Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific


Community and Governance; Urban Activism in Melbourne in the 1960s and beyond


Project Summary:

As the economy of Melbourne's central and inner areas has been transformed over the last three decades, conflicts over urban redevelopment have impacted significantly on governance, urban policies and inner city communities. By studying the new generation of activists attracted to Melbourne's working class suburbs in the 1960s, this project will push beyond gentrification interpretations of urban change to examine the motivations of activists and the process of forging partipatory structures of governance and community partnerships. The project will assess the significance of this period of transition for managing urban development in the new millennium.


From the mid-1960s, a disparate group of residents and concerned parties in Melbourne’s inner city areas (Fitzroy, Carlton, Richmond, Parkville and East, West, South and North Melbourne) found themselves politicised by threats to their built environment and community by government and private development.

Car on street

Much of Carlton is now sought-after real estate. It was to be demolished under the 1960s slum clearance scheme.
Picture: M. Schoen

The powerful Housing Commission of Victoria, a body with roots in the anti-slum campaigns of the 1930s, was moving on the inner city to demolish and redevelop what it regarded as ‘sub-standard’ housing areas. This assessment was in many cases based on ‘windscreen surveys’ – that is, on the impressions of the housing stock gleaned from the front seat of a car.

Housing Commission flats

Housing Commission flats at Atherton Gardens replaced what was seen as degraded and slum housing in Carlton.
Picture: D. Nichols

At the same time, the Metropolitan Board of Works was embarking on a wide-ranging ‘grid’ of freeways across Melbourne, to bring cars from the outer suburbs to the CBD. A third front came in the form of private development, impinging on housing traditionally belonging to low-income and/or migrant groups. The social dislocation and disruption of community networks this process caused was in many cases tragic, but the assumption amongst many Australians was that there wasno stopping progress.

Anti-freeway cartoon

Anti-freeway cartoon from the newspaper Freeway Fighter, 1977

Many inner city dwellers – some of them long-term residents who were unhappy about being dispatched from places where they’d always lived, some of them recent migrants to Australia who were renovating and rebuilding homes and established ethnically-based communities, and some of them recent arrivals from other suburban, or rural, parts of Australia attracted by the convenience, cheapness and cosmopolitan nature of the area – were prepared to resist.

The Carlton Association burns Mr Meagher, Minister of Housing, in effigy

The Carlton Association burns Mr Meagher, Minister of Housing, in effigy in a 1971 demonstration.
Picture courtesy W. Logan

Media campaigns, political campaigns, public demonstrations, reports, lobbying, films, books, union-led bans, and many other forms of protest and pressure were brought to bear on the corporations who saw the inner city as a ripe area for demolition.

Much of the previous research on Australian protests against development in the 1960s and 70s has focussed on the Green Bans in Sydney. Melbourne also had its Green Bans (known initially as Black Bans), notably in North Carlton when the Builders’ Laborers Federation stopped construction of a warehouse on railway land.

But in Melbourne, protest was far more community-based. It embraced a wide range of issues such as housing reform, municipal politics, anti-freeway campaigns, migrant welfare and historic conservation. It had extensive impacts on urban policy and urban decision-making in Australia.

Many Australians in the sixties were anxious to see social and political change. What were the motivations of this new generation of activists who moved into Melbourne's decayed working class inner suburbs?

Rafferty s Rules, from the newspaper Freeway Fighter

Rafferty s Rules, from the newspaper Freeway Fighter, 1977

What was the relationship between reformers and the radical Green and Marxist movement with which they often made common cause in such organisations and movements? How extensive were alliances with working class residents and the emerging organisations of southern European migrants?

Melbourne activism was especially important in terms of governance. It had a significant impact on the powerful, but undemocratic, Victorian infrastructure authorities in planning, housing and transport. at the centre of the most violent protests. Active citizenship, democratic city government and innovative and participatory planning procedures dominated the agenda of activists. The emphasis on local democracy and the flourishing of civil society – centres for child care, working women, ethnic rights, legal rights and community health – was a response to a period of transition when established institutions were either unable or slow to respond to the radical changes of inner city areas. How inclusive were these organisations and movements? What did they contribute to city governance in a longer time-frame? Did they articulate an alternative paradigm or simply facilitate market solutions to planning issues?

Overall, this project will examine the ambiguities of gentrification in context of the range and complexity of Melbourne's activism, its reforming emphasis, its impact on governance and community building and its pertinence to growing resistance to the urban impacts of corporatist planning and an internationalising economy


Thousands of Victorian-era homes, seen to have outlived their usefulness were demolished in the 1960s and 70s.
Picture: W. Logan

Chief investigators are Associate Professor Renate Howe (Deakin University) and Professor Graeme Davison (Monash University); steering committee includes Professor William Logan (Deakin University), Associate Professor Michele Langfield (Deakin University), Dr Seamus O'Hanlon (Monash University). Research assistant: Dr David Nichols (Deakin University)

Do you have a story to tell about urban protest in 1960s and 70s?

If you have a story to tell us about your own experience of urban protest in the 60s and 70s, if you know of interesting and relevant archival sources, if you have any photographs, sound recordings or films, or if you have any other comments or recommendations for our project, please feel free to email us at:

To read 5 interviews from the project click on the links below:

Ann Polis
Barbara Niven
Nigel Buesst
Pete Steedman
Rupert Hamer

Deakin University acknowledges the traditional land owners of present campus sites.

31st January 2012