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Planning our way to Paris

Catherine Carter

Last week, in a light-hearted article I wondered why Civic didn’t look like Paris and I asked a handful of people in the property industry to tell me why.

Their answers were illuminating. Any application submitted to build a development straight from a Parisian streetscape would be rejected, they argued, because it would fail to satisfy many of the rules in the Territory Plan – cafés and charming street signs, balconies and narrow streets would all be no-nos.

So this week I thought I’d ask some planners a simple question: what is wrong with this picture?

I asked these planning professionals to assess the picture as if it was a development proposal for City Walk, with an active ground floor of retail and restaurant space, and residential dwellings above. What are the obstacles to us achieving this type of development? And where do the opportunities lie?

Catherine Townsend is a Director at Townsend + Associates Architects. As the ACT Government Architect, Catherine provides independent design advice to Territory on architecture, urban design and planning for both major government projects and private proposals.

Catherine says what delights us about this streetscape is the “engaging mismatch of elements” that come together to make a sum that is greater than the parts. But the overall ‘language’ of the built form is consistent – the quality of the materials, the detailing, the expression of the roof and the characterful elements like chimneys, for example.

Catherine Townsend

Many of the visually intrusive elements of modern life are missing from the image.

“The street is narrow but sufficient for deliveries, waste removal and emergency services access. There is not a soupçon of official or municipal signage. There are no rubbish bins, the street and verge are paved in quality materials, and the trees are appropriate. The only intrusion of this century into the image are the cars.”

Catherine says the small site footprints mean the buildings are “squashed cheek by jowl”, which leads to “characterful developments”. The negatives of this? It’s virtually impossible to have vehicle-accessible basements, and it is structurally impossible to consolidate apartments.

The principal element in this streetscape is scale. “No one building has the opportunity to dominate the others, so no single building expression becomes tiresome, but instead a charming melange.”

The apartment windows are large and beautifully proportioned and ceiling heights are “very generous” – up to 50 percent higher than what we typically roll out here. “The National Construction Code identifies minimum criteria and most offerings in Canberra delight in exploring the nuance of minimum,” Catherine says wryly.

The tiny Parisian balconies are unencumbered by air-conditioning condensers, but the shared walls and low ratio of glass enhance thermal efficiency, making the apartments cheaper to heat and cool. “But they wouldn’t meet the ACT’s solar access requirements,” Catherine adds.

There are many other reasons why this picture of Paris couldn’t happen in Civic, and Nichelle Jackson, an Associate Director with Canberra Town Planning, provides insight into some of them.

Nichelle Jackson

Nichelle points to the paving materials, public light fixtures and tree species probably wouldn’t meet the design standards set by Transport Canberra and City Services. The upper levels of the buildings aren’t set back the appropriate distance to meet the City Precinct Code and the buildings don’t provide pedestrian shelter at ground level.

The charming signs and building light along the Paris street “would encroach on Territory land – so they would need an encroachment license,” Nichelle says.

“The size and location of the outdoor seating areas may not provide sufficient pedestrian access or access to public infrastructure,” Nichelle explains.

“And I’m not sure if the proximity of the outdoor areas to residential dwellings would be able to meet noise management requirements. The building would need to incorporate treatments to mitigate noise.”

Nichelle also points to the lack of bike racks, and questions whether the space is compliant with access and mobility standards. And “forget getting a waste truck down that street – there’s not enough clearance for height and truck turning areas”.

It’s clear that Canberra’s city-building agenda is weighed down by a lot of rules.

Malcolm Snow, Chief Executive Officer of the City Renewal Authority, says the cities people remember often have simple rules.

“You could take the view that Paris is Paris because there are very few planning rules. There are absolute rules – and some things are done in a certain way – but this hasn’t stifled the opportunity for people to do things differently and even entrepreneurially.

“I think it’s about taking some more creative risks. There must be some absolute rules that everyone respects, but too many rules suck the life out of places. The cities we probably all gravitate to have quirky types of experiences. They are great places to explore and get lost in, because of the way people use the public spaces.”

Malcolm Snow

Malcolm is determined to look for simple solutions to some of the most intractable problems in Canberra’s city centre. Our “one size fits all” approach to vehicles that collect garbage is “crazy” he says. “Why do they need to be the same size for Fyshwick as for laneways?”

After years of overflowing hoppers around the Sydney and Melbourne buildings, Malcolm and his team have brokered a smart solution. The way garbage is stored and collected at the Sydney and Melbourne buildings has been redesigned, with a single contractor reducing the number of large bins from 60 to six. This will mean more courtyard cafés and the laneway culture so many Canberrans crave.

Malcolm says kerbside cafés are another item on his to-do list. “Outdoor traders in Paris operate from very attractive, high-quality spaces, and this adds to the public experience of the realm.”

In Canberra, we have some good and bad examples of this, but Malcolm says Paris has “very clear rules” around kerbside presentation.

The City Renewal Authority is “placing a lot of emphasis on improving the quality and presentation of the public spaces in the city centre and on their activation,” Malcolm says.

Canberrans and Parisians are “wired differently” Malcolm says, and we can’t look past our “cultural imprinting” that means our cities will always look and feel different to those found elsewhere in the world.

“But we should be thinking about why the streets and spaces in places like Paris work so well. And given the challenges of densification, why we wouldn’t embrace some of those characteristics?”


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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