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Re-energising Canberra’s heart

Catherine Carter

Every city needs a heart. It needs a central core that pulses with excitement and energy, captures the imagination and inspires. Can we honestly say that our civic centre achieves this?

Any visitor to Civic can see that it is a place of great potential – and of missed opportunity. While the Canberra Centre hums with life, many of the buildings around City Walk and Garema Place are drab and down-at-heel. Vacant shops, faded signage and ‘for lease’ signs are visible proof that we must invest more in our city centre.

garema

Photo taken by bc_harry from Panoramio on Creative Commons.

This isn’t something unique to Canberra; traditional high street retail and pedestrian strips are struggling as people flock to malls. CBDs of many large cities are largely ghost-towns on weekends as people stay in their local hamlets or flock to entertainment hubs.

But a number of cities are finding creative ways to help people fall in love with their CBDs. Newcastle and Geelong, for example, are investing in pop-up retailing, food trucks and shopfront revitalisation programs that are fast to establish and don’t cost a fortune. They also enable people to test ideas to see what works. You only need to walk down Lonsdale Street to see this success of this approach.

Part of our challenge is the size of the CBD. At 116 hectares in total, the 1.5 kilometre walk from the Canberra Centre to the lake is something that requires a ‘packed lunch’. But size also equals opportunity. Each day, 38,000 office workers throng to the CBD, while a further 30,000 people head for ANU.

The ACT Government has some good plans to get more people living in Civic, ensure better connections across the city and to the lake, and to create a modern, dynamic built environment. But much more needs to be done, and action needs to be taken now.

While most people may not think much about Canberra’s office market, it has a huge impact on the vibrancy of our CBD. Currently, 12 per cent of our CBD office space lies vacant. This isn’t just a problem for commercial property owners. It is a problem for anyone who wants Civic to be a great place. Other cities have provided incentives to building owners and investors to convert ageing offices into new apartments and hotels. We can do this too.

The price of doing nothing is great – empty streets, boring building façades and tired infrastructure.

Next week the Property Council will bring together people with an interest in Civic – from planners and public servants, retailers and restaurateurs to building owners, designers and artists – to explore how we create new landmark addresses, attract more residents into the CBD and rejuvenate our tired existing buildings. Canberrans are clever and creative, and together we can come up with a plan to re-energise our city’s heart.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia

 

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Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a 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 Indigo Consulting Australia where she provides 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, and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017.

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