Perils of the vertical village

It seems that Canberrans are taking to apartment living. There are apartment blocks, either newly built or going-up, in Belconnen, Civic, Woden and in other locations such as Kingston. The real estate industry says the market can’t get enough of this kind of housing. But what’s the place of high-rise (let’s say, more than 15 storeys) in the mix?

Some see high-rise as the epitome of urban living. Others say it is all right in its place. Others say it has no place in a city where, traditionally, residential living has been low- to medium-rise.
Nowhere are the problems better exemplified than in Woden Town Centre. The original town centre, as laid out by the National Capital Development Commission in the 1960s and 1970s, featured a cluster of office buildings on the northern side, a mall and bus interchange to the south-east, and a sprinkling of clubs on the perimeter. Much of the rest of the area was taken up with car parks.

Since then, there has been a good deal of change, particularly to the ageing office stock. But the car parks remain, and these are tempting sites for new development. The ACT Government’s Land Development Agency (the LDA) has ambitious plans for the area known as Woden 9 (currently the site of a car park on the western side of the town centre). The LDA has applied for planning permission for three buildings on the site – one of 17 storeys, one of 21 storeys and one of 29 storeys. Each of the buildings is not only tall, but bulky. If they are all built, the development will contain more than 600 apartments and house more than a thousand people.

The LDA is a versatile agency: in fact, it should be renamed the multi-function agency. It is part real-estate agency; part developer and part (de facto) planner. Within the overall strategy determined by government, it is responsible for determining which bits of undeveloped land are to be released, when they are to be released and, either in partnership with developers or on its own, it designs the subdivision that effectively determines what goes where.

The LDA’s objectives include generating revenue for the government from land sales, increasing the supply of affordable housing and, to quote from its statement of intent, ”to deliver quality and sustainable development, including public realm and community development”. It’s quite a list. The LDA is also supposed to shift the supply of new housing in Canberra towards higher density, which (in theory at least) helps meet the first two objectives.

New suburbs, like Molonglo, offer some opportunities to house more people. But if it is density that you want, high rise seems the obvious way to go. The problem is that just when it is most needed, the planning system is faltering. ACTPLA produced a master plan for Woden Town Centre which was released in 2004, and there was extensive community involvement in the exercise.

The plan (still available on ACTPLA’s website) recognised the compact nature of the town centre, the need for an overall strategy that served a wide range of interests, and (not least) the fact that changes were needed to the internal street pattern to deal with congestion. Since then, the master plan has been sidelined. The public realm has been all but ignored.
Developments are approved on an ad hoc basis, and with the Territory Plan allowing unlimited heights in the town centre, and the extra wriggle-room provided by the merit track (which allows for more trade-offs in the application of the building codes), almost anything goes.

The LDA has done a powerful job in selling the Woden 9 concept. Those expressing concern about the scale of the proposed buildings have been derided as being ”scared of heights”.

I wonder how many of the critics have actually taken the trouble to look at the mass of documents contained in the development application and, rather than being seduced by the three-dimensional views provided by the LDA, have actually visited the site, and imagined the buildings as they will appear from ground-level and from the small community park nominally located to the south of the development.

Tall, bulky buildings cast a big shadow at the winter solstice, and in Canberra’s cold climate, when you lose the sun, you lose everything. There are social implications, too. Few people see the apartments as being affordable. The idea of the vertical village sounds compelling, until you start to think through what it actually means. How will the communal areas on every third floor actually work? Most bodies corporate struggle with far more basic management tasks. How will they handle this kind of challenge?

Tower blocks with transient populations do not help to create communities. If the buildings do not work well, they rapidly turn into ghettoes. It’s easy to confuse higher densities with greater liveliness. Human beings are fickle creatures, and what makes one area attractive and another much less so is very hard to predict.

One thing seems clear, though. Having a great many people living in the vicinity does not necessarily do the trick. Looking around Canberra’s inner south, you would have to say that Manuka is easily the most popular place to go at just about any time in the daytime or evening. Yet there is not an apartment block in sight.
So far, changes within the main town centre area do not inspire confidence. Politicians think that most people don’t care what happens outside their own street, but in fact many do. Few find the 20-storey SkyPlaza tower a pleasing sight.

The CentraPlaza building, which runs down the spine of the town centre area to the north of the library, replaced a heritage-listed canteen building which was demolished to make way for it.

The area around CentraPlaza is lively twice a day, when people leave it and when people enter it. Otherwise – nothing. If the development is approved, the LDA will engage with the private sector in an attempt to have it built. The site may be auctioned or (a less desirable outcome) will become the subject of a joint development, to which the LDA (aka ACT taxpayers) will not only contribute infrastructure costs but also, of course, the value of the land.

Whatever happens in the town centre, Woden 9 raises important questions about the kind of city Canberra wants to be. Development decisions are not like budgets – projections which may or may not be realised. The built environment is, literally, public policy in concrete form. We need to think carefully where high rise is taking us.

Jenny Stewart is professor of public policy in the University of NSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy. She also edits a web-journal at


First appeared in the Canberra Times – click for link: 

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