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What’s Canberra’s formula for Goldilocks density?

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Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Goldilocks density’?

It captures the notion of perfect density: not too high, nor too low, but just right.

Goldilocks density is “dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch,” international architect and editor for design at Treehugger.com Lloyd Alter explains.

In Lloyd’s mind, it means a city that is dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. A city “dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity”.

As Canberra grows – and the latest population projections suggest our city will be home to half a million people in 10 years’ time – we need to put our heads together to create our own formula for Goldilocks density.

Urban planners and designers have been thinking about good density for decades. Urbanist Jan Gehl argues that the best cities balance buildings at the ‘human scale’ with careful consideration of the “space between the buildings”.

Jane Jacobs, an urban writer and activist who championed community-based approaches to planning, once famously argued that the safest streets were “intricate sidewalk ballet”, as density brought with it a “constant succession of eyes”.

And researchers at Oxford University and the University of Hong Kong have recently examined density from a health perspective, finding that the optimum density for healthy living was more than 32 homes per hectare. (In comparison, according to a technical report into Canberra’s land use conducted in 2010, Kingston is roughly 36 dwellings per hectare, Gungahlin 13 and Weston just five.)

Density doesn’t immediately imply high rise, Nichelle Jackson (pictured), an Associate Director with Canberra Town Planning, tells me. “The great cities of the world don’t just have density – they have a diversity of density,” she explains.

“We need more than single houses on big blocks and high rises – we need everything in between.”

Canberra isn’t alone in grappling with the challenges of growth. Australia has grown by 3.75 million people in the last decade, which is the equivalent to building the homes and infrastructure for a new city the size of Canberra each year.

But while other cities are sticking out the “we’re full” sign, Canberra is embracing the opportunities of growth. Our economy is strong, city-shaping projects are coming to fruition, and optimism is in air.

While Nichelle concedes that many people see it as “un-Canberran” to densify, it is actually in harmony with the vision laid out by Walter and Marion Griffin. She points to architect Colin Stewart’s thinking on the topic. In a paper published in 2008, but which is still much admired today, Colin argues that the Griffin vision was “largely based on principles of grand boulevards with public transport, high-density development, mixed-use, a walkable scale and integration with the natural landscape”.

However major growth in the 20th century focused on ‘suburbanism’ with the car as the primary means of transport. As we built expressways and parkways to accommodate cars, the ‘Y’ plan emerged. Colin and many other urban planners around Canberra argue that our current city-building projects simply revisit the original intentions of the Griffins – and that means greater density.

Looking ahead, the Australian Bureau of Statistics projections peg our population at anywhere between 612,000 and 939,000 residents in 2066.

“Growth is inevitable. If we try to ignore it, we’ll end up with bad growth. But if we work together to try to shape it, we’ll get sustainable growth,” Nichelle adds.

Clever density – Goldilocks density – can only occur when the community has certainty, Nichelle adds. “Strategic planning ensures people don’t get surprised – they can see what the development will look like in their neighbourhood and be part of the conversation.”

Nichelle likes Lloyd Alter’s definition of Goldilocks density, but adds a few non-negotiables. “In Canberra, Goldilocks density means being within walking distance to café culture but just a short drive away from wide open space. It means balancing gardens with galleries, playgrounds with pop-up shops.”

“It supports a melting pot of people who are prized for their individuality and celebrated for their contribution to the community. And it supports a rich built environment that is ever-evolving but at the same time timelessly Canberran,” Nichelle concludes.

What does Goldilocks density mean to you?

Feature image: Rohan Thomson

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