By the standards of some cities Melbourne's history is not a lengthy one but citizens have sought to value the legacies of the past. Most commonly (and controversially) these have been found in the built environment and architecture.
Earlier generations noted in the experience of colonisation a freedom from old world constraints. Addressing the electors of Williamstown in 1856 the politician John Foster asked what was here to be preserved and what to be uprooted? 'We have nothing to preserve, and nothing to destroy', he claimed. 'Nobody could possibly be opposed to progress here.' Such a person must have 'a most infatuated love for She-oaks and green trees or for the free and equal Aboriginal institutions of Victoria'. In time, heritage conservation initiatives would embrace both the natural environment and the indigenous culture of the Aborigines, but early generations of Melburnians saw themselves creating legacies rather than as stewards of heritage. Interestingly, this tended to involve property, both public and private. Among the earliest conceptions of a threat to public heritage in Melbourne involved the parks and gardens. Encroachments on the formerly generous allocations of open space on the city fringe and along major roads angered citizens in the 1860s and 1870s. Easy revenue stood to be obtained by government from the sale of frontages and portions of Albert, Royal, Yarra and Fawkner parks. The expansion of entertainment, transport and sporting facilities, or alienation to private freehold have seen further depredations with public benefit often being cited as a justification. Examples of institutions located on lands formerly designated or conceived of as public open space include the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the National Tennis Centre, the Royal Exhibition Building and Melbourne Museum.
Notions of a vanishing heritage of building stock have been keenly felt in periods of city growth and with continuing building and construction. The land boom redevelopment of Central Melbourne, in the 1880s especially, saw rude cottages and other structures of the early days replaced by high-rise buildings. Ironically, later generations would identify these as part of the city's heritage. Such misgivings did not translate initially into attempts at conservation but Melburnians came to understand that development could also involve loss. Attempts at relocation and documentation were undertaken. St James' Anglican Cathedral (built 1839-42) was moved to its present West Melbourne site in 1914. The documentation and reburial of bodies from the Old Melbourne Cemetery was a partial recognition of the significance of this site. Up until the 1950s notions of the heritage of the built environment remained vague. The centenary of Melbourne in 1934 focused attention on issues of achievement by celebrating the foundation and early history of Melbourne. Royal visits emphasised the population's British heritage.
In many respects Melbourne remained, as implied by the historian Asa Briggs in his study Victorian cities (1963), 'a Victorian community overseas'. It still reflected its great 19th-century phase of growth. Imposition of a building height limit in Central Melbourne from 1916 to 1956 and comparatively little redevelopment in the city and inner areas until the 1950s had meant that Melbourne's building stock and overall character did not change greatly, which made developments after 1945 seem all the more dramatic. The first stirrings of an activist built heritage consciousness led to the formation of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) in 1956, following concern at the loss of many grand mansions to redevelopment and subdivision. Early Trust initiatives involved the acquisition of properties (many of them by way of donation), including Como (which it opened to the public in 1959), La Trobe's Cottage and Rippon Lea. Gradually, the Trust took on a watchdog and activist role, classifying properties, encouraging professional work, and urging government intervention to protect significant heritage structures. But authority for this was lacking in city planning legislation. Only in 1961 was heritage protection made an optional initiative for municipal government under the Town and Country Planning Act and little was done to stem the destruction of significant buildings caused by a redevelopment boom. Activist groups of the 1960s sought to save Collins Street and Carlton. The Save Carlton Association opposed the compulsory acquisition of land by the Victorian Housing Commission for high-rise redevelopment. The loss of the former Federal Coffee Palace, Cliveden Mansions, St Patrick's Hall and the Royale Ballroom at the Royal Exhibition Building provoked concern, even protests, but the pro-development Liberal Party Premier (Sir) Henry Bolte resisted calls for legislative action. His successor (Sir) Rupert Hamer, Premier 1972-81, was of a different mind. He sponsored innovative legislation dealing with environmental, archaeological and built heritage, including the Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act, the Victoria Conservation Trust Act, the Environment Protection Authority Act, the Historic Shipwrecks Act, the Historic Buildings Act, and the Government Buildings Act. The Historic Buildings Council (HBC) was given important and wide-ranging powers to stay and prohibit demolition from 1974 and it added many buildings already deemed significant by the National Trust to its register of buildings of statewide significance. A recognition of the sensitivities of indigenous people was seen in the formation of the Koorie Heritage Trust in 1985 and moves to repatriate skeletal remains and other significant cultural artefacts held in public trust by such bodies as Museum Victoria.
Area conservation initiatives had been undertaken in rural areas near Melbourne, notably Mornington, Cranbourne and in the Dandenong Ranges, but the prospect of compensation for city property owners was a concern. A report by James Gobbo QC of the Supreme Court gave these concerns credence and the metropolitan planning authority, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, declined to act unless indemnified by councils against possible claims. In 1980 Hawthorn municipality accepted the risk and St James Park became Melbourne's first urban conservation area. The Australian Labor Party Government led by John Cain from 1982 acted to rule out compensation to owners of listed properties and soon afterwards recommendations were brought forward. Amendment 224 to the Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme (MMPS) was the best known. Within a few years extensive areas of inner Melbourne were designated as urban conservation areas. By these means demolition, subdivision, new buildings and exterior alterations in extensive areas of heritage-significant inner Melbourne were placed under planning control. In Central Melbourne some 300 notable buildings and nine areas were listed, including Chinatown, the Parliamentary Precinct, Flinders Lane, Collins Street, Bourke Street and Queen Victoria Market. Other municipalities then acted to introduce controls and to extend existing conservation areas, all with broad community support and little opposition. There were setbacks also. High-rise development along St Kilda Road saw the loss of many notable buildings, including Koonwarra. In 1987 a new Planning and Environment Act made it mandatory for councils to take heritage into account in their planning schemes, though many were tardy in this. In 1992 the Liberal Party coalition again won government. Led by Jeff Kennett it restructured municipal government, amalgamating and reducing the number of councils, and amending planning and heritage legislation. The HBC was replaced by a Heritage Council with additional powers to protect gardens, trees and archaeological sites of significance. Other changes to planning legislation saw citizens' rights to object curtailed and 'as-of-right' provisions for developers. Councils' approval powers were diminished and urban consolidation favoured. The government attempted to shift much of the responsibility for protection of local heritage onto the councils but with a building boom under way by the mid-1990s many had not identified or protected areas or sites of significance. The organisation Save Our Suburbs expressed the public's concern at the loss of buildings and urban amenity.
Over a period of 40 years, ideas of heritage significance have changed considerably, with many 20th-century buildings and areas now considered important. Industrial history studies have been undertaken in the western region and Southbank. Heritage-significant complexes have been given new functions (the Jam Factory) and included in developments (Coop's Shot Tower). Archaeological excavations have been undertaken at Little Lon and other places and in 2004 the Royal Exhibition Building was added to the World Heritage List.