Michael Berson’s book, Cockburn: The Making of a Community
, draws to a close in the mid-1970s, a time of rapidly increasing suburban development. Berson concludes his history with this sentiment:
In this process of re-settling the Cockburn District new settlers will not be faced with the physical hardships which tested earlier settlers but they will have to overcome the more complex constraints of a delicately balanced natural environment, established industries and access to recreation space on the coastline in their efforts to build a community.
In developing this historical project in 2016, what stood out was the emphasis Berson had put on the community aspect of the district’s history. It was pronounced, and it left little room for those sections of the heritage of Cockburn that did not fit the mould of ‘community’.
Clearly, for much of the history of the Cockburn district, community was
an almost all-encompassing concern. Small, isolated settlements, little in the way of what we today consider entertainment, slower forms of communication and travel, all contributed to a desire for human interaction and group gatherings in local areas that we no longer feel such a pressing need for today.
By the 1970s, ‘community’ had come to mean those small enclaves of battlers doing it tough on the land, and coming together for the good of the district in associations, clubs, social gatherings, and political deputations. It did not include those who lived outside the district but worked within it, nor did it much care for those who lived in the district but made their mark outside of it. The definition of community, as much as the community itself, was very insular.
From ‘community’ to suburbia
It became obvious that this sense of community was diminishing during the modernisation and suburbanisation that was ramping up during the 1970s, when Berson was writing and researching. Perth was looking to the future, and a city-wide Corridor Plan was designing suburbs for the next 50 years with freeways, railways and transport networks overwriting older district boundaries.
National Estate Study, 1975
In 1975, the Town of Cockburn commissioned a National Estate Study, in preparation for the creation of the Register of the National Estate under the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975.
Both the Register and the Act have been superseded by newer developments in heritage legislation, but their legacy was the modern desire to preserve a rapidly-disappearing past.
The Town of Cockburn National Estate Study’s purpose was to develop a comprehensive overview of all of the significant sites and interests in the Cockburn area - environmental, historical, archaeological, and cultural - for heritage protection, but also to develop policies at a local level that would determine how the district’s history was protected and interpreted in the future.
Urban planning: a turning point
Both the council and the authors of the study recognised that this was a turning point for the district: already the old market gardening areas of Hamilton Hill and Spearwood were transforming into suburbs, and demand for residential land was pushing market gardeners further south into the Mandogalup and Rockingham areas.
One of the preoccupations to come out of the study was a recommendation for future urban planning that retained the sense of community within the district. Cockburn in 1975, the study’s introduction states, has a chance to maintain its ‘internal integrity’ instead of being incorporated into an ‘amorphous suburban continuum’: that is,
Cockburn has the chance to re-establish its own distinctive identity before it is swallowed up as a southern extension of Perth’s suburbia.
Closed cell planning
The National Estate Study’s authors put forward an idea of tightly-controlled ‘closed cell planning’, where each neighbourhood is developed to an optimum 10,000 people, with adequate numbers of schools, ovals, libraries, theatres, gymnasiums, cinemas, medical centres, and community halls to serve them all.
The idea was a wonderful one, but the realities of developing services several times over in small enclosed communities was incompatible with the overarching planning going on at higher levels, trying to turn Perth into a modern connected city full of dormitory suburbs and long traffic corridors.
State Housing Commission
Resuming a large acreage at Hamilton Hill in the 1950s, which would eventually become the newly-laid out suburb of Coolbellup in the early 1960s, the State Housing Commission (SHC) developed large pieces of
land into public housing localities. As more people moved into these developments throughout the 1960s, the demographic of Cockburn began to change dramatically. The balance of work was heavily shifted towards industrial and trade labour, with residents commuting to the Fremantle, O’Connor, and Kwinana industrial areas.
Southwell, a mid-1970s Hamilton Hill development project, was built along ‘Radburn’ design principles, intended to separate pedestrians from traffic and create a sense of community and communal living. This venture ultimately failed, as residents in the SHC suburbs did not adhere to the behaviour urban planners expected. SHC designers began to listen to their tenants, and
where the ethos of the previous decade had been to facilitate community, from the mid-1970s designs began to pay attention to privacy. Security concerns also began to be considered, especially for the elderly, single parents and families fleeing violence.
In this sense, ‘community’ can be seen as a failed venture, a concept idealised by urban planners who could not imagine the nature of the communities they were attempting to fabricate.
1976: Census spotlight on Cockburn
By 1976 the population of Cockburn was 29,492, a growth of 4,000 people since 1971 and an almost 100% increase in a decade, according to the 1976 Census data. The trend towards suburbia in Perth as a whole was firmly established, and as the National Estate Study had noted the previous year, ‘the type of residential development which is occurring in Cockburn can be classified as suburban development typical of outer urban zones of any Australian city.’
In some areas Cockburn was outside the norm: it had above average levels of young children and single parent households, particularly in the new SHC housing suburbs at Hamilton Hill and Coolbellup, which also accounted for more than average numbers of new houses, walk-up flats, and fibro (asbestos) housing.
Spearwood and the older parts of Hamilton Hill in particular had over three times the Perth average of residents born in Croatia and Italy, and larger numbers of timber houses and housing not connected to any sewerage system. The Cockburn district as a whole had extremely low levels of adults enrolled in or already having earned tertiary degrees.
44% of working Cockburn residents were employed as ‘tradesmen, production process workers, and labourers’, and 12% were clerical workers, according the 1971 Census. These two far outstripped the category of ‘farmers, fishermen and related workers’ which accounted for only 5%. Though the district still considered itself a semi-rural market gardening locality, the idea was no longer in keeping with the reality.
The legacy of ‘community’ in Cockburn
For a Perth reader in the late 2010s, the 1970s hopefulness of developing districts into communities has not lasted. The sentiment of community is noticeably absent from modern life in anything other than corporate marketing by housing developers. The people who buy their houses in Success, Hammond Park, Aubin Grove, still commute to the CBD or to other more populous areas for work, regardless of how many ‘community facilities’ their area boasts.
New suburban subdivisions promise community lifestyles yet build nothing but houses on increasingly smaller blocks; shopfronts and shopping centres are developed but never filled up, and the lure of larger centres further away are stronger than local shops. Small suburban shopping centres struggle to retain leaseholders, and the modes of shopping, travelling, and entertaining have changed beyond the comprehension of well-intentioned urban planners in the 1970s.
The intense growth of the districts south of Fremantle since the 1970s could probably not have been imagined, even if the numbers envisaged were actually over-optimistic: Berson quoted a potential 149,000
residents of Cockburn by the year 2000,
a number which has still not been reached at the time of writing in 2019.
But the writers of these statistics probably had no concept of what that many people would look like on the landscape they lived in.
What they should have predicted, however, was how much the influx of residents, either new migrants or simply new families moving outwards, would have on their concept of ‘community’. Suddenly thousands of people were appearing in suburbs that had once been small islands of a few hundred residents.
The sense of togetherness and insularity that was a natural outcome of living in struggling semi-rural enclaves was fundamentally incompatible with a modern suburban mode of living, and the ‘community’ that had been so prized would never be the same again.
Text by Leah Napier, February 2019