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Historic Heart:

The Interface of Walkability and History

Olivia Kate

11 February 2019

To make a city walkable is to favour the human experience. Traversing the city as a pedestrian, one moves at a slower pace and is more likely to notice the texture, colour and scale of their surroundings, to identify the nuances that distinguish one building from the next and establish a more comprehensive sense of the city as a whole. With the recent cultural shift to more environmentally sustainable cities, city dwellers are opting for less car-dependant lifestyles. (Matan and Newman, 2012) This means for the continued viability of a city into the future, it must be made walkable. Current urban design concerns are centred around how people use the streets and public spaces rather than deriving urban layout from the movement and function of automobiles that typified modernity. (Matan and Newman, 2012)


With recent developments in Perth such as Elizabeth Quay, Perth Stadium and Yagan square which create new landmarks and enhance the connections between places our city, we look to the role that our existing structures play in providing comfort and connectivity in the city.


The Historic Heart initiative provides self-guided walks through Perth’s East end allow locals and visitors alike to uncover art, architecture, museums, cafes, and creative industries in the city. The app includes an interactive map and descriptions outlining the history of each place, allowing users to follow the tours at their own pace. The Historic Heart: Architecture Walk has been used as a basis to investigate the walkability* of this part of the city. Jeff Speck measures the walkability of a city against four criteria; use, comfort, safety and interest. In assessing the Historic buildings of Perth’s East end by this rubric, other indicators of a walkable city have surfaced.


‘Walkability’ is a widely used term with a very broad definition. Typically, ‘walkability’ refers to how conducive an environment is to walking, considering factors such as convenience, comfort, connectivity, sense of place, and visibility. (Child and Falconer, 2015)

Some definitions focus on key physical attributes of place, others focus more on outcomes in relation to many and varied problems associated with city life (obesity, traffic congestion, environmental degradation, etc.) (Forsyth, 2015).


In this article, walkability refers to both urban infrastructure and the qualities they give rise to – as both have an immense impact on how pedestrians perceive and utilise public space – but only in relation to their interface with historic fabric.

Are historic buildings in use and contribute to the daily life of the city?

Amid new major developments in Perth, it is important not to lose sight of existing buildings within the cityscape that contribute to our sense of place. The Deanery, Burt Memorial Hall and St Georges Cathedral in the CBD are examples of well-maintained heritage buildings that are still in use today. The addition of Cadogan Song School in this precinct ensures that the extant buildings remain operational and can meet the changing needs of its users without compromising the existing fabric.


The State Buildings have been revitalised in recent times after a twenty-year dormancy with retail, hospitality and hotel infill that promotes 24-hour activation of the space. The buildings’ exterior is well-preserved and largely unchanged whilst contemporary infill glitters against an historic backdrop.


The Perth Town Hall nearby is lacking the vibrancy that comes with continued activation. Whilst the building itself is occupied and continues to host an array of events, the under croft area which was conceived as a prominent public forum remains largely disused.


These observations posit the question: are new interventions a necessity to keep historic places alive?

“What is now the ground floor was originally intended for markets, although the city council was forced to convert some bays into offices.”

(Historic Heart)

Left: Perth Town Hall with State Buildings beyond.

Image by Dion Robeson from Historic Heart website

Perth Town Hall.png
Fmr Salvation Army.png

Right: Pier Street Precinct.

Far Right: Fmr Salvation Army.

Images by Dion Robeson from Historic Heart website

                  What is Happening above ground level?

One of the more salient characteristics of heritage buildings in Perth as you venture further from the centre, is that the ground floors are occupied with retail and café tenancies, but the upper floors are vacant. The shop fit-outs on street level are typically disconnected from the historic structure that houses it, while the façade above is visually interesting albeit somewhat neglected.


To fill these upper levels with offices, residences, short-term accommodation or shops will increase the density of the city which puts more people on the street. It makes the city safer by enhancing surveillance and diversifies the city’s offerings, while activity above encourages pedestrians to look up and notice the facades. Long-term occupancy ensures that tenants have a vested interest in maintaining the building, thus facilitating preservation of historic fabric.

Pier Street Precinct.png
Fmr Government Printing Office.png

To whom is the building accessible and when?

Buildings that offer some type of public facility draw a range of people, when these are scattered among buildings that are for private use, it helps to diversify what would otherwise be a quiet and homogenous street. The red brick construction of Kirkman House on Murray Street is characteristic of its time and place. Although the building is not open to the general public, it is evidently occupied and offers a point of interest for the passer-by. The heritage-listed Moreton Bay Fig tree on the footpath provides generous shading to the street and the building setback from the street enables the pedestrian to appreciate the façade as a whole.


Elsewhere along this street are a string of buildings that provide no offerings for the general public, often presenting a closed, blank façade to the street. Buildings occupied by university and other institutions limit the type of people who are drawn to a place and who have access to amenities in this area. Corner blocks provide opportunity for pedestrian activation and way-finding which is generally not harnessed by the tenancies in this area. An exception is the Deward Hotel (occupied my Miss Maud’s). Whilst the faded burgundy painted exterior is not necessarily harmonious with the character of the street, the ground floor is in use, open to the public, offers shelter for pedestrians and transparency to the interior.

Left: Perth Town Hall with State Buildings beyond.

Image by Dion Robeson from Historic Heart website

If a walkable city is one that is useful, comfortable, safe and interesting; the urban infrastructure that foster these qualities need to be incorporated across a cityscape, not limited to new investments only but extends to more humble and historic quarters of the metro area. Diverse programmatic offerings, daily use of spaces across all levels of a building including a strong interface with the street at ground level, and generous landscaping, pedestrian pathways and amenities in the interstitial spaces between buildings will improve the walkability of a city environment.

St Georges Cathedral.png

Right: St georges Cathedral.

Image by Dion Robeson from Historic Heart website

                  Is landscaping successfully incorporated within the cityscape?

In addition to major parks within walking distance from the CBD, the incorporation of landscaping around key buildings and interstitial spaces can enhance walkability and well-being. Gardens and landscaped pathways encourage people to walk around a building, to explore different aspects of a building and its immediate context. Secondary pathways off main pedestrian avenues offer multiple routes through the city to a destination, making for a more interesting pedestrian experience and promoting diversity of use.


Supplementary landscaping and pathways need to be made safe through use of lighting and sightlines, and comfortable with shelter and amenity (bins, seating, etc). The tiered lawns in front of St. Georges Cathedral offer views of significant Perth landmarks, yet is underutilised due to a lack of trees or shelter. Academic, architect and urban designer Jan Gehl has shown through his work across Australian cities (including Perth in 1994 and 2009) that improvements to pedestrian environments stimulate activity levels in the public buildings and squares that they link to. (Matan and Newman, 2012)


  1. Child, Amy and Ryan Falconer. City of Perth: Walkability Study. Arup, 2015

  2. Forsyth, Amy. 2015. “What is a Walkable Place? The Walkability Debate in Urban Design. Urban Design International 20, no. 4: 274-292.

  3. Matan, Anne and Peter Newman. 2012. “Jan Gehl and New Visions for Walkable Australian Cities.” World Transport Policy and Practice 17, no. 4: 30-41

Cover Image: No. 1 Fire Station.

Image by Dion Robeson from Historic heart Website

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