My wife and I regularly pass Wesley Church on the corner of Market and Cantonment Streets, and one of her many endearing quirks is that she's unable to walk by without remarking that it's where her auntie got married. I pointed this out to her the other day (purely in a spirit of affection, you understand, and not because it can get quite annoying) and she informed me that it was a family tradition to provide a commentary on key sites around the city.
This is certainly true - her mother, sister and Nana do the same thing, to the extent that the experience is known amongst family ring-ins like me as being taken on a personalised Patriot's Heritage Tour of Fremantle.
My mother-in-law first touched Australian soil in Fremantle, arriving off the boat from the Netherlands in 1951. She grew up in Naval Base, back when there were still brumbies roaming wild on the hill. Fremantle, for my mother-in-law, was 'town'. It meant a macaroon at Culley's and afterwards the chance to choose a Little Golden Book or a pretty card from Shepard's newsagency. Freo was fishing off the harbour with her brothers, going to school at John Curtin High and Fremantle Tech, and later working for P. Hindle & Co in Cliff Street before becoming a teacher. Now uprooted and transplanted to a very different kind of suburb, my mother-in-law remains vociferously, unwaveringly, a Fremantle girl.
What is the Fremantle character?
My mother-in-law’s heritage tours have made me realise that Fremantle’s unique character and heritage can be found in far more diverse places than just its bricks and mortar. It also resides in the Fremantle people; in their shared experiences of Freo in the past, present and future. It is this element that enriches our spaces and buildings with meaning as well as grandeur, and it's why, for my mother-in-law as well as many others, Culley’s is as much of a Fremantle icon as the town hall.
As a strategic urban planner and place maker by profession, I think this is the reason why iconic, impressive architecture doesn’t necessarily equate to a great place. Places planned without people in mind often fail to be successful - the Perth Convention Centre is a good example. I don’t think the need for a building or space to be architecturally impressive should outweigh its need to be liveable, to cater for what people will find useful and enjoy.
The built environment
Going on one of my mother-in-law’s heritage tours certainly opens your eyes to the richness and charm of Fremantle’s buildings – which, on the flipside, makes the aberrations all the more difficult to bear.
I won’t be telling you anything you don’t already know by saying that the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were not a good time, architecturally speaking, for Fremantle. Freo is rife with examples from this period of what happens when developers are allowed to build down to a price, instead of up to a standard. It is stating the obvious that redevelopment of these sites must occur, and this time with attractive, sympathetic and liveable buildings that take note of the style of neighbouring structures and are designed with care.
How can we ensure that new development is built up to a standard, not down to a price?
Fremantle is currently in the position of having to woo developers, rather than the other way around, and this keenness on the behalf of Council to accommodate the wishes of developers is obvious. However, one of the lessons Freo can take from the '60s, '70s and '80s is that rigorous design guidelines or built form codes aren’t just important – they’re imperative. Quite simply, I firmly believe that it should be a privilege to develop in our city. Establishing a careful, considered and above all clear set of design guidelines can only be a good thing, both from the perspective of attracting development and in protecting the interests of the Fremantle community.
So, to summarise: as a Councillor, one of my focuses will be on ensuring that new development is built up to a standard, one that matches the model established by those grand, historic and built-to-last buildings in the West End. That standard will be based around planning for people and places as well as what suits developers.
Another focus will be protecting, respecting and getting the most out of our existing heritage - not least so my own daughter gets the chance to become a fourth generation family heritage tour guide.
As a final aside: I was walking past Wesley Church with a friend the other day, when I found myself saying, "One of my wife's aunties got married here." I guess it means I’ve really become part of the family.