Big Day Masthead
Image: Martin Ollman

Finding our way, not losing it

Catherine Carter

“Why would you want to live all the way out there?”

That was what a friend’s grandparents were asked repeatedly when they moved to Turner. The year was 1943, and across the road from their small red-brick house were wide open fields.

Turner is one of Canberra’s best examples of the Garden City concept – a suburb laid out with wide nature strips and generously-proportioned roads.

In those days, the sing-song cries of the milko could be heard streets away, and the rabbitoh still drew a horse and cart around the suburb.

Long before the Tiny House movement was a trend, it was quite common to have three or even two bedroom houses on a 1,600 sqm block.

These houses weren’t designed for the harsh Canberra winters. There was no insulation, no one considered how orientation could make the most of the sun and only the smallest lozenges of light found their way through the windows. Wood stoves did little to relieve residents from the wind that whistled through the rooms, and icicles hung from the trees on frosty mornings.

There were no telephones or televisions, and few cars. Clothes were washed weekly in a copper and sitting around the wireless at night was a real treat. Sullivans Creek was still a source of fresh fish. Generous backyards with fruit orchards and market gardens were tended reverently, because without them many families would go hungry.

But that was then, and this is now.

In the intervening years, technology and time-saving devices did away with the copper and the ice chest, and most women began to work outside the home. Incomes expanded and house sizes too, while the families within them shrunk. The daily whirlwind of childcare drop-offs, early-morning meetings, after work drinks and gym sessions have made us a time poor lot in comparison to those living in 1943.

We want different things from Canberra than we did when the Garden City was taking shape.

Last week, in a Canberra Conversations public lecture former head of the National Capital Development Commission, Tony Powell, lamented the death of the Garden City. In his lecture, ‘Canberra’s Incipient Decline as a Living City and a National Capital’, Powell criticised everything from the Kingston Foreshore to the light rail.

“We are losing our way. The aim of ‘Building the Good City’ is going down the gurgler,” Powell said.

Meanwhile, in another article, columnist and architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly wondered whether “Canberra’s struggle to retrofit flavour [would] just become high-rise sprawl”. She worried about the demolition of “Canberra’s sweet mid-century modern, only to re-render it bigger, cruder, cheaper”.

This is not my experience of Canberra’s design direction. Every city must evolve and adapt to suit the lives of the people who call it home. And that is what we are doing in the nation’s capital.

While some people, just like those in 1943, want to spend their weekends digging in the veggie patch and mowing lawns, others want to spend their leisure hours catching up with friends for coffee and fossicking through markets. Some people want a big backyard for swings and a sandpit, others want a courtyard large enough to store a bike. We are now developing housing options that suit all these lifestyles, and our city is all the better for it.

I am no cheer squad for rampant development. There are some buildings around town that are just awful, and our approach to greenfield development needs a serious rethink if we are to create a truly sustainable city that addresses the ever-pressing need for low-carbon living.

But the changes we are making to Canberra have made it a more diverse and interesting city. There’s an optimism and energy around the place that is infectious. It feels like a city for makers and thinkers, for builders and creators, for both dreamers and doers.

It’s become a place that young people are proud to call home. In fact, many young people now say they feel that Canberra’s evolution is giving them permission to stay.

Reporting on Powell’s lecture, Canberra Times stalwart Ian Warden noted that the audience was made up “mostly of the Grey Disgruntled who remember (or think they do) a smaller, nicer, tidier Canberra”.

I don’t think we are losing that Canberra. Our city is not souring in a crush of soaring high-rise towers and concrete jungles. People who want a home with a garden will find plenty to choose from. We aren’t losing our ovals or our local shops, our green spaces aren’t being bulldozed. We aren’t losing our way. We are finding it.

Feature image: Martin Ollman

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up a boutique consulting firm, Indigo Consulting Australia, where she provides a range of specialist business and communication advisory services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author

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