

Australian Antarctic heritage material usually occurs in situ in Antarctica and on the subantarctic islands in the Australian territories at historic and active bases and other sites. However, a large amount of material is also held in collections in a range of locations in Australia and internationally, including in universities, archives, specialised collecting institutions and museums, and by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). This material is primarily movable cultural heritage such as tools and equipment, but also includes other objects such as archaeological and structural remains, and documentary material such as government records and diaries. This material is highly diverse, including items such seal brands, sleds, early oversnow vehicles, huts, taxidermied former sled dogs, scientific instruments, medals, flags, midwinter dinner menus, foodstuffs, expeditioner clothing, and other items that form part of the support systems and the lifestyle that underlie Antarctic science and enable it to happen.

This material plays an important role in documenting Australia’s historic connection to Antarctica and the subantarctic, especially Australia’s scientific role, and the development of these territories since the 1800s. The remoteness and extreme environments of Antarctica and the subantarctic mean that much of the material culture was specialised (and hence rare), and tells the story of Australia’s innovative ability and participation in the international scientific arena. Much of this material has social significance because it is highly valued by former expeditioners.

The value of Australian Antarctic and subantarctic collections is not well realised. The material occurs as a large number of dispersed collections, with some material not on public display (e.g. a substantial part of the AAD library’s highly significant special collection of more than 1,000 objects). Also, much of it is not held under archival storage conditions. This situation has the potential to worsen, because the AAD has determined that maintaining a heritage collection is not part of its core business and is therefore looking to dispose of its collection. If done on an object-by-object basis, rather than a collection basis, this is likely to result in a significant loss of heritage value. This would be best resolved by keeping the collection intact and transferring it to another collecting institution, preferably one that already has a significant Australian Antarctic heritage collection and is in a location that has a recognised Australian Antarctic association.

It is also important that the AAD, like other managers of heritage, has a future collection policy and strategy in place to ensure that there is a long-term, ongoing material record of Australia’s engagement in the Antarctic.

Figure 18 Part of the Australian Antarctic Division heritage collection, Kingston, Tasmania

Photo: Anne McConnell

Pressures on, and management of, historic heritage

Data and views provided to this report (McConnell 2021a, McConnell 2021b) indicate that Australian historic heritage is at risk from a range of pressures, including rural and urban land development, resource extraction, poorly managed tourism (see Tourism and recreation), and inadequate management and protections. Climate change impacts are also being increasingly felt, along with natural weathering and erosion processes.

Considerable amounts of historic heritage, listed and unlisted, are being destroyed or significantly affected by economic and infrastructure development, particularly through urban renewal and peri-urban development. This is likely to significantly reduce Australia’s historic heritage stock, which will have negative impacts on community wellbeing, unless prevention or management measures are put in place.

Many of the same pressures that affect historic heritage can also affect underwater cultural heritage, but often to a lower degree because it is less accessible, and the environments in which it is located are subject to less development pressure overall. Other significant pressures for underwater cultural heritage sites and objects are dredging and looting.

Expert opinion ranks inadequate government resourcing for conservation and management as the most significant pressure on historic heritage. Climate change–driven extreme weather events, and urban densification, renewal and spread are also key pressures (Figure 19).

Figure 19 Pressures that are identified as having the greatest impact on historic heritage (including survival, condition and integrity)

Climate and natural processes

Most types of Australian historic heritage are at risk from natural processes, including climatic factors, that contribute directly to the gradual decay of heritage sites and places. For example, rain, combined with warm temperatures or a generally damp environment, can promote rot, corrosion and other disintegration, and prolonged exposure to wind can cause abrasion. Natural processes can also act to break, erode or bury heritage.

Climate change will accelerate and increase the impacts of these natural processes, and introduce climate-related events such as cyclones, floods and fires into areas where they have not occurred previously, resulting in new impacts (ICOMOS Climate Change and Cultural Heritage Working Group 2019). Extreme events that have happened in the past 10 years can provide insight into the types of climate change impacts that can be expected in the future, such as (ICOMOS Climate Change and Cultural Heritage Working Group 2019):

  • the flooding of the Port Arthur Historic Site Penitentiary due to a storm surge
  • ongoing coastal erosion at the Coal Mines Historic Site
  • destruction of heritage by bushfires
  • damage to coastal shipwrecks
  • tree damage in botanical gardens.

Climate change in Antarctica is resulting in shorter-term snow cover and warmer conditions at Commonwealth Bay. This is moderating the previously excellent preservation conditions at the Mawson’s Huts Historic Site, and is likely to accelerate deterioration of the various structures.

Urgent action to mitigate and manage these impacts is required (see Strategic planning and adaptive management). Little substantive action has been taken in Australia in this area to date. However, recent high-level reviews provide guidance on how to approach historic heritage protection in relation to climate change – for example, ICOMOS Climate Change and Cultural Heritage Working Group (2019) and HCV (2021). Greater emphasis is being placed on the need for risk management planning (C Forbes, pers. comm., 2020), and a small number of regional heritage risk assessments have been undertaken or are in progress (e.g. Victoria is undertaking a statewide study of the climate change risk to its cultural heritage; see HCV 2021). From 2021, several state governments (e.g. New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia) are funding programs for climate change action, including risk assessment and mitigation measures, for owners of listed heritage places.

Sustainability and embodied energy

Our built environment is currently the world’s single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It consumes around 33% of our water and generates 40% of our waste (see the Urban chapter). As much as 25% of Australia’s carbon emissions come from buildings (Faddy 2018). Retrofitting existing buildings to be more efficient is estimated to potentially provide 100 megatonnes of carbon savings by 2050 (Faddy 2018). But current requirements in Australia to improve energy efficiency and sustainability focus on the operational efficiencies of buildings and do not consider the embodied energy of buildings (i.e. the energy used to produce the building, including all materials) or other sustainable values of existing buildings.

Consequently, there is significant risk that historic buildings with heritage value will be demolished in favour of new energy-efficient and sustainably built alternatives, or will have traditional elements and materials that contribute to the heritage value of the place replaced with unsympathetic materials deemed to be more sustainable or energy efficient (Mackay 2016a, Redden & Crawford 2021).

Historic buildings have significant embodied energy. The energy embodied in existing buildings in Australia was calculated in 2008 to be equivalent to 10 years of the total energy consumption of the entire nation (CSIRO 2008, cited in Mackay 2016a). Replacing these buildings therefore has a high energy cost. Furthermore, historic buildings are, in general, high environmental performers (Redden & Crawford 2021), and have other natural and cultural inheritance values that contribute to broader sustainability (Mackay 2016a).

These considerations are not being included in environmental assessments. The tools to do this, including defining best-practice environmental sustainability and establishing the environmental value of historic buildings, need to be developed (Arreza 2020). Particularly critical considerations are inclusion of lifecycle costing, whole-life carbon modelling and post-occupancy evaluation, including built environment rating systems in local government planning requirements, and the option of upgrading existing buildings for extended use, where possible (AAD n.d.).

Current design requirements and statutory-based codes and regulations are the major impediments in Australia to enabling the values of historic built heritage to be taken into account to achieve heritage-sympathetic adaptive re-use and to avoid the demolition of heritage buildings (Conejos et al. 2016). Although some actions are helping to lessen the negative impact of regulation on heritage buildings (e.g. the Heritage Victoria program to develop new Heritage Technical Codes), these are few. Moves to broaden the assessment approaches advocated by Mackay (2016a) have not eventuated, and few of the potential measures advocated by Faddy (2018) have been developed. The need to address this issue is increasingly urgent.

Urban and peri-urban development

The pressures considered to have the most impact on historic heritage are urban redevelopment, new peri-urban development and agricultural land redevelopment, including associated infrastructure development (see the Urban chapter). This development can demolish individual heritage buildings, remake areas, significantly negatively impact archaeological values, or change heritage places to the extent that the historic heritage values are largely destroyed. Development can also cause smaller-scale modifications to heritage places that result in minor loss of heritage values but, cumulatively, can result in a significant loss of heritage values. This type of development is occurring in most Australian cities, with recent examples including Parramatta, New South Wales (H Lardner, pers. comm., 2020) and the development of the West Basin of Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra (Ramsay 2020) (see case study: Lake Burley Griffin and lakeshore landscape).

Peri-urban development, which most commonly occurs on former agricultural land, may not destroy the same number of heritage places compared with urban development, but it is generally destructive over a larger area. Recent examples are parts of the Bagdad Valley north of Hobart (McConnell 2020b), and Cumberland Plain and Camden on the western edge of Sydney (Morris & Britton 2018), which were rare, well-preserved, rural colonial heritage examples of high significance. This loss reflects that these and other cultural landscapes are not adequately recognised and protected by statutory planning protection mechanisms or on state heritage registers. Urban and coastal peri-urban development, particularly infrastructure development, can also impact nearshore, coastal and coastal waterway underwater cultural heritage.

Also important is the need to have a reliable understanding of the cost–benefit ratio of new development versus heritage conservation (e.g. Licciardi & Amirtahmasebi 2012). Historic urban areas are generally considered in Australia to have relatively low occupation densities and economic benefit. However, the City of Sydney review (McNicoll 2016) found that the Sydney heritage conservation areas performed well and, in some cases, better against population density and employment than non-heritage urban areas in Australia, and even when compared with major city environments overseas (e.g. Paris, Singapore).

Case Study Lake Burley Griffin and lakeshore landscape

Source: Ramsay (2020)

In the 21st century, urban renewal and intensification have increased, placing environmental and heritage values under threat. Lake Burley Griffin and its lakeshore landscape is an example of how urban intensification can lead to undesirable changes in an historic designed cultural landscape of national heritage significance.

Canberra, Australia’s capital, is a planned city in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The substantial lake system of Lake Burley Griffin was designed as its central feature and focus. It was largely designed by Walter and Marion Burley Griffin, but was later amended by the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) for practical and aesthetic reasons. The initial development of lake and surrounding parkland included around 40.5 hectares of landscape planting of about 55,000 trees. The completed lake and landscape are regarded as a masterwork of design and engineering that successfully kept the spirit of the Griffins’ plan while achieving a functional and modern attractive expression.

The national significance of Lake Burley Griffin and its lakeshore landscape was recognised though its inclusion in the NCDC National Capital Open Space System, a status that protected its values for 25 years. However, in the mid-2000s, the National Capital Plan was changed to allow residential development in this designated open space that was not present in the Griffin or the NCDC schemes. Included in this was the development of a multistorey apartment enclave in the West Basin area, lining the western side of Commonwealth Avenue, the iconic route to Australia’s Parliament House. This development required infilling of the lake up to 80 metres from the existing shoreline. The changes were of sufficient concern that the Australian Government Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories recommended against the amendments.

Following the establishment of the ACT Government in 1988, a complex dual planning system was established, with planning responsibilities divided between the ACT Government and the Australian Government’s National Capital Planning Authority. Today, only parts of the Lake Burley Griffin landscape are listed on the ACT Heritage Register and Commonwealth Heritage list. Despite various nominations to the National Heritage List since 2011 to compensate for the fragmented and partial listings (with the cultural landscape considered to meet 7 of the National Heritage criteria), no all-encompassing heritage listing or conservation management plan for Lake Burley Griffin and its lakeshore landscape has been accepted. The 2017 International ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) General Assembly passed a Heritage Alert resolution requesting the Australian and ACT governments to halt the West Basin development and to prepare an overarching conservation management plan for Lake Burley Griffin and its lakeshore landscape before any further development. Neither of these have happened.

Although increased urban density in Canberra and other Australian cities may be desirable (see the Urban chapter), care is needed to ensure no loss of significant heritage values.

Figure 20 Lake Burley Griffin’s West Basin, showing the start of infill and redevelopment, February 2021

Photo: George Rooks, Lake Burley Griffin Guardians

Mining legacy issues

The rehabilitation of mines that are no longer operating is legally required in many parts of Australia to restore ecological systems and combat legacy issues, primarily soil and water contamination, and acid mine drainage. This environmentally essential work is largely undertaken with no consideration of historic heritage values (Australia ICOMOS, cited in Senate Environment and Communications References Committee 2019). This is a significant issue for historic mining heritage, because such actions generally involve substantial earthworks, land resurfacing and revegetation. Thus, rehabilitating sites can have significant adverse heritage impacts. Although there some are examples of heritage being considered as part of such rehabilitation works, this is far from common, and there is no consistent approach applied in Australia at a jurisdictional level.

It is estimated that there are some 50,000 abandoned mine sites in Australia (Roche & Judd 2016), although most of these will not be mining heritage sites. Heritage mining legacy issues apply to most historic mining areas and all types of mines, from small workings to large, long-term mines.

The mining sector has developed a small number of guidelines or codes of conduct that encourage consideration of historic heritage values, but these are not uniformly applied or provide minimum standards on how to protect the heritage. Development of adequate protections will require greater engagement between mining regulators, environmental protection authorities and the heritage sector (Australia ICOMOS, cited in Senate Environment and Communications References Committee 2019). A nationally consistent mechanism to ensure that significant historic mining values are protected in the process of addressing mine legacy issues is needed. Increased consultation with heritage experts to better incorporate heritage advice into site environmental management planning would also be beneficial.

Statutory planning and historic heritage protection

Strong protections at the local level are essential to protect historic heritage from the widespread redevelopment that is occurring in urban, rural and regional areas of Australia.

A key issue is that the general approach of local government planning schemes is development control aimed at allowing development and new use, rather than environmental and heritage conservation control. An associated issue is that regulatory requirements for improved environmental management (see Sustainability and embodied energy), safety and access – all of which are important to consider – frequently do not provide sufficient flexibility to enable historic heritage protection.

Necessary reform will require strengthening of heritage protection provisions in statutory planning instruments, and greater flexibility for historic heritage places for meeting requirements in relation to various use and sustainability requirements. It will also be important for statutory planning approaches to be used in parallel with strategic heritage conservation approaches that also have statutory status. An example of where this is occurring effectively is the Historic Urban Landscape approach developed by WHITRAP et al. (2016), which is being used globally to integrate historic heritage conservation planning into the broader urban planning framework. In Australia, this approach is being successfully used by the City of Ballarat, Victoria (Vines 2020).


Most key tasks required to protect historic heritage are insufficiently resourced to be adequately performed, and experts have identified resourcing to be the highest priority for management (Figure 21). Key tasks include:

  • identifying and assessing historic heritage
  • assessing the condition of historic heritage
  • undertaking active conservation works
  • understanding and responding to existing pressures and new threats
  • ensuring compliance with legislation and regulations
  • administering heritage legislation and allied protective schemes such as through local government planning or protected area management.

Some states and territories are funding some priority areas – for example, the Heritage Victoria statewide assessment of the risk from climate change to places on the state heritage register, commissioned in 2020, and Hobart City Council’s risk assessment for cultural heritage in the Hobart coastal zone (McConnell & Evans 2017). However, there are large numbers of unprocessed heritage register nominations to lists and registers, and inspection and assessment of heritage condition are rare. Anecdotally, heritage officers in many local government areas are struggling to meet core tasks such as reviewing development application assessment requirements and undertaking compliance checks.

There are also other important historic heritage resourcing needs that require greater government support, including:

  • research to develop improved approaches to, and techniques for, historic heritage conservation, as well as to develop better understanding of Australia’s historic heritage and its vulnerabilities. Heritage funding is directed primarily at individual sites, and this type of research is largely peripheral to Australian Research Council funding
  • training in historic trades skills. Many of these skills are essential for the long-term conservation of historic heritage, but they have largely been lost
  • developing a national quality assurance framework for historic heritage conservation
  • assisting private owners of historic heritage to help preserve heritage values. A significant proportion of historic heritage, particularly at the local level, is in private ownership. Under legislation, this ownership conveys various obligations for conservation, which may cost owners financially (e.g. for conservation works) or impose constraints (e.g. inability to change a home as desired). Although this contribution to public good by private owners is recognised through government assistance, this assistance is limited and highly competitive.

Figure 21 Priority management actions identified to improve the protection of Australia’s historic heritage