Protecting the World Heritage Environs Area

To read the submission made by RHSV in September 2021 click here 

The RHSV is concerned that the Royal Exhibition Building, perhaps the most significant heritage building in Melbourn, be properly protected and that the area surrounding it be free from inappropriate developments that undermine its heritage values.

The Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton was constructed in 1880 as the venue for the great Melbourne International Exhibition held that year. Eight years later it was also used for the even larger Centennial International Exhibition of 1888. These two grand events put the flamboyant gold-rich ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ on the international map in the late nineteenth century. The building was also the venue for the opening of Australia’s first Federal Parliament after federation in 1901 and the inauguration of Melbourne as the nation’s first capital. It was from the flagpole on its dome that the new Australian flag was first flown in 1901.


In 2004 the Australian Government nominated the site for World Heritage listing, arguing that: ‘The Royal Exhibition Building in its original garden setting is the most authentic remaining example of an in situ Palace of Industry from a significant international exhibition’. The eminent UK historian, Professor David Cannadine wrote: ‘There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world today’. UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites agreed, and today the Royal Exhibition Building and its surrounding Carlton Gardens is Australia’s first and Melbourne’s only World Heritage cultural site.


To fully protect a World Heritage site, its surrounding area, called the World Heritage Environs Area (WHEA), also has to be protected. You cannot have a World Heritage site cowering in the shadow of modern skyscrapers. This is particularly important in this case as Melbourne’s central business district touches the Carlton Gardens on its southern boundary at the corner of La Trobe and Spring Streets.

In 2004 the Australian Government promised UNESCO that not only were the building and gardens protected, but also that ‘any action which may have a significant impact on a World Heritage property, whether inside or outside the boundaries of the property, is prohibited’. The government added that:

… all planning policies in these [surrounding] areas discourage the demolition of Victorian-era buildings and require any development to enhance heritage values. These provisions would also apply to any redevelopment of existing modern buildings around the site, including the Central Business District area.

Moreover, ‘the State Minister for Planning intends to enact a special provision to establish a formal buffer zone around the site’.

Despite these promises, the buffer zone was not formally established until 2009. When the buffer zone was drawn up for legal planning purposes, it was divided into an ‘Area of Greater Sensitivity’ and an ‘Area of Lesser Sensitivity’. The central business district block at La Trobe and Spring Streets was in the ‘Lesser’ area – and ‘Lesser’ turned out to mean no special protection. Approval was granted for a number of buildings that seriously impacted the views of and from the Exhibition Building, and in particular the view from the soon to be re-opened viewing platform on the dome. The worst of these is the 65-storey twin-tower Shangri-La Hotel almost at the southern boundary of the Carlton Gardens. This high-rise development will completely transform the area and dominate the skyline that Australia promised to protect. More such high-rise developments will follow if protection is not improved.

Every seven years, the management plan for the World Heritage site must be reviewed, and such a review is currently underway. In a submission to this review the RHSV called on the government to keep the promises it made in seeking World Heritage listing for the site, to restore the buffer zone to the full extent promised and indeed to extend it slightly to ensure that no more skyscrapers will impinge on the area. We do not want to see a curtain wall of development destroying what the site still offers.



As part of the review, an excellent Strategy Plan Discussion Paper was produced by consultants and released for public consultation in early 2020. This clearly identified the many deficiencies of the current system of controlling development in the WHEA and canvassed a number of possible solutions. After a period of public consultation, a Draft Strategy Plan (DSP) was released that recommended a number of positive changes, which the RHSV strongly supports. There are several main proposals.


First, the DSP recommends the removal of the distinction between the Area of Greater Sensitivity and the rest of the WHEA so that the WHEA is managed as one buffer zone. It was the introduction of this distinction in 2009 that made possible the construction of the skyscrapers that threaten the World Heritage values of the site on its southern boundary.

Second the DSP recommends that the views to the dome of the Royal Exhibition Building need to be protected, as well as the views from the recently reconstructed viewing platform at the dome. While high-rise development has been allowed to encroach into the WHEA to the south, the recommendations of the DSP should be enough to maintain the character of the vistas from the dome in other directions that for the most part retain a form and appearance close to that which existed at the time of the building’s construction in 1880.


Third the DSP proposes the extension of the WHEA boundaries to the south, to the west and to the east. To the south it recommends the inclusion of the area bounded by LaTrobe, Russell, Victoria and Exhibition streets. To the west it should include properties fronting the west side of Lygon Street. To the east it recommends that the WHEA include the east side of the Fitzroy Street road reserve. The RHSV has proposed that this extension to the east should go further and incorporate properties on each side of Gertrude Street between Fitzroy and Brunswick streets.

The DSP also recommends that a Design and Development Overlay be applied to the whole area as the main instrument for controlling the built form in the WHEA. In terms of the future governance of the World Heritage Site, it recommends that the status quo be retained but with the Executive Director of Heritage Victoria being appointed as the Determining Referral Authority. The RHSV however notes that there is no entity that represents the World Heritage site as a whole. At the moment this task is a part-time job for everyone involved. This site needs and deserves a champion that will advocate for the maintenance of its World Heritage values without fear or favour.


The new Draft Strategy Plan (DSP) is now nearing finalisation. It will shortly go before the Heritage Council, which will then make recommendations to the Minister for Planning. If approved, this plan will result in changes to the Design and Development Overlays governing the area surrounding the Carlton Gardens that will reduce the likelihood of future threats.

Given the significance of the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens site and its importance for Melbournians and visitors alike, the RHSV believes that the effective conservation of it and its World Heritage Environs Area places the highest obligation imaginable on the Melbourne and Victorian planning authorities. The review of the Strategy Plan has provided the opportunity to strengthen the measures that are in place to meet these high expectations and responsibilities. The RHSV supports recommendations of the draft Strategy Plan as an effective means of achieving this end.