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Capturing the heart and soul of our city

Catherine Carter

When acclaimed Danish urban planner Jan Gehl visited Canberra a few years back, he warned that we were “trying to have a party in too many rooms”.

Many Canberrans agreed with Gehl – and looked at the faded for-lease signs, peeling paint and boarded up windows in Garema Place as evidence that something needed to be done about Civic’s dilapidated and ever-deteriorating state.

Shortly after Gehl’s visit, research into the minds and moods of Canberrans found that most of those surveyed felt that Civic lacked a heart and soul – but that it had the potential to be a vibrant place for people. Among the top priorities identified by the people of Canberra were the refurbishment of the Sydney and Melbourne buildings, the transformation of vacant offices into residential accommodation and more investment in Garema Place.

Nothing much seems to have happened since then.

When we look at other cities in Australia and around the world, it’s clear that city building isn’t something that can be left to chance. It can’t just happen organically – and it’s not just a matter of changing the street furniture or staging a few events. Cities need plans, and they need leaders to drive those plans.

Earlier this month, Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced that he would split the Land Development Agency in two new organisations. One will be focused on greenfields development, while the second will be a City Renewal Authority which will be established on 1 July to drive development of the Northbourne Avenue, Civic and West Basin precinct.

The sound of applause can be heard from across Canberra. And my cheers were some of the loudest. But before we get too excited, this new City Renewal Authority has a monumental task before it. The place to start is with ‘quick wins’.

The first quick win is surely Garema Place, and Kristi Jorgensen (pictured above), chief executive officer of Purdon Planning, says the only way we will make change is to “be bold”.

While she likes the “temporary installations and interventions” that encourage more people to check out Civic, Jorgensen she’s not convinced that small steps lead to permanent change.

“I would love to see some bolder projects trialled. Why not try opening up Garema Place into a shared way, returning low-speed cars to this area?”

While this idea has proved controversial in the past, Jorgensen says we need to define the success factors we are looking for in Civic and then embark on a “city experiment”.

“I simply say be bold – practical testing of an outcome and deciding not to pursue it is not a failure.”

Another quick win can be found in the classic colonnades of the Sydney and Melbourne buildings. Standing sentinel on either side of Northbourne Avenue as the gateway to Civic for close to a century, these buildings need to be refreshed or retired from active duty.

“The way the city and its avenues interact with these gems is really important,” says Natalie Coyles, an associate with Cox Architecture.

“As some of Canberra’s earliest civic buildings, their heritage aspects deserve to be cherished and celebrated.”

Coyles says the biggest challenge for the Sydney and Melbourne buildings is that they bridge the Northbourne corridor. When a busy road intersects them, creating a sense of place can be challenging. But with the light rail expected to terminate right at their doorsteps, we have a new opportunity to rethink the way we use the central verge between the buildings, Coyles says.

Natalie Coyles

Natalie Coyles

The complex ownership structures in these buildings has also proved an intractable problem. The only viable solution is for the ACT Government to provide owners – many of whom are small businesses that have operated from their premises for decades – with incentives to upgrade their assets.

There’s never been a better time to think about how we make better use of the beautiful internal courtyards (and sort out garbage collection), and to coordinate essential work like painting and paving to create places that convert light rail passengers into customers.

The third quick win is adapting some of the tired office buildings around Civic. Both Jorgensen and Coyles think bringing more residents into the city will restart Civic’s heart. So, let’s reimagine our rundown buildings as boutique residential developments, chic hotels or student digs.

Jorgensen says residential options in the heart of our city remain limited, but there are several “well-dimensioned city blocks” that would work as higher-density redevelopment opportunities.

Coyles agrees. “There is great development potential surrounding Garema Place and the city is ready for it,” she says.

“The scale of the place is perfect for a delightful city square. Fingers crossed the Civic Renewal Authority agrees that more residential development in the city will lead to a more vibrant heart.”

As our city grows towards a population of half a million people, we need to shape that growth so we can hold onto the best parts of our past as we pursue the opportunities of the future. We now have an agency to drive Canberra’s transformation, and we have a Chief Minister who is committed to championing urban renewal.

This is the single most transformative opportunity that Canberra has. But we need more champions – from academia and the arts, from small business and the not-for-profit sector. Will you join me in being one of them?

Feature image: Adam McGrath


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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