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Pumping blood to the city’s heart

Catherine Carter

Taken in the early 1960s, a happy snap in black and white captures a barely recognisable Garema Place.

In the foreground, a group of women with children gathered at their skirts stop to chat. Passers-by gaze into sparkling shop windows. Men in three piece suits walk briskly along the bustling sidewalk. There’s not a faded ‘for lease’ sign in sight.

Old Civic

I’ve lived in Canberra for a long time, and no other topic on the urban planning agenda musters as much ire and irritation as the question of what can be done with Civic.

It’s been called a concrete jungle, a tumbleweed farm and a wasteland. Attempts to kick-start our failing heart—from Christmas lights to camel rides, ice skating rinks to dachshund races—have mostly fallen flat.

Revitalising our city centre is essential for Canberra’s growth as an attractive, competitive city in the 21st Century economy. Canberra’s citizens also need a great city centre that they can be proud of.

Undoubtedly, the bright lights of the Canberra Centre have lured people away from Garema Place. But the Canberra Centre is not going anywhere—and nor should we want it to. A trip to any other capital city in Australia will confirm that we have a first-class mall in our city centre—one which is a pleasant experience in all weather.

Removing the road that ran down the middle of the city also made 
it harder for people to swing by Garema Place. While pedestrians can walk almost the entire length of the city without having to cross any roads with cars, sadly they often choose not to. Why? Because City Walk is largely devoid of life.

But the real problem is far greater than a road or a large shopping mall. We currently have no real vision and no master plan for our
 city centre. Petty rules and a range of obstacles have made redevelopment difficult—from waste management policies that make it impossible for new cafes and restaurants to enliven empty corners to a tax regime that makes it expensive to redevelop.

So, what is the solution?

In March, the ACT Government announced its intention to establish a City Renewal Authority to drive development of the Northbourne Avenue, Civic and West Basin precinct. This could be our biggest chance to revive our failing heart.

The new authority commenced on 1 July, and Chief Minister Andrew Barr says “planning for the precinct’s future will be a priority”.

Canberrans can expect a greater emphasis on “design-led, people focused urban renewal of Canberra’s city centre”, Barr says, “basically filling the precinct with places people want to spend time in”.

“More residents, more businesses, new buildings and better public spaces” throughout the city centre will bring more life to Garema Place, he says.

This seems like a good start. But we need some ‘quick wins’ to re-build people’s confidence in our city centre.

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Jane Easthope, chief executive
 officer of In the City Canberra—the organisation tasked with administering the Canberra City Centre Marketing and Improvements Grant—says the quickest win is to look after our existing infrastructure. She says that currently much of our city centre is broken and dirty and “not worthy of a selfie at any time of the day or night”.

Improving existing infrastructure will be a priority for the new authority according to Barr. “The City Renewal Authority will work to improve public spaces within the whole precinct, including the city centre. This will mean improvements to streets, footpaths, parks and buildings,” he promises.

Other city builders have suggested that a quick win may be a trial shareway 
in City Walk, in a similar style to that found in Bunda Street.

This would simply reinstate the original design. City Walk was only created in the 1970s as part of a growing trend around the world that has since been rethought.

Rebecca Gallacher, a director with Knight Frank Town Planning, says the controlled reintroduction of cars “would increase both activity and surveillance throughout the day”, while Kristi Jorgensen, chief executive officer of Purdon Planning, is also in favour of a “bold trial” opening up Garema Place as a shared way. She says we need to embark on this as a “city experiment”.

Another quick win is to embrace a flexible approach to planning.

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Louise Morris, a director of property and construction with Chamberlains Law Firm, a long-time property professional and self-described Canberra tragic, says policy barriers prevent the renewal of existing sites, but the biggest barrier is the ACT Government’s lack of flexibility.

“There are a great many opportunities for redevelopment which have been railroaded by the Territory’s policies regarding waste management,”
she says.

The activation of several sites with huge potential as sun-filled cafes or gorgeous boutiques has been blocked, Morris says, because of the need to provide “voluminous and over-sized waste rooms and collection areas”.

The question of how to better manage waste is currently being reviewed by the ACT Government. But in the meantime, this is just one of a range of unexpectedly tricky problems that confront both government and developers, and which stymies renewal of Civic.

“This is a tragedy for the city,” Morris says, and adds that we need to work together to be thought leaders that craft and shape a “dynamic city that our children will simply take for granted”.

Meanwhile, Easthope would like to see building owners given discounts “like a temporary tax discount to spruce-up or renew”. She says this would create more opportunities for our “foodie and nightlife entrepreneurs” and that “slowly City Walk will convert to Lygon or Church Street”.

Other radical ideas for Civic continue to emerge. A field of flowers as a reinvented Floriade breathing new life into our city centre each spring. An urban playground with water games, climbing ropes, swings, slides and a flying fox. A large-scale program to reposition ageing offices as apartments or incubators for budding entrepreneurs. A quality year-round events program, pop-up galleries, pocket parks and more urban greenery. The ideas are endless.

Meanwhile, another cold, grey winter is ending and with it, another season where our city’s heart lies dormant.

Photography: Martin Ollman

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Future for Winter 2017, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here

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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. More about the Author

  • Georgia and Trevor Morris

    Great article. As someone who remembers when Garema Place had traffic however, I disagree reintroducing it would benefit the area. It’s wonderful having a real pedestrian area in the middle of the city.

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