Resident action groups began to surface in Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to a growing concern among many communities that activities of state and municipal governments, along with those of private developers, were destroying the environmental, historical and social fabric of their neighbourhoods. Across Australia, the social passivity of the 1950s was giving way to an era of protest and direct action, with people no longer willing to accept unquestioningly the decisions of those in authority. In Melbourne this was especially felt in the inner-northern suburb of Carlton, with its wealth of Victorian-era architecture. In 1969 the Carlton Association emerged from an upsurge in community concern, to protest against some of the most controversial redevelopment plans of the era.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of significant change for Carlton. The previous decade had introduced substantial transformations to the area, which eroded much of its working-class, residential charm. Its characteristic terrace houses had begun to be demolished as part of the Housing Commission of Victoria’s urban renewal plans. The expansion of Melbourne’s central business district, the Royal Women’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne were threatening Carlton’s residential fringes, and a significant influx of young professionals began changing its immigrant, working-class character. By the late 1960s the combination of these forces led to the formation of one of the most influential and powerful examples of residential action and protest that Australia had ever experienced.1
Largely spearheaded by members of the new professional middle class who had moved into the area, the Carlton Association benefitted from the skills of local academics and professionals, forming an educated, well-organised leadership from the outset. Although the association had little student involvement, it was closely tied to the University of Melbourne through a number of staff members.2 Today the University of Melbourne Archives houses a large portion of records from these individuals, including George Tibbits and Miles Lewis from the Faculty of Architecture and former university archivist Frank Strahan, offering a rich source of information on the Carlton Association and its many battles.
At its peak in the early 1970s the Carlton Association had over two thousand members and was described as ‘the most influential suburban watchdog in Melbourne. It has the biting power of a yard full of Doberman Pinschers’.3 Its concerns ranged widely, from the demolition of houses and the expansion of freeways to the alienation of parklands. It was successful in preventing the Housing Commission of Victoria from demolishing a 200-acre block of Victorian terrace houses, deemed ‘slums’, for redevelopment into medium- and high-density apartment blocks.4 It was the first resident action group in Australia to enlist the help of the Builders Labourers Federation, by imposing a green ban in order to preserve some disused railway land for public use and prevent the construction of a warehouse.5 It was also an active force in protesting against the F19 freeway extension through the area.
The success of the association can be attributed to its ability not just to protest, but to fight campaigns. In all of its battles it was effective in using to its advantage well-argued reports, correspondence and dialogue with public authorities, public meetings, door-to-door contact and the press. It not only marshalled the support of trade unions, the National Trust, government departments and professional institutes, but also made every effort to involve all of the community in its action by translating notices and other information into several languages, and distributing them widely.
The Carlton Association officially ended in 1993. By this time many of the major threats to the area had been faced and defeated, and Carlton had been transformed from a ‘slum’ area to a highly desirable place to live. Four decades on from the Carlton Association’s heyday, many of its original members still live in the area.
- David Beauchamp and Frank Strahan, “The Carlton Association” in Peter Yule (ed) Carlton: A History, Carlton Residents Association and Melbourne University Press, 2004, pp. 156-165.
- Professor Miles Lewis, interviewed by Alice Gibbons, 27 November 2012.
- Herald, 24 December 1971, quoted in David Beauchamp and Frank Strahan, 'The Carlton Association', in Peter Yule (ed.), Carlton: A History, Melbourne: Carlton Residents Association and Melbourne University Press, 2004, p. 156.
- See David Beauchamp, ‘George Tibbits and the demise of the Housing Commission’, unpublished transcript, November 1999. Local History Collection, Carlton Library; George Tibbits, ‘The enemy within our gates: Slum clearance and high-rise flats’, in Renate Howe (ed.), New houses for old: Fifty years of public housing in Victoria 1938–1988, Melbourne: Ministry of Housing and Construction, 1988.
- Richard J. Roddewig, Green Bans: The Birth of Australian Environmental Politics: a study in public opinion and participation, Hale and Iremonger: Sydney, 1978.