A sense of place – it’s what makes Broken Hill


By Simon Molesworth

What is the identity of a place? What are the elements of Broken Hill’s identity which distinguishes it from other places? And why does Landcare Broken Hill think that question an important one for all the people of Broken Hill?

First, the distinctive elements of a place which together constitute identity, help to create the differences which set us apart from other places.

They give our city that peculiar character we all know to be Broken Hill.

From a pragmatic tourism perspective that identity is important to us as it often provides the very reason travellers from afar choose to make their way to Broken Hill.

They have consciously decided to visit Broken Hill, as distinct from some other place, because the stories they have heard about our place create an interesting image, or collection of images, of a place they wish to visit.

They wish to see the real McCoy, not some copy of another place. In essence, it is the points of difference that distinguish one place from another and create the special identity which characterises the place that will continue to draw tourists to visit.

Sense of belonging

Secondly, another reason why the identity of a place is important, is that for those who belong to a place, or who have connection to a place, it is the elements of identity, the comforting familiarity of one’s home, that often provide stability, a sense of belonging, or even psychological calmness.

I remember being asked during a conference presentation about the term “a sense of place” and how it is intertwined with the concept of heritage.

I said, it is often found in one’s heart and in one’s memory when far from home; you think of the place you hold dear and the images and memories that are recalled are those elements which almost inevitably give the place its distinctive character.

When Broken Hill secured its listing on the National Heritage List in December 2014, under the provisions of the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the citation highlighted the various special attributes which distinguished Broken Hill from other places.

Apart from the many historical events and social reform attributes, the citation drew attention to aspects of the physical setting, the environmental conditions and built form of the city. Together these were seen as creating a special identity different to other places.

Ever changing Silver City

No place is, or should be, static. All communities evolve and in doing so, much of the social fabric of a place will necessarily evolve too.

However, for social historians this process of community evolution reveals the fragility and so vulnerability of the physical manifestations of a place.

If this process of evolving change is too disruptive, with insufficient regard being given to the protection of the legacy of the past, then that very character – the identity – of a place can be lost forever.

Over the last couple of years, Landcare has had cause to reflect on some of the likely consequences of the many changes occurring within Broken Hill.

This reflection has been within the context of the city being on the cusp of, potentially, a new boom era with a multiplicity of new industrial, energy and mining projects forecast to begin within the next two to four years.

One of the first demands upon our community then relates to the shortage of housing for the incoming workforces. There has been mention of the need for at least 2000 new residences in the city in the next three years.

Development alarm bells

Increasingly, there has been a focus on the need for more developable land. Part of this focus has recognised that there are within our city a large number of empty older houses, often due to dilapidation or abandonment, in addition to the many vacant lots which were never developed, or which are the sites of earlier houses long ago demolished.

We have heard discussion of a proposal that Broken Hill City Council might adopt a range of options to make it easier to demolish old houses and clear blocks of land, by waiving demolition permit fees and building waste disposal fees.

On the one hand these suggested reforms appear sensible and needed, but on the other hand, to those concerned about the preservation of heritage and sustainability principles supporting the reuse of materials, some alarm bells may be ringing.

The National Heritage List citation specifically referred to the characteristic miners’ cottages throughout the city, the ‘tinnies’ as some refer to them, being the many dwellings built of corrugated iron which are found in every street.

The many early stone cottages, often with a bullnose corrugated front veranda, are also very much characteristic of early Broken Hill.

Without a doubt these early forms of housing in the city, our vernacular buildings, provide much heritage character, and so contribute to its unique identity. In sustainability terms, these dwellings constitute ‘embodied energy’ – the energy that went into their construction and is thereby retained within them.

With the modern expectations of comfortable living, the demands for newer dwellings often overwhelm consideration of an alternative.

Whereas newer dwellings have a degree of sameness as they are built in the ‘greenfield’ suburbs around every city and regional centre of Australia, the restoration of older building stock offers the opportunity to retain, at least in part, the urban character, the identity, of a place.

All round the world there have been good examples of enlightened communities where renovation of existing housing, incorporating state-of-the-art modern extensions ‘out the back’, have meant that a place’s identity has been, not just retained, but reinforced through renovation.

I believe there is a role for those who appreciate heritage and extant environments, such as historical societies and Landcare Broken Hill, to advocate for a pro-active effort on the part of our community to safeguard the building stock that gives our city its identity.

Following this approach, we would ensure that restored habitable housing becomes available, whilst ensuring the national heritage values identified in our National Heritage List citation are not undermined.

Landcare believes that the same approach is required for the landscaping of our urban streets and public reserves in the city.

Native trees with canopy

The National Heritage List citation highlighted the ‘oasis in an arid zone setting’ and described the ground-breaking work of Albert and Margaret Morris, the Barrier Field Naturalists Club and the Zinc Corporation in redressing the environmental degradation of the city in the 1930s in “greening the hill” by creating the Regeneration Reserve and embracing the strategy of widespread planting of native canopy trees along most of the main streets and roads of the city, as well as creating many urban parks.

Now, almost a century later, many of those trees are reaching senescence yet rather than maintaining the character of our city created by the earlier greening efforts, there appears to be a tendency to replace hardy resilient canopy trees with ‘designer’ plants which can be seen in cities around the world.

Short, minimal canopy, easily maintained, yet often characterless plants, are all too often the plants of choice.

Do they bear much relationship to Broken Hill’s unique Outback character, so significantly identified in our National Heritage listing? No.

To all citizens of Broken Hill, please stay vigilant. Reflect on those attributes which give Broken Hill its unique character, its identity, and advocate to retain those distinctive elements.

We need to ensure that the essence of what makes Broken Hill is safeguarded as we welcome the other changes that will flow with the arrival of a new boom period.

This is an edited version of an article written by Simon Molesworth, Lsandcare Broken Hill’s President, for the 2022 Journal of the Broken Hill Historical Society, of which Simon is also Patron.

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