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Restarting Civic’s failing heart…

Catherine Carter

Will you join a coalition of the willing for Civic?

Three hundred Canberrans came together last week to explore how we restart Canberra’s failing heart.

The Transforming Canberra’s CBD workshop, hosted by the Property Council of Australia, Canberra CBD Limited and the Canberra Business Chamber, brought together some of Australia’s greatest architects and urban planners, designers and dreamers to share their thoughts on how to breathe new life into our tired city centre.

And the situation is serious.

As Canberra CBD’s Limited’s CEO Jane Easthope reminded us, street level vacancy has risen from 9.5 per cent to a whopping 14 per cent in the last two years. At the same time, the CBD’s office vacancy rate is the second highest in the country.

The CEO of Melbourne’s Federation Square for nearly eight years, Kate Brennan oversaw an events and activities schedule that generated 10 million annual visits to the precinct.

Kate warned the audience that there is “no silver bullet to developing a great place – there is no one single great act. Instead, it will be a series of complementary acts.”

But she also said it was clear that there was “no shortage of energisers in Canberra” from individual entrepreneurs to collective industry associations, as well as “lots of creative people doing interesting work” and a high level of participants in cultural activities.

For Dan Stewart, the former Coordinator-General for Urban Renewal in the ACT and now Director of Elton Consulting, Canberra is “trying to have a party in too many rooms” and it’s time to “drag it back into the front room” of Civic.

Dan thinks we need to “look much harder at adaptive reuse” and to consider the short- and medium-term opportunities that older buildings present for business incubation, hubs of creativity and a strategy to get more workers into Civic “looking for places to buy lunch”.

Professor Leon van Schaik observed that, “walking around Canberra’s CBD, it’s very hard to see any architecture which reflects the local culture”.

Professor of Architecture at RMIT University, Leon has driven new levels of support for architecture in Melbourne, resulting in some distinguished contemporary buildings.

Our challenge is to create an “authentic Canberra”, Leon argued.

But how?

“By taking the ‘bush capital’ as the centre of authenticity and driving a notion of bush architecture through everything Canberra does,” he explained. And we must demand that our architects “discover the poetics of this place” – and not continue to import ideas on “graph paper than could be built anywhere on earth.”

Leon inspired the audience to rethink the approach to the Sydney and Melbourne buildings. We could fix them up, “ennoble” them and then add “something uncompromisingly of the moment”.

Dorte Ekelund, Director-General of the ACT Government’s Environment and Planning Directorate, is looking at how to create a connected city, and one that puts people, not vehicles, first.

“We’ve long talked about the need to enhance the Northbourne corridor as a gateway to the city centre. How do we make it clear people have arrived at the city centre?” Dorte says, adding that Canberra will have a ‘City and Northbourne Urban Renewal Strategy’ by end of the year.

Futurist and economist Brian Haratsis is strategic advisor for the property sector, through his business MacroPlan Australia.

He said Canberra can no longer rely on the public sector to drive growth, and that two realms of jobs will create the best opportunities to revitalise Civic: tourism and international students.

“For every tourism job you create, and for every international student job, you create three population-driven jobs – which is why it’s so significant that Canberra gets into these export markets,” Brian said.

Tourism is an “entrepreneurial and democratic sector” that creates jobs of all levels and provides many opportunities for small businesses, but “Canberra’s international tourism is not growing” and interstate visitor traffic has waned.

We need to understand Canberra’s “tourism narrative”, Brian said. “Why do Asian tourists want to come to Canberra? It’s a good question.

“In Melbourne, we know Chinese tourists come for the Queen Victoria Markets, Federation Square and the Crown Casino. One thing that isn’t well known is that Chinese tourism is capital city-centric. But if these tourists came to Canberra, what would they do when they got here?”

Brian encouraged the audience to “set a target” to boost tourism from 170,000 to 340,000 people a year, and “ask yourselves what would you need to do from a place-making perspective” to make this happen?

International students provides another unique opportunity, so we must ask ourselves “how can we help ANU by making Canberra more attractive to international students? What are the place making implications?”

Malcolm Snow, Chief Executive of the National Capital Authority, wondered whether Canberra has moved past its reputation as a city without a soul. What is our “distinctive, memorable personality”?

He also asked the audience to consider whether Canberra’s current organisational and governance arrangements “up to the revitalisation challenge?”

Malcolm says we need to think about the ‘urban software’ – the institutional, organisational and human factors – as well as the city’s ‘hardware’.

And we also need a “coalition of the willing and able” with government, business and community working together to demonstrate “not just the value but the power of collective urban leadership with a big injection of a can do attitude”.

The overarching theme of the forum was clear: we need a champion – or champions.

“How do we maintain the momentum when we walk out of the room?” Kate Brennan asked. “Through champions for change.”

“We’ve got a lot of advocates, but advocates talk a lot. Champions do, which is what we need,” Dan Stewart said.

“We don’t have a champion – but perhaps we have multiple champions,” Dan added.

We need a Boris Johnson or a Michael Bloomberg – a champion who acts, as Malcolm Snow says, “as a lightning rod for change”.

And we need to bring together “not just the usual suspects”, but the sciences, arts, humanities and not-for-profits to ask: what type of city do we want?

Summing up, Glenn Keyes, Chairman of the Canberra Business Chamber, had the room in stitches when he reminded us that the “acres of concrete in Garema Place” was evidence that “we’re not afraid of failure and we should give it another go until we get it right”.

So, what is the next step? We must build a shared value model through cooperation. Sounds simple enough, but without the “coalition of the willing”, it won’t happen.

But, as Glenn Keyes says, unless we “compromise, create and innovate we’ll all be sitting here in three years’ time”. And none of the people in the room want that.

So, will you join a coalition of the willing for Civic?

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Catherine is intensely interested in how Canberrans can work together to create an amazing city, and how our built environment can provide the places our community needs to flourish. The mother of twins, Catherine is committed to diversity, and supporting and promoting the careers of women. She was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women's ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author

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