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Ballarat: Balancing its history with its future

A growing population requires increased housing and development, but historical towns like Ballarat must balance this growth with maintaining its heritage.

The City of Ballarat always knew there was a bridge under the Bridge Mall, a brick and steel overpass that once crossed the Yarrowee River. Earlier this year, the 153-year-old structure was finally uncovered during works to upgrade the mall.

It’s the city’s relentless relationship with history that keeps people coming to Ballarat. The city’s gold rush history began in 1851 when migrants moved to the regional Victorian town in search of gold and still encourages many people to visit the historic city today. In 2023, 2.6 million visitors holidayed in Ballarat. Historian, Dr Anne Beggs-Sunter tells upstart this is why preserving history and “selling it to the public” is important to Ballarat’s economy.

“When visitors to Ballarat are asked about what they love about it, they say they love the historic feel of the city,” she says.

“It’s the heritage of Ballarat. It’s that feeling of the 19th century flourishing of the city. That’s what people love.”

It’s not only the tourists that appreciate Ballarat’s history, but the residents too. City of Ballarat Mayor Des Hudson says it is often the community who know a story behind a property and who will raise concerns to the council about development plans.

“The community will see a yellow planning application sign go up,” he says. “Sometimes its neighbours sometimes it’s others. Sometimes it’s organisations that know a story behind it that will begin to say, ‘hey, you need to look at this property. There is some heritage value to it.’”

Ballarat’s rich heritage is evident in the many buildings and gardens around the city, including Her Majesty’s Theatre that opened in 1875. One of the oldest theatres of its type in Australia, it is currently receiving a $15 million upgrade.

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Ballarat. Image by author.

“The project we’re doing there in this particular build is making the theatre more accessible by having two lifts put into the facility,” Hudson says. “So people with mobility issues can come and perform knowing that they can get on to stage in a very dignified way.”

Even though they are heritage buildings, there is always something to be discovered.

“We found evidence of [a] previous fire in Her Majesty Theatre that was hidden behind a wall,” he says. “…you don’t know they’re there until you peel back some of the layers of those walls and you find these extra things.”

There are various protections on historical buildings, including the Heritage Act 2017  which identifies the most significant non-Indigenous heritage in Victoria. There is also the Victorian Heritage Register for state-level significant places and Heritage Overlays for locally significant places. Approved permits are required to make alternations to these historical buildings.

The Ballarat Heritage Advisory Committee, of which Dr Beggs-Sunter is a member, manages a Heritage Restoration Fund for rate payers to repair part of their house, such as a veranda. There is other financial help available to ensure heritage buildings are maintained despite the cost involved.

“I think grants from the Victorian Government and the Australian Government have been absolutely essential and it’s a bit worrying at the moment…[because] there’s not many heritage grants being offered by the state government this year,” she says.

Like everywhere else in Australia, there is higher demand for both public and private housing in the area. For historical cities like Ballarat, building in the city centre is restricted by heritage overlays. Building out from the city centre, however, results in urban sprawl and the need for increased infrastructure.

“So there’s always the compromise when you are trying to think of ‘how do you manage a city of today that’s built 150 years ago with this strong theme of gold running through?’” Hudson says.

There is also increased pressure for dense and vertical housing, something that Dr Beggs-Sunter doesn’t want to happen.

“I would like to see new development occurring not in the Civic Precinct in the centre of Ballarat, but on the outskirts of Ballarat,” she says.

Development in the outer precincts of Ballarat is already happening, Hudson says.

“It’s always that challenge and making sure that you’re trying to get the balance right and not doing away with [heritage],” he says.

While upgrading historic buildings is costly and time consuming, these upgrades can lead to some interesting historical discoveries, including the 153-year-old bridge which will remain.

“We will put a bridge over the top of that which will then have the engineering capacity to withstand heavier loads that will go over it,” Hudson says.

153-year-old bridge hidden under Ballarat Bridge Mall. Image by author.

It is these stories of Ballarat’s heritage buildings that Hudson says he would like to see shared with residents and tourists alike which he feels is something “we could certainly do better and we could do more of it”.

“We have this enormous responsibility to make sure we continue to preserve Ballarat because we are known for that heritage.”


Article: Tia Clarkson-Pascoe is a second-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @Tia_pascoe

Photo: Construction works underway at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Image supplied by author.

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