GEOCON High Society Masthead

We are where we live

Catherine Carter

Many people fall for the myth that the best communities happen organically.

‘You can’t create community’, goes the train of thought, because you can’t build people. You can only construct buildings. But, as Winston Churchill once wisely observed, “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

I often hear people cite Braddon as an example of an organic community – one which naturally evolved without any intervention before the hipsters turned up.

But this is not true.

Certainly in years gone by a few brave souls saw Braddon’s potential and were among the first to open new cafes or boutiques, enticed by cheap rents and the proximity to Civic. But Braddon remained predominantly a collection of car yards and outdoor adventure retailers before its revitalisation was kick-started by the ACT Government’s decision to lift building height limits and relax planning controls. This decision made it economically viable for building owners to repurpose and rebuild.

This decision coincided with Nik Bulum’s return from Melbourne. He’d spent a decade designing fashion and enjoying the cosmopolitan streets of Melbourne, only to find his hometown bland and boring. With two of his family’s long-held buildings on Lonsdale Street languishing empty, Nik saw the opportunity create a buzz in the area over the short term while development applications sat with the ACT Government. The Lonsdale Street Traders opened its doors, providing a temporary space for vibrant creative businesses to start without high rent costs.

Many of these start-up businesses have thrived. Think florist Moxom and Whitney, which grew and grew, so that when the Lonsdale Street Traders shut up shop, it was able to move to a permanent space in the building across the road. Now, Nik has done it again at the Hamlet, and a new breed of entrepreneurs are getting their start while Braddon continues to evolve.

NewActon, perhaps one of Australia’s most dynamic precincts, also busts the myth of organically growing communities. Molonglo Group had a very deliberate strategy for building community in a place that was once a windswept and forgotten corner of the city. The Efkarpidis family were determined to create a community that was “anything but ordinary” and focused on the spaces in between the buildings as much as the buildings themselves.

There are surprises around every corner, and NewActon blends old and new to create not just a precinct, but an experience. The hotels aren’t just for hotel guests, and the commercial buildings aren’t solely for office workers. The precinct encourages everyone to enjoy the spaces – from five star travellers to office workers, residents to restaurant goers, cyclists to cinema buffs.

Despite their different approaches, both locations have achieved a similar outcome – multi-generational, diverse neighbourhoods which not just places, but destinations.

Both Braddon and NewActon spark chance meetings, casual encounters and incidental interactions – the very things that create a sense of community.

We all inherently understand this. It’s nodding to the neighbour as we head off to work, bumping into a friend in the supermarket aisles, or chatting with the other parents on the soccer side-lines that make us feel part of something bigger than just us. And it’s our built environment that provides the places for these incidental interactions to occur.

It seems to me that in all of our aspirations for the future of our city, building a strong community ought to be right on top of the list. Because it’s being part of a community that makes this a good place to live.

What do you think?


Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy 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. More about the Author

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