Catherine Heggen Director Message Consultants  / 
Traditional Resistance

story / Interview / July 9, 2018

I graduated in the early 1980’s from my town and regional planning course at the University of Melbourne. I was there when the faculty building was cobbled together from various different donations of building materials from building companies – very different from the exceptional architectural composition that is now the Melbourne School of Design. My best subject in school was geography and I was always intrigued by patterns of human settlement. I was always interested in maps and as a young girl I spent hours poring over dog-eared Melways editions. When it came to working out what I was going to study for a career, it was always going to be in town planning.

After I completed my studies I worked for a short time in local government and then did what a lot of Australians still do and traveled overseas to London. I got a job as a planner for the City of Westminster working on the initial proposal to extend the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. That project went through an appeal process and involved what the British planning system calls an ‘inquiry’. Ultimately the proposal was not successful. Returning to London many times since, I often visit the National Gallery and reflect on what was finally constructed and is now known as the Sainsbury Wing – a restrained neoclassical building. It sits well alongside its host building looking over Trafalgar Square.

After returning to Melbourne in 1986 I joined Tract Consultants where I stayed for 10 years eventually becoming a partner in the practice. Tract grew out of the Merchant Builders Company, which pioneered free siting techniques and site response design that was reflected in its Vermont Park and Winter Park cluster housing projects.

At that time the marriage of the disciplines of landscape architecture and town planning was revolutionary and together they demonstrate how urban form and where we live, can be so much better. I learnt an enormous amount from my Tract colleagues and importantly Howard McCorkell and Rodney Wulff. It was an inspirational time and Tract gave me opportunities that I am thankful for to this day.

In 1996 I established my own firm and extended my area of practice in design-led planning solutions often in projects with urban design, landscape or heritage considerations. At the same time I was appointed by the then Minister for Planning Rob McClellan, to Victoria’s Heritage Council and subsequently as Chairman of the Council. At this time a new Heritage Act was given effect, which broadened the concept of heritage significance. No longer was it just about buildings but also gardens, cultural landscapes, objects and industrial processes.

My area of professional interest and capabilities was developing at the intersection of urban planning, statutory controls, place-making and project facilitation and I was keen to extend this area of practice into partnerships with urban designers.

About 8 years ago I joined a longtime former Tract colleague at my current firm Message Consultants, which comprises both town planners and urban designers. Our projects for the private sector and government clients often involve urban design and heritage issues as well as visual and landscape impact assessments and of course, advice on the development approval process. So much of what is characterised today as urban design is what I used to know as town planning. The challenge is that built form, landscape and heritage outcomes are primarily delivered through statutory controls so I think there is a clear role for the bridging skills that Message Consultants offers.

There are two aspects to starting any business. The first being the practical one, such as securing a small office space and the necessary IT resources. The second aspect to any successful practice is the development of networks with a client base and with your colleagues. I have learnt that cultivating and maintaining good relationships is critical and its value can’t be underestimated.

To be consultant and a trusted advisor is a nuanced role. As someone who is involved in the planning and design professions you are asked for advice on a wide range of projects. Discretion, integrity and a balanced clear-eyed view are critical. Learning or honing these skills takes time and I was very fortunate in having great mentors.

When I commenced my university course the gender split between men and women was about 50/50 with this ratio generally being maintained for about 5 years into my career. However, the number of women working as a consultant in the private sector reduced considerably after then. There were many times where I would attend meetings and I was the only woman there.

Thirty five years on and things have changed. There are certainly many more women in senior positions in both government and the private sector. However I think that professional prejudice against women and traditional resistance to women being taken seriously, has shifted to more subtle signals. The use of language and unconscious bias still remains. As Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her book “Lean In”, a lot has to do with women being able to ‘lean in’ without being seen as a pushy bitch.

We have come a long way though. My parents arrived from Britain in 1955. My mother was university educated and a qualified librarian. Notwithstanding this, she was ineligible for positions in public libraries because of her ‘married’ woman status. It turned her into a lifelong feminist (to my advantage). She eventually found work at the Baillieu Library where she was very happy. At the time however jobs were advertised with a female wage and a separate higher male wage for the same position with exactly the same responsibilities.

I’m so disappointed to hear younger women (and some older women including a senior female federal government minister) say they are not a feminist. I don’t think being a feminist is anything more than saying we’ve got the skills and we should be given the same opportunities in the same way as men are.

I think my advice to any young professional women revolves around style and substance:

Style – I can remember being advised by a university lecturer in preparing us for the world outside, that women should lower the pitch of their voice and dress soberly to be taken seriously. Well times have changed, but not that much.

Substance – Do your best and focus on where you want to be. Women tend to be very hard judges of themselves. Don’t be too harsh on yourself when something doesn’t go your way.

I think there’s a lot to be said for that collegiate relationship of women – seek out supportive female colleagues. I also think that there are some good mentors to be found in men, especially those that have daughters.

My mother always told me to do my best. My mother always worked outside the home. When I look back at her life now, it must have been very hard for a young English bride to be on the other side of the world and seeking employment in a new country where it mattered that you were married. I’m proud of all that she achieved.


We met Catherine at Melbourne wonder Punch Lane, one evening. Catherine is a quiet, considered, powerhouse of a woman, epitomising the advice offered in her interview; speaking with substance, whilst impeccably dressed in what is obviously her own signature style.   She has been devoted to her profession for so many years. Her knowledge and involvement in the industry has undoubtedly shaped Melbourne today and will continue to be formative in the industry for years to come. We feel so privileged to meet people like Catherine who made a name for themselves in the industry in a time when the discussion around equality and diversity was but a small, pulled thread in the social fabric of the western world. Where sacrifices were greater and the road less traveled. We wish Catherine all the best for the rest of 2018!

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