Academic conference review: Remaking cities: the fourteenth Australasian urban history/planning history conference, Melbourne, 2018. By Lauren Pikó, Victoria Kolankiewicz and James Lesh.

Here is an academic conference review of Remaking cities: the fourteenth Australasian urban history/planning history conference, Melbourne, 2018, which originally appears in Planning Perspectives. This review was written by Lauren Pikó Victoria Kolankiewicz and myself.


Almost one hundred urban and planning historians and practitioners met in Melbourne at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University for the fourteenth biannual Australasian Urban History/Planning History (AUHPH) conference between 31 January and 2 February 2018. Hosted by RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, the conference conveners were Ian McShane, Elizabeth Taylor, Libby Porter, and Ian Woodcock, along with Kath Phelan and Marco Amati, with the assistance of Chanel Bearder.

The conference theme – ‘Remaking Cities’ – resonated with the host city and the conference programme. On the lands of the Kulin Nation, Melbourne has been transformed many times over; from the exuberance of the Victoria era, to a postwar manufacturing hub, to a contemporary global city; from a node in the British Empire to a sprawling contemporary metropolis of almost five million people. Conference sessions were hosted within and around the RMIT precinct in the Melbourne CBD. The RMIT campus is centrally located in the Melbourne CBD and integrated into the campus are a number of historic buildings. The former exercise yard of the Old Melbourne Gaol (dating from the 1850s) was the social and administrative centre of the conference and where tea breaks and the opening night drinks were hosted. This yard is surrounded by iconic Melbourne bluestone walls and buildings (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Old Melbourne Gaol from the former exercise yard. (Photo credit: National Trust of Australia (Victoria))

Overview of the conference series

The AUHPH conference returned to Melbourne for the third time in 2018, with the city previously hosting the conference in 1996 and 2010. In 1993, Robert Freestone arranged the first iteration of the conference series at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. The series is now well-established in Australia and New Zealand as the pre-eminent conference on urban and planning history. Each conference is arranged by a dedicated local organizing committee, which receives support from its host institution and AUHPH veterans. The informality of the AUHPH network and the manageable scale of each conference contributes to a cordial atmosphere. It equally means the conferences attract both academics and practitioners from various fields, with research interests cutting across many aspects of history, planning, heritage and geography at the urban interface. This produces a convivial yet productive environment for the presentation, sharing, and workshopping of multidisciplinary and historically-orientated urban research.

AUHPH 2018 conference

Figure 2: AUHPH 2018 conference logo superimposed on historic photograph (Sunshine Harvesters Works, Scott Engine Works, Sunshine, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1913, from Museums Victoria collection, Public Domain).

Cities are in a constant process of remaking: recreation, reinvention, reconstruction and reimagining. The Remaking Cities conference theme was, however, selected for its Melbourne resonances. Adopting strong visual language (Figure 2), the Call for Papers rendered Melbourne ‘as a centre of manufacturing, as a city built on land and infrastructure speculation, and as a place that has been re-made over the long-established land-based practices of the Kulin Nation’. It evoked the decline of manufacturing from the late twentieth century and the rise of financial, service and cultural sectors in the neoliberal city. It emphasized the impacts of the long shadow of settler colonialism on Melbourne and other Australasian cities. The conference invited papers on the sub-themes of manufacturing and post-manufacturing cities; infrastructure and institutions; cultural heritage; Indigenous identity; plans and planning; urban environments; and, Australian urbanism. The Call for Papers addressed many of the dominant ideas, notions and narratives, which have been considered in the research, writing and understanding of Melbourne and Australasian urban and planning history.

Venues and Events

The conference ran over the three and a half days, from a Tuesday evening to a Friday afternoon. It attracted 85 registered delegates from Australia and New Zealand, including a sizeable Melbourne and majority Australian east coast delegation. The programme incorporated six keynotes and afinal-day plenary with four speakers. Over the three days, 75 papers were presented in 26 parallel sessions, with up to 3 parallel sessions at any time. Some participants choose to only give presentations rather than refereed papers or were unable to attend at the last minute. Approximately 2 0 % of the papers proposed for the conference were not accepted (including because the remit of this conference was exclusively Australasian cities).

The RMIT organizers took every opportunity to select memorable venues for the conference. Thefirst day’s keynotes were held at the State Library of Victoria, while all other keynotes and plenaries were held at RMIT’s Storey Hall. The parallel sessions were located in the rooms of Melbourne’s Former Magistrates Court, opened in 1914. Social activities included a 2.5-hour walking tour called ‘Radical Melbourne’ led by writer, activist and academic Jeff Sparrow (Figure 3). The conference dinner was held within the former main prison building of the Gaol – a memorable setting that, by day is a historic tourist site operated by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) (Figure 4). The many ways that historic places can be remade, revitalized, repurposed and readapted were exemplified by the conference venues.

Keynote speakers

The conference featured keynote presentations delivered by academics and prominent people from outside the academy. This allowed for a range of contributions, from the mechanics of recording, archiving and researching urban and planning histories to the through links between scholarship and the media to the showcasing of innovative urban and planning history research.

On opening night, John Masanauskas, City Editor of the Melbourne metropolitan daily newspaper, the Herald Sun, delivered a keynote address. Published by News Corp, the Herald Sun is Australia’s most-read print newspaper. Masanauskas suggested that there are always opportunities for greater involvement in public debates about the city, so long as that contribution possesses lucidity and relevance.

The first full day of the conference began at the State Library of Victoria with keynotes from architect Jefa Greenaway and historian Ben Schrader. Greenaway advocated for the inclusion of Indigenous architects and perspectives in contemporary urban design practice, across the tripartite elements of language, artistic expression and representation. New Zealander Schrader presented his new research on postwar heritage and renewal in Wellington. He traced the emergence of a heritage consciousness in the late-nineteenth-century inner-suburb of Thorndon during the postwar period, when modernist planners and politicians attempted to level the suburb to make way for a new freeway and housing stock. From conflict over the value of the urban environment to the preservation of streetscapes and homes, Schrader suggested the Thornton experience inflected recent Australian and North American heritage scholarship through the specificities of a working-class population including a notable Maori community.

Day two opened with a session of keynotes focused on the public roles of libraries and archives as civic institutions. Kate Torney (Figure 5), CEO of the State Library of Victoria, reflected on the interrelated roles of the Library as both physical site and cultural institution in Melbourne’s urban history. She emphasized the intertwined roles of preserving and developing collections, while facilitating their dissemination and use by a range of stakeholders. Her address highlighted the continuity between the founding ideals of the Library as an egalitarian civic institution, and recent projects focused on digitizing and expanding the collection, an aspect of which involves engaging new and larger audiences.

Figure 5: Kate Torney, CEO State Library of Victoria. (Photo credit: James Lesh).

Cathie Oats, director of Trove, a digital discovery tool developed and administrated by the National Library of Australia, expanded on the themes of collaboration and dissemination of historical sources, and the evolving social role of archives and collecting institutions. Her analysis of Trove’s past and future roadmap illustrated how online platforms have the potential to overcome the traditional, hierarchical, structured and closed archival model, to instead become an aspect of a participatory, digital, open and historically-conscious civic culture.

On the third and final day, Chris Gibson, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Wollongong, delivered a keynote on the significant material and cultural inheritances of Australian industrialization. This history has not only shaped the fabric and demography of urban space, but also ideas of production, labour, skills and creativity. Drawing on his research into the cultural geography of new creative industries, Gibson proposed a provocative counterpoint to neat conventional narratives of industrial and manufacturing decline in Western cities. Such an approach challenges dominant assumptions, myths and narratives about our cities through a more humanistic focus on the actual lived experiences of people within them.

Conference Papers

A total of 75 papers were submitted to the conference. These papers explored ideas around Indigenous urban planning and policy, placemaking and smart cities, political, social and cultural history, urban agriculture, governance, transport, rivers and wetlands, parks and gardens, cultural heritage, socio-cultural spatial mapping, and land speculation. A number of papers also delved into more specific areas of interest, such as music and subcultures, quarries and trade, and the legacies of individuals and organizations. To engage with this variety of papers, the summary that follows adopts a thematic approach, arranged under the headings: remaking cultures, remaking landscapes and remaking histories.

Remaking cultures

The role of urban and planning cultures in shaping and making cities featured prominently. Much of this research featured in sessions and papers about heritage, which followed on from Schrader’s keynote about postwar preservation in Thornton. As tends to be the case in heritage studies, many of these papers were orientated towards present-day urban concerns.

Melbourne’s planning heritage was a common theme, with a series of papers on this city’s metropolitan strategies since the interwar period. These papers included Ian Nazareth & Conrad Hamann on iconic buildings, Kath Phelan and Benno Engels on open space, and Cael Leskovek on the construction of certainty in planning schemes. The people that helped shape the profession of NSW planning in the early-twentieth century were the focus of Robert Freestone and Nicola Pullan’s paper.

Heritage was also treated historically in terms of its progressive and political possibilities. Melbourne communists Ruth and Morrie Crow were the focus of a session, with papers presented by Jane Homewood, Claire Collie and David Nichols. While much Australian 1970s urban research draws on the ground-breaking ideas of liberal thinkers like Hugh Stretton or Tom Uren, Ruth and Morrie Crow recall a more radical 1970s Australian urban tradition, from which Collie suggested activists might draw inspiration today.

The varied though complementary ways that researchers are addressing heritage was demonstrated by Catherine Townsend, Kirrily Sullivan and Robert Vincent, who gave papers on, respectively, Melbourne’s Jewish émigré architects, Sydney’s brutalist Sirius Building, and urban change in Hobart. Following on from these papers and the keynotes by Schrader and Gibson, the contested urban history of heritage might, indeed, inform present-day urban debates and conflicts.

The keynotes on the mechanics of research provided a fruitful background for sessions addressing case studies of different kinds of urban and civic spaces. These included original histories of the bohemian activist ‘Bread and Cheese Club’ presented by David Nichols and James Lesh, and Francesca Bussey’s reimagining of the Mechanics Institute model for digital civics education. Two sessions organized and chaired by Andrew Saniga and Robert Freestone on the postwar Australian university campus and the making and remaking of universities as sites of knowledge and power provided an anchor for these discussions in the (often literally) concrete forms of postwar architecture and design. The detailed discussions of historical maps as testimony to local histories of speculation and of the politics of representation on urban facades further illustrated tensions between the city as made on paper, and the cities of bodies and structures.

Remaking landscapes

The remaking of urban space – both natural and human landscapes – comprised a core research interest for many conference participants. The presented papers largely focused on two key ideas: the transformation of the physical environment, through alterations to waterways and land; and the transition from a city reliant on primary industry to a manufacturing sector, and later, one driven by contemporary real-estate speculation.

Marcus Lancaster and Gary Presland provided a fascinating insight into the history of Melbourne’s waterways and catchments. Lancaster detailed the shifting meaning and identities bestowed upon the Yarra River, whilst Presland spoke of dredging activities in early Melbourne. The examples of Moonee Ponds Creek and Elwood both made clear that the city’s settlement not only entailed transformations upon land but also water.

Similar terrestrial changes in Melbourne’s landscape, through quarrying activity, were also discussed, pertinent given Melbourne’s long history of extractive industrial activities. The remaking of these sites, and the consequential contributions to urban form – by way of altered streetscapes or serendipitously-located parks – were addressed by Laura Harper and Victoria Kolankiewicz.

Aaron Magro’s analysis of urban change drew a narrative of expansion upon lines of movement – rail and the car in particular – as a core element of residential land speculation, clarifying patterns of expansion and growth. Changing constructions of the urban environment were discussed by Brian Coffey in tracing the evolution of the environment portfolio within the Victorian State Government, indicating divergence in the foci of successive governments.

Simone Sharpe’s focus lay in the riverside suburb of South Yarra, at the former Capitol Bakeries site, and its evolution from manufacturing to retail and entertainment, and later, demolition and residential redevelopment. Reiterating similar notions, Maud Cassaignau discussed Cremorne, a suburb in Melbourne’s inner-south with a long history of industrial use prior to gentrification. Continuing the emphasis on post-industrial change, Fiona Kinsey examined the proliferation of Kodak’s manufacturing activities across Melbourne present middle-ring suburbs, from Abbotsford to Coburg, responding to broader economic changes in the mid-twentieth century. This culminated in a poignant transformation in the post-industrial period; one not only urban, but also technological, underpinning the Coburg factory’s redundancy and its subsequent re-use for a housing estate.

In a finer-grained analysis of change, within a commercial context, Nicole Davis and James Lesh presented on Melbourne’s nineteenth-century shopping arcades, understanding these spaces as ones resisting car-oriented consumerism and growing beyond their perceived obsolescence to now embody a ‘quainter, older and urbaner vision for leisure’. What became evident through these sessions is that cities like Melbourne act as a powerful case studies for change through time wherein different visions for altering the environment are intrinsically responsive to the city’s economic, political, and social conditions.

Remaking urban and planning history

A notable trend at the 2018 conference was shifting levels of disciplinary representation. AUHPH conferences have consistently featured the work of planning and urban historians based in professionally-orientated schools and faculties. While urban historians located in history or humanities departments were a significant presence in earlier years of the conference, this presence has become less marked at more recent meetings reflecting broader disciplinary trends. However, a striking feature of the 2018 conference was the increased breadth of other disciplinary perspectives including philosophy, sociology, cultural geography, political economy, and subcultural studies. Contributions from practitioners in the heritage and community sectors helped link these disciplinary knowledges to the practices of conservation and advocacy work within Australasian cities.

The recurring concerns with the interplay between material and textual urbanity led to many conversations between presenters and across sessions. After Greenaway’s keynote, this included welcome challenges to the centrality of texts and documents as sources for research practice. The third day’s sessions on Indigenous planning and intangible heritage provided a challenge to the normative conceptual frameworks of what constitutes the archives of urban and planning history. Papers by Libby Porter, Susan Ryan, and James Berghan highlighted the role of textual representations as tools of governance, regulation and power in colonial contexts, and the active ways in which such imposed textual landscapes have been contested and re-negotiated by Indigenous people. These sessions explicitly challenged dominant hierarchies of urban knowledge by reasserting their ongoing colonial functions.

Closing session

The final and closing plenary session on the ‘Future of Urban History’ brought many of these themes together (Figure 6). Each panellist gave a short paper. Seamus O’Hanlon stressed the importance of attending both to the urban and the global perspective to produce relevant and dynamic urban histories, in order to remain attuned to the large-scale causes and the locally experienced effects of economic and political change. Lauren Pikó noted the potential for destination academic conferences to reproduce patterns of economic and social exclusion of academia more broadly. Picking up on the themes raised by Torney and Oats the previous day, Kate Follington of the Public Records Office of Victoria discussed present-day archival practice. She highlighted its tendency towards democratizing access, by bringing people and historical sources closer together through social media and thereby nurturing inclusive civic practices.

Figure 6: Conference plenary. (Photo credit: Robert Freestone).

Conclusion and AUHPH 2020

The plenary about the boundaries and scope of Australasian urban and planning history was followed by an announcement about the next conference. The University of Tasmania intends to host the 2020 AUHPH conference at its Launceston campus. Tasmania’s urban and planning history has been a recurring presence at many past conferences, and Launceston promises to provide a stimulating context for discussions and debates at the opening of the next decade.

The proceedings of the 2018 AUHPH conference were published in May 2018. The conference organisers intend to make these proceedings and past AUHPH conference proceedings available on the Analysis & Policy Observatory (APO) website at www.apo.org.au. The APO is an www.apo.org.au open access and not-for-profit collaborative resource platform hosted by the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.

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One comment

  1. Brilliant job of synthesisng such a rich and various conference and how well the choice of locations spoke to the theme. And we can re-visit it all (and the sessions we missed) through the papers being online. Thank you all.

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