Cartier Masthead Final Weeks

Should we bring back cars to City Walk?

Catherine Carter

Could bringing back traffic revitalise City Walk?

One of my favourite old photos of Canberra captures a barely-recognisable Garema Place and City Walk in the 1960s. The street is alive with activity.

In the foreground, a group of women, children clinging to their skirts, stop to chat. Others look in shop windows teeming with tantalising cakes and consumer goods. Men in three piece suits walk briskly along the bustling sidewalk. There’s not a faded for lease sign to be seen, nor an empty shop window. Perhaps most surprising of all, cars line the street.

City Walk in the Image courtesy of

City Walk in the 1960s. Image courtesy of

City Walk was created in the 1970s by blocking off Alinga Street between East Row at the City Bus Interchange and Binara Street, near the casino. While pedestrians can walk almost the entire length of the city without having to cross any roads with cars, sadly they often choose not to. Why? Because City Walk is largely empty of life.

The move to pedestrianise City Walk was part of a growing trend around the world. City planners, trying to replicate the success of suburban shopping malls and capture the ambience of European boulevards, closed streets to traffic.

But rather than rev up the retail experience and transport pedestrians into lanes reminiscent of the Left Bank of Paris or Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, the lack of activity gave these streets a deserted, even dangerous feel. Within a few years thriving thoroughfares became ghost streets as foot traffic dwindled and high-end retailers fled.

In America alone, more than 200 cities created pedestrian malls – but urban planners have lately begun to rethink their enthusiasm for the urban mall. They’ve learned that city centres are different from suburbs – and that people love city CBDs that bring lots of us in together.

In Chicago, the broad pedestrian walkways along State Street were ripped up to reintroduce two-way traffic, with retailers saying that more traffic improved activity by reminding passers-by that stores were open for business. In Philadelphia, the disastrous ‘transit way’ along Chestnut Street was removed after planners admitted it became neither a pedestrian walkway nor a street, but something completely devoid of character or purpose.

Sound familiar?

When we think of the best streets in our cities, they usually blend pedestrian and automobile traffic. The buzzing streets of Melbourne – the cosmopolitan charisma of Lygon Street, the chic shops along Chapel Street or the bustle of Chinatown along Little Bourke Street – are all open to traffic.

Melbourne’s major streets are all pleasant pedestrian experiences because of the exciting built form that features active street frontages, attractive street furniture and public art. Most of the streets in Melbourne’s CBD have both cars and trams running up and down them day and night.


Little Bourke Street in Melbourne

In contrast, Hastings Street in Noosa oozes character and laid-back charm. The interesting mix of retail shops and cafes, human-scale buildings and eye-catching street furniture and trees make this a lovely street on which to linger – all the while cars meander slowly up and down its length.

Hastings Street in Noosa. Image courtesy of

Hastings Street in Noosa. Image courtesy of

Our very own Bunda Street has been transformed recently into a shareway, with traffic calming measures, street furniture that encourages people to rest their feet, and a growing mix of interesting cafes and shops along the way.

The bottom line? There are many examples around the world where pedestrianised streets work miracles. However, there are other places where they fail miserably.

Is City Walk a delight or a disaster? I think introducing traffic back into City Walk is worth thinking about.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia


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

  • Bicycle Canberra

    Ms Carter led by some town planners suggest that closing City walk (formerly Alinga street) and Garema place was a disaster from the start, far from it. You can choose a photo from any point in time to boost your argument like the one from the 1960’s . I’ve seen other photo’s and video’s of that area very congested with motor vehicles. Here’s a photo of Pietre plaza (street) lively and bustling at lunch times in the 1980’s . I should know because I worked in Civic and that’s how it was. The important point here is that City walk was the focus and there was no extension to the shopping mall. Carter uses America as an example where some jurisdictions have reopened the Pedestrian streets/ malls to Motor vehicle traffic. We know that in New York they have closed the majority of Times Square to traffic and redesigned several cross streets to recover more road space for pedestrians . As the clip from the Human scale shows . Many south american city streets have been pedestrianised and who can forget the work of Jan Gehl and the pedestrian streets in Copenhagen. This idea is based on the human scale environment of car free cities like Venice. Even today pedestrian counts continue to be the highest in and around city walk today. I would like to see more civic streets closed to traffic. Along with more residential development and the re-routing of Northbourne Ave traffic around the cities edges.