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  • Writer's pictureTouring the Past

Notes from the field #3: Heritage Conservation Areas

Updated: Dec 28, 2018

Heritage Conservation Area Sydney
While not Australia, this shot of Erice, Sicily, at dusk really captures what heritage consultants talk about when they refer to streetscapes. (Source: @massaro_gaetano_ph)

What are they?

Heritage conservation areas (or HCAs) appear across NSW’s physical and planning landscapes. An important heritage tool, HCAs essentially designate an area as having cultural heritage significance and make an attempt to manage it as a whole. They can range in size, form and character from an intact street or two to large sections of a suburb or even a rural setting.

With heritage conservation areas, it is important to understand that they do not just seek to protect individual ‘heritage’ building stock. Instead, the emphasis is on managing change across entire landscape. Layouts, subdivision patterns, plantings, open spaces, the prevailing urban grain, views and current/former uses of the area, alongside readily perceived elements such as historic groupings of building, are all facets that could we be zeroed in on as contributing to the character of a HCA and consequently, worthy of protection. Heritage conservation areas can be complex beasts!

A terrace streetscape, Ultimo. (Source: @oncewereshops)

Another competing, often confusing, component of HCAs is the presence of benign or seriously out-of-place developments. Think of that 1940s cream brick veneer house in a street of picturesque Arts and Craft bungalows or the unexplainable eyesore disfiguring a Victorian period commercial precinct. Such places are considered out-of-character (‘neutral’ or ‘intrusive/non-contributory’ in heritage parlance) but to not necessarily mar the overall value of a character streetscape or precinct. Without a doubt, they entail greater scope for change than more obviously ‘contributing’ sites.

Heritage conservation areas Sydney
Rupturing the historic environment 101. (Source: Author’s collection)

In plain speak then, heritage conservation areas are focused on conserving the streetscape – i.e. the built and natural ‘fabric’, design quality and, consequently, distinctive visual experience and sense of place exhibited by an area. However, a pristine site is not to be expected. Like the rest of the built environment, HCAs are not immune from the accretions of time. Alterations and additions, some visually distressing, will often be apparent.

Change & Conservation

Most development proposals at sites located in HCAs will trigger heritage provisions. This may not require the input of a heritage consultant, for example with minor work most regulatory bodies provide a somewhat easy to use permission form. Proposals which have the potential to generate direct or indirect impact/s however, will likely require the involvement of a heritage consultant and the preparation of a Heritage Impact Statement (HIS). Click here to read about our heritage advice services or here for further information about Heritage Impact Statements.

Now take a breath and expel! The field of heritage conservation has taken huge strides in recent decades. Increasingly, conservation is popularly and statutorily understand as a dynamic, flexible and thoughtful process; one that focuses on the management of change instead of stifling it.

Heritage conservation areas Sydney
HCAs can be controversial. Witness the recent heated exchanges over the efforts of Ku-ring-gai Council to institute a series of new heritage conservation areas across the leafy Upper North Shore of Sydney. In 2018 only six of eleven new areas – Hillview, Telegraph Road, Pymble Heights, Athol, Mona Vale Road and West Pymble – made it through the gauntlet of public review and are now with the NSW Department of Planning. Together with the well-established HCAs, large stretches of this suburb’s historic environment are now subject to heritage provisions. (Source: Ku-ring-gai Council)

Working with the grain

Development in HCAs is eminently possible and Councils, at least in our experience, are not unreasonable. Yet the starting point has to be an in-depth understanding and a creative approach. For the most part, poorly planned and/or 'cookie-cutter' designs (which you’d like to think should never get approved anywhere) will be rejected outright in heritage contexts.

The vast majority of heritage assets are capable of adaptation or alterations and additions without the undue loss of significance. Indeed, some degree of change is often vital in order to facilitate best use of an item so it can continue to warrant investment, care and maintenance (processes which underpin conservation).

We suggest a three pronged approach:

  • Firstly, involve a heritage consultant from the ‘get go’. We will digest the relevant heritage policy and apply best-practice heritage management approaches to the specifics of your site and how it fits into the wider HCA. This will establish clear parameters and direction for your proposal that will either avoid entirely, or dramatically minimise, adverse heritage impact;

  • Secondly, communicate with the statutory authorities. Either get on the phone yourself with Council or authorise your heritage consultant to do so on your behalf. Early conversations and meetings can do wonders in establishing a dialogue with the eventual assessors. It gives you insight into their (if any) concerns – often big picture issues like cumulative effects or the holistic character of the HCA – which enables you to make decisions about what aspects to push and/or when rethinking and alternatives need to be explored; and

  • Thirdly, and crucially, the principles of design excellence and high quality materials are paramount when proposing change in sensitive historic environments. Development within HCAs often boils down to visibility. If changes cannot be cleverly concealed or veiled then they should add a contextually aware, contemporary built layer to the heritage conservation item. Where appropriate, imaginative and even bold design solutions can work and often help to reinvigorate the qualities of a conservation area. Above all else, the aim must be alterations and additions that work with, rather than against, their heritage settings; establishing a two-way dialogue between the old and the new, not a soliloquy.

Heritage Conservation Area Sydney heritage consutant
One of our recent favourite examples of infill design in a HCA, Manhattan, New York. The new is highly visible but responsive and in-sync with the historic environment. (Source: @madufault)

The informed need not fear

The strategy of proclaiming heritage conservation areas is not perfect and it will be interesting to chart its evolution over the next several years as new heritage management tools filter into Australia (for example, the historic landscape characterisation being developed under English Heritage). The aims of HCAs are admirable however, and generally their management not overly burdensome or stroppy.

The way to make them work is to engage heritage savvy professionals at a reasonably early date in your project. Touring the Past begins each and every project by putting in the time to comprehend the needs of our client, the heritage context of their site and the array of opportunities and constraints that will need to be navigated to accomplish a positive heritage outcome. We move deftly across the statutory and best-practice heritage landscape and pride ourselves on delivering outstanding outcomes for all types and sizes of projects in HCAs.

Drop us a line.


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