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Alan Kelsall

I am an architect living and working in Fremantle. I was born in Perth and studied architecture at the Western Australian Institute of Technology. Soon after qualifying, I visited England on what was to have been a six-month holiday; it turned out to be a much longer stay of nearly twenty years!

I returned to Perth in 1995, having worked in London during all the time I was in the UK. In July 1998 I formed Kelsall Binet Architects in partnership with Gena Binet. The practice specialised in conservation and heritage work and in, some cases, acted as consultants for larger architectural firms. A large proportion of our work consisted of heritage projects in Fremantle.

In 2012 I was appointed Heritage Co-ordinator for the City of Fremantle, a position I held until 2019 when I retired.

I am pleased to have been chosen to be a member of the Fremantle History Society committee and look forward to contributing to the important role the society plays in increasing the community’s awareness of the rich and diverse history of Fremantle.

This was published in the Fremantle Herald 8 April 2023 as its 'Thinking Allowed' piece.

When considering the future of Fremantle, it needs to be remembered that Fremantle was established as the port town for Perth and that for most of its history it was a prosperous urban centre, acknowledged as the second city of the metropolitan area.

This history underscores the city’s distinct character and explains why its urban centre is recognisably different from the parts of Perth that were established as residential suburbs.

Fremantle is fortunate because its inherited urban qualities and heritage buildings have an authenticity that is not only rare in Perth, but also fulfils many people’s expectations of what an attractive, well-designed urban centre should be.

How people feel about a place, can have a profound effect on whether it is successful.

So, while the Strategic Plan needs to understand the challenges Fremantle faces, it also needs to appreciate the importance of the contribution that Fremantle’s heritage makes to the city’s cultural, social and economic life.

Good quality heritage places help achieve a range of positive outcomes, one of which is that they can demonstrate that conservation and sustainable economic growth can be complementary objectives.

One of the ways of explaining these interdependencies and relationships is in terms of it being a mutually supportive virtuous cycle: establishing heritage-inspired economic growth can generate prosperity that will lead to a greater appreciation of the quality and worth of heritage buildings, thereby encouraging inward investment that secures not only the continued vitality of the city but also the continuing use and maintenance of historic buildings.

A key problem for Fremantle today is that it is no longer enlivened by the same level of social and economic optimism that had previously sustained its growth. While character is often perceived as being a visual quality, it is not always recognised that appreciation of it is enriched by the essential dynamic social and economic activity that underpins it.

The loss of its former vibrant character has diminished Fremantle’s ability to function as intended and has caused an incremental deterioration in the quality of the public realm and less appreciation of the worth of its heritage buildings.

Fremantle’s historic environment is less likely to be conserved if there isn’t broad public support and understanding of why it is important.

The review of the Strategic Community Plan provides an opportunity to use expert knowledge and skills to raise the community’s awareness and understanding of Fremantle’s strengths, including those that derive from its heritage.

The underlying aim should be to help everyone understand how and why Fremantle’s distinctive characteristics have evolved, and to then explain how these characteristics can be used to help shape strategies and priorities for achieving a sustainable future for the city.

This will help the community to refine and articulate the values it attaches to the city and its places. It is hoped that this will also encourage greater public participation in the conversations that will be part of the Strategic Community Plan review.

Telling the story of how Fremantle evolved, becoming as it did an economically successful centre of trade, will be made easier when it is re-established as a successful urban centre.

This, of course, is on the proviso that the revitalisation is guided by the implementation of good urban design. While history shows that Fremantle has always changed and evolved, it is obvious that many decisions of the recent past produced neither the types of places intended nor the economic outcomes that were predicted.

They did, however, cause the loss of places that this and future generations would have valued. In part these mistakes are due to decisions being guided by poor urban design theories that ignored very useful lessons of history that still hold true today.

At the core of good urban design is the realization that successful places tend to have characteristics in common and design tends to bring a sense of long-term perspective to decisions regarding change and, although not encouraging imitation, it does offer a sound basis on which the 21st century can make its own distinct and high-quality contribution to places of enduring value.


Fremantle’s rich and diverse urban heritage should not be seen as a constraint; rather it should be celebrated and appreciated for all its positive benefits. Conservation is a matter of ensuring that the qualities that define a place are maintained while change continues to happen.

Allowing Fremantle to grow true to its port city character, which includes re-establishing the diverse values that made it successful, will provide the vision for the long-term sustainable regeneration of Fremantle.

The social, environmental and economic benefits linked to this vision depend on a broad-based consensus and long-term commitment to it, not only from the State Government and the City of Fremantle but also from the people who know and understand the area intimately, namely the building owners, the businesses and the institutions, and the people who live and work here.

This will not be achieved without a sustained and concerted effort to disregard pressure for change based simply on copying what other places have done and which, if imposed on Fremantle, will alter the urban character that made the city successful and is why it is now uniquely attractive.

Indeed, it is only by all sides working together and being prepared to adapt and seek both pragmatic and creative solutions based on knowledge of the reasons for the city’s distinctiveness that we can succeed in balancing the needs and benefits of sustainable development with the needs and benefits of heritage conservation to the positive advantage for everyone.

References, Links, Notes

FHS Newsletter, January 2021.

Garry Gillard | New: 8 November, 2022 | Now: 12 March, 2024