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Light and Sound: the secrets to a 24-hour city

Catherine Carter

The ACT Government wants Canberra to become a 24-hour city. But that demands new approaches to the use of light and sound.

From flashing neon signs to 24-hour bars and clubs, cities are the worst places in the world for noise and light pollution.

As Canberra becomes denser, as more people move closer to Civic and into new urban precincts, and as more people are attracted to the best of buzzing city life, noise and light pollution are very real challenges that we must grapple with. This will inevitably require some compromises from residents. But it will also require clever technical approaches and new thinking from government.

Jamie Hladky, an acoustic consultant with WSP in Canberra, says the ACT’s current noise rules were developed around 20 years ago, “based on noise studies undertaken in a very different Canberra”.

Hladky says it’s only natural that an increase in density will result in some parts of town being noisier, and we need to evolve our thinking accordingly.

The WSP Canberra team

The WSP Canberra team. L-R Anthony Linard – Jacalyn Macfarlane – Rachel Thomson – Jamie Hladky

“The densification of any city will result in land use clashes that are normally seen as incompatible. There have been a few teething troubles in the fast-growing mixed-use precincts at Kingston Foreshore, NewActon and Braddon, and these have begun to really test the closeness of residential and entertainment uses,” he says.

Residents often don’t expect to hear music coming from bars at 3am – despite being keen to have those same bars on their doorsteps.

“Living within a short stroll from a wide selection of bars, clubs and cafes provides convenience, but isn’t going to be as quiet as a regular suburban street,” says Jacalyn Macfarlane, a graduate acoustic engineer with WSP.

“When people know entertainment precincts are noisier than typical suburban areas, they can make an informed living choice based on their lifestyle,” she says.

Hladky agrees that “managing the expectations” of new residents is important, but there are actions that the ACT Government can take before the next wave of precincts roll into town.

WSP is currently working with a number of local developers on precinct plans that include occasional live music events and the ongoing operation of pubs and bars, but also protect the amenity of residents.

“We’ll be running computer models to predict noise exposure and to identify those units that would benefit from closed balconies, high-performance glazing, or for parts of buildings to be reorientated. We could identify units that are potentially noisy, and explain this to potential buyers before construction even begins,” he says.

An example of city lighting

An example of city lighting

It makes commercial sense to consider acoustics in precinct design. Good separation between commercial and residential components of a building “could be as simple as including a level of car parking between the bars and the apartments”, he explains.

WSP is also working with the ACT Government on detailed noise studies in all five of the town centres to shape what Hladky calls “the next generation of noise controls”. This might involve changes to regulations or planning processes.

Hladky’s colleague Anthony Linard is a lighting designer. He says the right type of lighting can transform cities into “warm and inviting” spaces after dark, adds elements of interest and improve safety.

While Canberra’s public lighting is currently “purely a utilitarian tool”, reimagining our lighting as a “creative element” could help us create beautiful night-time spaces in the nation’s capital.

Linard was involved in the design of a lighting installation for the #BackyardExperiment pop-up in Garema Place last year. The installation included furniture and various creative landscape additions, while a lighting installation illuminated the ghostly trees in Garema Place, and threw mosaics of light on the ground. The experiment showed how small interventions like lighting can change people’s behaviour and bring us together.

“The number of people using the space doubled by day and almost tripled by night,” Linard explains.

“This demonstrated so clearly that a beautiful public realm including creative lighting design can make our public spaces so much more appealing to people. We have proof that it works!”

An example of city lighting

An example of city lighting

Rachel Thomson, a graduate lighting engineer with WSP, says lighting can “enhance the prestige of place”.

It creates a “moment, focus or journey”, she says – something that is currently missing in Canberra’s heart.

“Improving not only the quality of lighting, but the quality of how the lighting is designed and integrated with subtle thoughtfulness of approach will improve Civics’ public realm experience. In turn, a livelier, more vibrant city heart will support greater density throughout the city,” she says.

Linard points to European cities which he says “tend to be beautifully illuminated” and says “there’s no reason why Canberra can’t have a lit environment the equal of anywhere in the world”.

Again, though, current design standards need to be relaxed, as there is currently no allowance to design creative lighting under the current rules.

“While it makes a lot of sense to standardise and simplify lighting across 99 per cent of the city, we shouldn’t dismiss the importance of our city and town centres, where bespoke lighting treatments can make such a difference,” Linard says.

From the new gardens to the National Arboretum and the upgrade of the Carillon to the extraordinary Enlighten, it’s clear the right type of lighting and good acoustic design can enhance both resident and visitor experience alike.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but there’s no doubt that done well, we will see the evolution of Canberra into a vibrant, 24-hour city we can all be proud of.

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 retains an interest and focus on urban environments, community building, and diversity. She provides a range of specialist business and communication advisory services to a number of organisations including development and construction companies, law firms, and the Canberra Glassworks, and sits on a several boards including Music for Canberra, the National Association of Women in Construction ACT Chapter Council and the Ministerial Advisory Council on Women. 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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