Ballarat Town Hall
The Future for Urban Conservation—The HUL Approach

The Future for Urban Conservation—The HUL Approach

The Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) approach, adopted by UNESCO in 2011, is gaining traction around the world as a new way of thinking about historic cities and other urban areas.

The HUL approach ‘provides the basis for integration of urban conservation within an overall sustainable development framework through the application of a range of traditional and innovative tools adapted to local contexts’. HUL is not a ‘class’ of heritage and has been defined by UNESCO in the following way:

…the historic urban landscape is the urban area…extending beyond the notion of ‘historic centre’ or ‘ensemble’ to include the broader urban context and its geographical setting. This wider context includes notably the site’s topography, geomorphology, hydrology and natural features, its built environment, both historic and contemporary, its infrastructures above and below ground, its open spaces and gardens, its land use patterns and spatial organization, perceptions and visual relationships, as well as all other elements of the urban structure. It also includes social and cultural practices and values, economic processes and the intangible dimensions of heritage.

Ballarat: The Historic Urban Landscape Approach in Practice

The City of Ballarat in Victoria is facing unprecedented growth. Yet, despite this, or perhaps because of it, the City has fully implemented the HUL approach throughout all aspects of its management and administration.

Its political leaders have committed to ‘implementing the HUL approach as the guiding framework for managing change in their historic city’, enabling ‘the city’s distinctive cultural identity… to be placed front and centre in its planning for the future’.

When it signed up as a pilot city to UNESCO’s HUL program in 2013, it became the first local government area in the world to do so. The HUL approach is now well integrated and accepted throughout the entire city. Communities are actively engaged in all major decisions and activities. Development has not stopped as a result. Rather, the opposite is true with developers understanding the value of working with the city administration and community to arrive at mutually beneficial outcomes that can achieve ‘a more sustainable future for the entire community.’

At a time when there is limited support at all levels of government for protecting historic areas and precincts for fear of stymieing development, Ballarat seems to be the glowing exception. Elsewhere, it is more important than ever for communities that value the environments in which they live and work to clearly identify what it is about those places that they feel most strongly about and to make the case for what they would like kept. Cultural mapping is increasingly being used in parts of Asia as a tool that enables communities to identify and map their heritage values.

It is evident, both in Australia and abroad, that the values that communities identify as important to them are more than historic buildings and other traditional tangible aspects of heritage.

Intangible values, cultural traditions, and places of spiritual or emotional attachment are being increasingly recognised as crucial to identity. Is it now time for other Australian cities, towns and urban areas to embrace the HUL approach as the new paradigm for sustainable urban development and conservation?

Liveability and Cultural Values

Good planning can integrate all aspects of environmental sustainability, including tangible and intangible heritage values, with development and growth targets. But do we have planning systems that can protect, or even recognise, such values? In New South Wales, there is growing dialogue about the need to engage with communities throughout the various stages of the planning system, particularly during strategic planning. Communities which had actively engaged in such processes to arrive at agreed development and conservation outcomes rightly feel cynical and disillusioned with the whole planning system when development proposals ignore those agreements.

A recent case in point is the development proposal to dramatically increase the height of the Pyrmont casino well beyond the height limits for the area that the City of Sydney Council had negotiated with the community and other stakeholders. The issue is not just one of development versus conservation but the potential impact on the community’s sense of identity.

Such issues of lack of confidence in urban planning processes are also currently being played out in Adelaide, where the inner ring of heritage conservation areas surrounding the CBD and adjacent parklands is threatened by the state government’s indifference towards the thousands of currently listed items which are the very identity of Adelaide’s historic inner ring of suburbs.

Adelaide Suburb

It would appear that the community’s collective voice is being drowned out by a relatively small development lobby. Such opposing positions could, and should, be reconciled through better planning processes.

‘Liveability’ is a word that is increasingly used by cities and communities to describe what they value and what they strive for. Retention of a place’s identity and aspects of its history enhance liveability. They remain familiar, low-scale places in which communities feel comfortable to meet and enjoy.

Heritage values are often cited by communities as key aspects of liveability in cities, towns and urban areas. Communities need to be involved in identifying the heritage values of their areas and the tangible or intangible attributes which carry, convey or contribute to those aspects.

In the case of Adelaide’s heritage conservation areas, it is primarily the historic dwellings and landscape that contribute to the historic and aesthetic values of those areas. In other cities, such as those in Asia, it may be cultural traditions such as religious festivals, procession routes and performance spaces, music, dance, food, traditional trades and crafts etc, that are the ‘contributory’ values. Removal, demolition or unsympathetic modification of contributory items or contributory values inevitably has an adverse impact on the heritage value of the place as a whole.

Historic Urban Landscape Futures

Adoption and implementation of the HUL approach in historic cities, towns or urban areas can be expected to achieve better outcomes for the tangible and intangible heritage values given that development and conservation objectives are integrated. However, successful protection of the values and attributes will still depend on knowledge and understanding of the approach by the various actors, in particular those assessing development proposals, as well as politicians and administrative decision-makers.

People working around a table

It does not apply exclusively to World Heritage-listed cities. Indeed, the City of Ballarat is not on the World Heritage list, nor is it on the Australian National Heritage list or the Victorian State Heritage list.

Once the benefits of the HUL approach and the improved liveability outcomes in Ballarat are more widely disseminated, it may well become the model for other cities, towns and urban areas throughout Australia. Indeed, as a State Party signatory to the World Heritage Convention (which operates under the auspices of UNESCO), the Commonwealth Government has an obligation to promote it!



[i]     Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape, UNESCO, 2011

[ii]     The HUL Guidebook, UNESCO and City of Ballarat, 2016

[iii]    Ibid.