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Consulting with community to understand heritage values during the COVID-19 pandemic in Melbourne (Australia)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Heritage site “Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens” began a process to review its World Heritage Management Plan. The review process began with a community consultation, which had to be carried out entirely online. The case study exemplifies some of the ways in which World Heritage site managers and local authorities reacted quickly to the pandemic, developing innovative and creative solutions to the new circumstances. 

About Melbourne, the Royal Exhibition Building and the Carlton Gardens

Melbourne is the capital city of the state of Victoria, Australia. With a population of 5.06 million, the city is projected to become the largest city in Australia by 2056, with a projected population of 11.2 million. The high rate of population growth is leading to development pressures and an increased need for housing and office space in the inner city. At the same time, the city is a renowned tourism destination, hosting three million tourists in 2019.

Melbourne is home to the World Heritage site Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2004 under criterion (ii). The Royal Exhibition Building and its surrounding Carlton Gardens were designed for the great international exhibitions of 1880 and 1888 in Melbourne. The 26-hectare site was first reserved for public use in the early 1850s. The building and grounds were designed by celebrated architect Joseph Reed. The building is constructed of brick and timber, steel and slate. It combines elements from the Byzantine, Romanesque, Lombardic and Italian Renaissance styles. The property is typical of the international exhibition movement which saw over 50 exhibitions staged between 1851 and 1915 in venues including Paris, New York, Vienna, Calcutta, Kingston (Jamaica) and Santiago (Chile). All shared a common theme and aims: to chart material and moral progress through displays of industry from all nations.

The World Heritage site has a prominent location within Melbourne and sits within a historic nineteenth and early twentieth century urban landscape. The ‘buffer zone’, designated as the World Heritage Environs Area under local and State legislation contains approximately 4500 residences. The urban context of the site has led to management challenges, as urban development pressures rise and the need for high-density living increases. The site’s continued use as an Exhibition Hall makes it a unique community asset: it hosts a variety of events each year, including fashion festivals, international shows, cultural events and serves as an exam facility for the University of Melbourne. It is currently being used as a vaccination centre in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens play an important role in the state’s civic, cultural and daily life, and are at the centre of lived experiences and memories for both residents and visitors alike. Consequently, the site management must protect and enhance its Outstanding Universal Value while accounting for the needs of the community and the urban context of the site.

Consulting with community to understand heritage values at an urban World Heritage site during the COVID-19 pandemic 

In accordance with Australian legislation, the World Heritage Management Plan for the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens must be reviewed every seven years. A review of the existing Management Plan commenced in early 2020, beginning with an eight-week community consultation period. The consultation sought robust and diverse community feedback to guide the future of site management. The local communities were consulted on themes including but not limited to protection, conservation, future management, governance, use, values, stories, and interpretation; to ensure all values of the site are protected, enhanced and transmitted to future generations.

When the Management Plan review commenced, community engagement was recognised as key to informing future management of the site. The community consultation undertaken in 2020 aimed to address prior shortcomings, using innovative and accessible online technology, and presenting a practical solution to achieving meaningful community engagement at World Heritage sites, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The consultation programme aimed to be inclusive and used multiple engagement methods to ensure the local communities were empowered to respond and have their say on the World Heritage Management Plan and its component parts. The tools employed include:

  • Interactive webpage (Engage Victoria)
  • Online survey: used to capture wide-ranging information about how the site is accessed and used by the public. The survey intended to seek public views in relation to the management of the World Heritage site. It was divided into six themed sections, with a mix of 23 multiple choice and free-text questions. 194 survey responses were received over eight weeks;
  • Interactive map: this tool allowed participants to drop ‘pins’ onto the map. It was widely used and received 266 responses. Comments were informal and often included shared personal experiences and memories of the site. They helped to understand what elements and aspects of the site are valued by the community as well as what they want to see protected and any areas of concern;
  • Online information sessions: these sessions allowed participants to hear from those responsible for coordinating the Management Plan review, ask any questions and be answered in real time. Information sessions were originally planned to be in person, but due to the pandemic they were quickly configured to take place online;
  • Social media communications to advertise consultation and tell people-centred historic stories; and
  • Accessible, every-day language and easy to read documents.

Screenshot of the Engage Victoria interactive mapping
Screenshot of the Engage Victoria interactive survey

The consultation process was undertaken by a Working Group, and led by the Ministerial-appointed Steering Committee for the site. The budget for consultation was AUD 10,000 (approx. USD 7,484), which was a cumulation of contributions made by Working Group agencies.

The consultation process faced the challenge of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw restrictions on public movement and gatherings throughout the country. The pandemic posed a great challenge in the implementation of community consultation processes. As a result, any planned in-person engagement very quickly shifted to the use of online platforms. The challenges were overcome through the Working Group’s collaborative partnership and use of innovative engagement methods. The strong community response proved the ongoing commitment and interest of local residents to the World Heritage site even during the lockdown period.

The consultation received 506 community contributions from participants across the country. To date, the consultation has resulted in the following impacts:

  • Consideration for reviewing the Steering Committee governance model;
  • Undertaking specific consultation to document the values of the site for Australia’s First Peoples;
  • Development of a Strategic Plan to be implemented by the Steering Committee;
  • Guidance on recommendations to be included in the World Heritage Management Plan;
  • Identification of values besides Outstanding Universal Value, to protect and transmit for local communities;
  • Identification of community concerns for the future of the site;
  • Identification of greater opportunities for community involvement and collaboration.

Following the community consultation period, the Steering Committee for the site will prepare a World Heritage Management Plan which will protect and preserve the site’s Outstanding Universal Value, and balance the needs and values of the community with urban development, as well as the challenges of managing a World Heritage site within an urban environment.

Ultimately, the community consultation aimed to implement a people-centred approach, asking for people’s experience and thoughts about the site. It sought to understand what the local communities value at the site, how they would like to use it, and what they would like to see protected into the future, in order to balance heritage conservation with the role of the site in the residents’ daily lives. The COVID-19 pandemic posed both a challenge and opportunity that allowed the project to take place online, reaching a large number of community members.

Sources: Ms Amanda Bacon, Manager, Policy and Programmes, and Ms Hannah Fairbridge, Heritage Policy Officer, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, State Government of Victoria, Australia, 2021. 

Presentation by the site managers during the Celebration of the 10th Anniversary on the Historic Urban Landscape

Contribution towards the implementation of the 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape

The project aims to contribute to the implementation of the Historic Urban Landscape approach by taking a people-centred approach to urban heritage management, which takes into consideration a variety of values and uses, and employing community consultation tools to gather community input on the site’s management and development. 

Historic Urban Landscape Tools

Civic engagement tools

Contribution towards Sustainable Development

If fully implemented in accordance with the described plans, the initiative could contribute towards Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

    • Target 11.3: The initiative aims to promote integrated and inclusive urban development.
    • Target 11.4: The initiative aims to strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

Note: the described potential impacts of the projects are only indicative and based on submitted and available information. UNESCO does not endorse the specific initiatives nor ratifies their positive impact.

To learn more

Heritage Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, State Government of Victoria, Australia. 

© UNESCO, 2021. Project team: Jyoti Hosagrahar, Alba Zamarbide, Carlota Marijuán Rodríguez, Federico Rudari. 
Cover image: Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens © Ko Hon Chiu Vincent

Note: The cases shared in this platform address heritage protection practices in World Heritage sites and beyond. Items being showcased in this website do not entail any type of recognition or inclusion in the World Heritage list or any of its thematic programmes. The practices shared are not assessed in any way by the World Heritage Centre or presented here as model practices nor do they represent complete solutions to heritage management problems. The views expressed by experts and site managers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Heritage Centre. The practices and views shared here are included as a way to provide insights and expand the dialogue on heritage conservation with a view to further urban heritage management practice in general.

Objectifs stratégiques
États parties 1
Zone géographique
Asie et Pacifique
Objectifs de développement durable 1