Cartier Masthead Final Weeks

Democratising city design

Catherine Carter

I remember reading once that Florence only flourished as a city of dazzling architecture because it was run by an autocrat.

City-building in the cradle of the Renaissance was in the hands of a few powerful families and half a dozen artisan guilds. Technological and transport limitations played a part in driving uniformity of design, restricting architectural expression to local materials, similar shapes and heights, for example. But ultimately, places like Florence and nearby Siena were shaped by the style and sensibilities of a fortunate few. Everyone else had to make do.

Democracy isn’t great for design. As starchitect Frank Gehry says: “It means the guy next door can do what he wants, and it creates a collision of thinking. In cities, that means people build whatever they want. I think the best thing is to have a benevolent dictator — who has taste!”

But we do live in a democracy, and any admiration of the autocratic in architecture is pointless. We must accommodate a far wider array of tastes than the Medicis would ever have countenanced.

This may not be such a bad thing, and a recent trip to Melbourne reminded me how the beautiful and ugly can coexist in absolute harmony. There is a uniformity to Melbourne, found in its Hoddle Grid and CBD-wide blue stone paving, but that only provides a consistent backdrop for a canvas on which chaos and idiosyncrasy collide.

The buildings bump up against each other, 1920s art deco charm against 1960s brutalist style. Street art, scrawled along the laneway walls, sits comfortably alongside shops selling designer handbags and $100 candles. Diners, nursing bowls of noodles, take their seat outside on a wall in the sunshine. One café with a million-dollar designer fit out sits opposite a bar replete with rusty drums and milk crates. This is what democratic design looks like.

It feels like the planners and policy-makers of Melbourne have given everyone permission to express their creativity in wonderful and whimsical ways. And in an environment where the quirky and chaotic rule, there isn’t a café or shopfront anywhere along Melbourne’s shopping strip that can afford to be bland or boring. Why would anyone choose beige when they can have brilliant?

In this context, the ACT Government’s plan to democratise city planning is not only important, but essential. Over the next few weeks, the ACT Government will ask 15,000 Canberra households a simple question: how will Canberra look in 2040?

Building a city where everyone belongs means sparking a new conversation about design. And it means encouraging everyone to have their say. People will be asked for their thoughts on zoning and city planning, the current rules around residential housing and how they’d like to see medium density development evolve.

The latest trend in planning is to host “hacks” which bring together a bunch of people in the city-building business to create better places for people. But in Canberra, we are presented with an opportunity to host a much more radical hack.

So, tell me, how does a chef move about our city and what could we do to improve that experience? What can a panel beater or potter teach us about the way our city is designed? What insights does a social worker or a jewellery maker have to share? Moving well beyond the ‘usual suspects’ in planning and policy-making will uncover fresh insights into the way our city must evolve. And it will help us to lay down the foundations for the chaos of a modern, democratic city.

We will know the result of the consultation in June, when a report is presented to the minister with recommendations. In the meantime, if you are a chef or a social worker, a panel beater or a potter, what do you think about our city?


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

  • Meagan Higgins

    Interesting – I facilitated a couple of similar “free” planning sessions back in 2011. To assist these sessions we brought a leader in new urbanism to provide some principles and thoughts to the group of community members who had volunteered to participate. After a couple of hours of hands on planning work using paper maps and coloured M&M’s indicating various zoning and uses, the lesson learned by the community was …planning is hard.

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