What is Perth? Let’s start by embracing our city’s heritage

Opinion piece by Julian Donaldson, National Trust of Western Australia CEO, in the West Australian, Monday 21 June 2021

As we consider the challenge from Lord Mayor Basil Zempilas to know what makes Perth, as part of the City’s efforts to rebrand our city and put Perth on the global stage, it is important to embrace the contribution heritage makes to a place’s identity.

Thoughtful reflection will include our natural environment and the beauty of our beaches, bush and urban environment, the character of West Australians as people with resilience, optimism and a can-do attitude, the benefits of the abundance of our services, resources, agricultural, entrepreneurial and creative sectors, and a sense of what from our history has bought us to be the people who have shaped the place we now look to rebrand.

Heritage is a thread in our humanity that joins generations together, illuminating places, objects and customs from the past which we believe are worth passing on to the generations who will come after us. Importantly, the National Trust of Western Australia believes heritage is more than a force to protect and preserve the past. An understanding of the value of heritage awakens our community to its roots and to the impacts our predecessors have had on the environment, the living culture of first peoples who inhabited the place before colonialization and who continue to have strong connections to Country, and the subsequent intersections between the diverse peoples who settled here and contributed to our modern cosmopolitan society.

It is this intersection between people and between people and the environment, which has shaped our identity.

The value of including reflection on where we have come from as we look to the future is manifest. It is equivalent to looking to our own inner strengths and getting to know and understand our own essence.

There was a moment in Perth’s history when in the enthusiasm to become a modern city it demolished much of the fabric of its past. Comparative photographs of St George’s Terrace of the fifties to the sixties shows the rapid transformation from a stout Victorian and Edwardian city proudly facing the Indian Ocean to a place of skyscrapers striving to be a modern international city. In this transformation the human scale, so important to liveability in a city, was lost.

In recent times there has been an awakening of how much value is gained by the adaptive re-use of heritage places and how modern needs can be met alongside careful conservation of heritage fabric. There are also new insights into the importance of a sense of place and the subsequent benefits to wellbeing. The intertwining of past, present and future creates a city ecology that is deep and broad and diverse. It is also produces a result that is much more people friendly.

Perth has recently risen in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability index, outperforming Melbourne and Sydney. Factors which contribute to this score include Perth’s stability, healthcare, culture and the environment, education and infrastructure. All of us who have watched the impact of COVID 19 on the rest of the world would not be surprised Perth has done well on these factors given our State Government’s excellent management and our immense good fortune over the last year.

It is not just escaping the ravages of COVID 19 that has produced the good result for Perth. We enjoyed high rankings on most of the factors before the pandemic struck and now we can see clearly just how well we compare to the rest of the world.

Of particular interest is that we have scored lowest of the top ten on culture and environment. This is a surprise really because we know that Perth is no longer dull but it’s a story not being well told. Perth is a culturally vibrant city and more than ever before has begun to value its rich heritage and the value of its diverse and precious environment.

Perth has a living culture of first peoples tens of thousands of years old, it has a rich and textured story to tell about empire and the settlement of the western side of Australia, of the impact of colonial settlement and the successful development of an independent and resilient character.

While there are undoubtedly capital cities around the world with longer and more storied histories, with an abundance of monuments, museums and theatres, there is much to be gained by looking to the way Perth has evolved as a result of its past so that a light can be thrown on how to brand it for the future.