Do we really want our city to be like all others?

The National Capital Authority justifies its bold new plan for Civic on the grounds that to many people, Canberra is a bit of a disappointment. Visitors, we are told, expect more of their national capital than the rather luke-warm induction Civic is able to provide. It seems that Civic is insufficiently cosmopolitan and – even more damning – not vibrant enough.

I would have thought ‘cosmopolitan’ is an attribute of people, rather than of buildings. And I always get concerned when planning authorities start using the word ‘vibrant’. It usually means the locals are being softened up to accept new developments which are either (a) noisy (b) multi-storeyed or (c) likely to reduce the amount of easily-accessible parking. If you are very unlucky, it might mean all three.

So, what does the Authority have in mind? It seems (along with the Territory’s own planning authority) to have decided that Canberra needs a centre, or in other words, a central business district. To that end, office buildings and apartments are to spring up around City Hill (in the area between London Circuit and Vernon Circle); there will be cafes and apartments in tranquil West Basin, and new development along Constitution Avenue.

Now, when the greater part of Canberra was built by the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) between the 1960s and the 1980s, it was not supposed to have a centre. In fact, city centres were held to be responsible for many of the inconveniences of cities like Sydney and Melbourne. If everyone was trying to go to work in the one place, so the reasoning went, it was bound to cause problems. So Canberra got the ‘Y’ plan, which meant that employment growth was to be shared between the Town Centres. While Civic would undergo some redevelopment as Canberra’s population increased, the NCDC considered that the infrastructure costs of more centralisation would be too high.

Since self-government, this thinking has gradually been abandoned. Government departments have been migrating from Barton to Civic over the last 15 years, and more, it would seem, are about to follow. Why the Barton office area remains spectacularly un-dense, while Civic goes totally in the opposite direction, is something of a mystery.

The National Capital Authority, which has planning control over key parts of Civic, invokes the aura of Walter Burleigh Griffin to justify its planned changes. It has certainly done a great deal of detailed work to determine what the great man might have wanted. But there is much selectivity in the interpretation. Griffin and his wife Marion were above all landscape architects, and their plans for the official parts of Canberra are somewhat monumental and forbidding.

It is just as well, for example, that the Gothic-style building they imagined for the Capitol (the site of the present Parliament House) was never built. In any case, the

proponents of the now-superseded Y plan could just as easily claim legitimacy from Griffin, who admired Canberra’s space, light and tranquillity, and clearly favoured low density when it came to residential living.

Planning, as with every other area of public policy, is a matter of balancing values, and I accept that, in the eyes of many people, a low-density city is not all that exciting. There are parks and playgrounds and neighbourhoods instead of apartments. There are hardware stores and supermarkets instead of cafes. There are ground-level carparks which are actually very convenient for doing the shopping, but in the new Canberra represent wasted commercial opportunities.

So, whose Canberra is it? A low-key, low-density city suits families, but not the twenty-somethings and the DINKS who want more excitement. And visitors, we are told, want Canberra to have a centre, lest in looking for one, they disappear into a roundabout, never to be seen again. Nor must we forget the Commonwealth’s interests in the city. The present Minister for Territories is reputed to be very keen to have powerboats on the lake.

If change is inevitable, it would seem that grumpy middle-aged women like me will just have to get used to it. And I have to acknowledge that the NCA has gone to a great deal of trouble to package its plans, and to explain them to us. But as the NCA’s chief planner has said, the planning authorities, whether it is the Commonwealth’s authority or the ACT government’s one, can only set frameworks. The market does the rest.

And there’s the rub. Because what the planners portray in their promotional pictures and what the market actually delivers, are often two entirely different things. Somehow, the buildings are taller and more obtrusive, and the open space around them much less, than anyone expected when the public consultation phase was in progress. Somehow the promised vibrancy ends up making Canberra look more and more like everywhere else.

There are other costs, as well. It may be many years before the population to be catered for in the city centre builds up to the levels envisaged by the planners. But when it does, the stresses on public transport and the road network (both largely ACT government responsibilities) will be considerable.

At a personal level, do Canberrans really want to give up the convenience that the car-based, decentralised city offers us? I am not sure that we do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *