Coastal heritage


For further information, see Chapter 9: Heritage.

The nature of coastal heritage

Many Australian natural heritage places are in coastal areas. Many important wetlands, for example, occur on coastal plains, which are especially vulnerable to degradation both because they are often accessible and close to population centres and because they are at the end of river systems that have had water extracted for various uses before it reaches the coast (see also Chapter 4: Inland water).

Because Australia was initially settled around its coasts, coastal areas have many buildings of heritage significance and historically important shipwrecks. Conditions that degrade buildings and natural structures (e.g. wind, salt, inundation) are often more extreme in coastal areas, requiring particular attention to the preservation of heritage assets.

Indigenous places of cultural significance in the coastal zone are potentially under threat from the same forces that affect natural heritage. As well, many Australians lack recognition and understanding of what is significant, and connections between Indigenous people and coastal places have declined. In Chapter 9: Heritage, the Tjilbruke dreaming trails are described. This dreaming links features of coastal environments together in an explanation of the creation of seven freshwater springs along the coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula, between Crystal Brook in the north, through the Adelaide Plains, to Parewarangga (Cape Jervis) in the south. This example illustrates the challenges for managing such heritage values, since the dreaming trails spread across large areas of public and private land and require management by several local councils.


Pressures specific to natural heritage include rapid increases in the number of invasive species and pathogens; progressive loss of habitat; conflict in land use, including tension between the potential economic value of land and its dedication for conservation purposes; and the relatively modest budgets made available to those charged with the care, control and management of reserved lands.

Coastal Indigenous heritage in Australia faces pressures in two major areas. Firstly, knowledge and tradition have been lost, particularly in areas of early European colonisation. However, there are also positive factors, such as increasing involvement of Indigenous people in traditional sea and land management in coastal areas. Secondly, Indigenous sites are subject to an ongoing process of incremental destruction, usually associated with urban development, farming and mining. The obligation for identification and assessment of impact rests with the proponent of the development, and Indigenous heritage is often seen as being ‘in the way’ of progress. In many cases, consent for destruction of specific sites is issued in the absence of a comprehensive understanding of the nature and extent of the overall Indigenous resource.

Historical cultural heritage is also particularly threatened by pressures for redevelopment, on both a large and a small scale. The impacts range from complete destruction to inappropriate change, and may affect associated attributes, such as visual setting. Planning systems, land zonings and related regulations, although often well intentioned, do not necessarily assist in achieving conservation outcomes. Some building codes and standards (including, surprisingly, the green building agenda) also create pressure for demolition or inappropriate change. Inflexible paradigms may require building conservation, rather than allowing natural processes and evolution to ruins.

Risks and responses

In coastal and urban areas, population increase leads to more immediate and direct incidents that threaten heritage, such as demolition to make way for new development, damage from the introduction of new infrastructure, and adverse impacts on the setting of significant natural and cultural places. As noted above, climate change will bring about sea level rise, with the risk of inundation of coastal heritage areas.

Dealing with the pressures on natural and cultural heritage around Australia’s coasts is hindered by inadequate survey, assessment and listing of Indigenous places; past ad hoc practices for listing of historic places on statutory registers (although this is now improving); and resource limitations that often restrict activities at the national level to reactive processes for dealing with threats to natural heritage, especially from invasive species.

Cork S (2011). Coasts: Coastal heritage. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b659bdc758b