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Carpe diem for Civic Square

Catherine Carter

Times Square in New York has its billboards and buzzing 24/7 crowds.

Madrid’s Plaza Mayor is famous for its beautiful buildings, bronze statuary and bullfighting.

Nelson’s colossal column in London’s Trafalgar Square attracts legions of tourists and pigeons, as does Venice’s Piazza San Marco, once dubbed by Napoleon “the drawing room of Europe”.

The gardens and monuments in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo and the gothic spires and dreamy bridges of Prague’s Old Town Square have captured imaginations for centuries.

All these famous city squares have one thing in common: they are memorable.

But it will take more than a Spiegeltent and a gelato truck to transform Canberra’s Civic Square.

This is why the ACT’s City Renewal Authority has called for an action plan for the Civic arts and cultural precinct.

The precinct, centred on Civic Square, is currently home to the Canberra Theatre Centre and Playhouse, the Canberra Museum and Gallery, the ACT Legislative Assembly, a government office block and two surface car parks. One of the car parks has been earmarked for mixed-use development, while the other has been set aside for a future convention centre.

The current buildings, according to the tender documents by the Authority, are “low scale, coarse grain, with little opportunities for spillage or activation of Civic Square which is poorly used, in part, due to few active frontages”.

The man leading the City Renewal Authority, Malcolm Snow, says the precinct should be more than a “loose collection of buildings”. Instead, it should be the “epicentre of our cultural city”.

The reality right now is very different. While there are “destinations” – predominantly CMAG and the theatre – it isn’t a patch on precincts like Melbourne’s Federation Square, where cultural activity and businesses congregate around the “spiritual heart of the city”.

Malcolm Snow

An award-winning urban thinker and planner, Malcolm joined the Authority in January, following a stellar career in leadership roles with the National Capital Authority, City of Melbourne, consulting firm Urbis and South Bank Corporation in Brisbane.

He says Canberra needs to “lift our game” to entice more people to attend cultural events in the Civic Square precinct, and to enhance the experience of those that already do so.

“The experience is so shabby at the moment and doesn’t align with what we should expect as a city. If we get this vision right it could be one of the most powerful revitalisation catalysts for the city centre,” he says.

Both Malcolm and his colleague Kate Brennan, who sits on the board of the City Renewal Authority, point to Federation Square as an example that Civic Square could aspire to.

With bold architectural form and aspirations, Federation Square attracted its fair share of sceptics, but since opening in 2002, Federation Square has welcomed more than 100 million visitors. It is Victoria’s main tourist attraction and was recently named one of the top 10 public squares in the world.

Kate Brennan

Kate spent eight years as CEO of Federation Square, and says that Civic Square, just like Federation Square in the 1990s, is an “under-loved and under-utilised” space.

But the way people engage with culture and the arts is changing, Kate says, and this reflects a global trend away from more formal and structured spaces and experiences towards informal and spontaneous activities where the public domain, and precincts in particular, have become critical cultural platforms.

Kate is currently the Deputy Chair of the Gold Coast Cultural Precinct and Arts Centre Board, which is overseeing the development of HOTA, or Home of the Arts. Approximately $100 million of a $400 million master plan has already been committed to “recalibrate” the profile of the Gold Coast, and in March a new outdoor stage played host to Tim Minchin. The free concert launched an impressive outdoor program, and Kate says 35 percent of those who attended were from Brisbane.

“This is the sort of outcomes we were looking for,” she says.

Do we dare dream such possibilities for Civic Square?

Kate says the board doesn’t have a “fixed view” about the future of Civic Square, which is why it’s called for tender which is aimed at eliciting opinions and approaches to redevelop and transform the precinct and promote uses that contribute to it being vibrant and active. We’re in the “first phase of transformation” she says, adding “we’re open to all elements that might make it a genuinely dynamic and mixed-use environment”.

“We’re one of a long list of cities nationally and internationally who have identified that a cultural precinct can add so much, not just to tourism, but to jobs, innovation and opportunities across the economy.

“I think it’s a ‘seize the day’ opportunity for Canberra.”

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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