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The Changing Face of Canberra
In our push to become the cool little capital, are we losing the very qualities that have made us what we are?
When photographer Martin Ollman posted a photo to his social media account of Canberra’s light rail deep in construction mode—a chaotic blur of bulldozers, freshly gutted trees and traffic—it struck a nerve.
In the many shares of the image that followed, some locals were excited to see Canberra finally stepping into the much larger shoes of busier cities such as Melbourne or Sydney; others were shocked (“where is this?!”); while many long-term residents lamented the loss of trees and green space for “an eyesore.”
Either way, the image thrust into the spotlight what many have known for a long time: Canberra is growing up, and fast.
If any year solidified our move from small town to cool capital, it was 2017. From taking out third spot on Lonely Planet’s list of the world’s must-see cities, to Gourmet Traveller naming our own Bar Rochford as the best in the country, to our booming restaurant scene, it was official: Canberra was having a moment.
Suddenly, the nation’s collective sniggers about us being a boring city full of pollies and public servants felt utterly unimaginative, and one by one, members of the Twitterati were forced to reluctantly admit Canberra’s appeal.
“Have we been wrong about Canberra all these years?” asked ABC online while the Sydney Morning Herald half-jokingly touted the Instagram success of “The Freakshake” as the moment Canberra officially shrugged off its famously daggy reputation.
Word spread quickly: in the past year alone Canberra has attracted record numbers of domestic and international visitors, and the most recent census recorded the ACT as having the nation’s largest population growth.
So when exactly did Canberra move from much-derided capital to international city?
In a column published in the Sydney Morning Herald, author and architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly credits cultural precinct NewActon with “inverting the diagram.”
“No longer did a weekend in Canberra mean some serviced apartment with vast, dull interiors set in acres of asphalt,” she writes.
“Now, you could sleep tucked between the lake and the Shine Dome; stroll out for breakfast; explore on foot without terminal boredom.
“It caught on. Next, Kingston Foreshore—its aesthetic a little King-Street-Wharf tacky but inevitably popular. This was low-rise but extensive, canal-side apartments and restaurants bunched around the produce market, Megalo Print Studio and the choral hall conversion of J. S. Murdoch’s Fitters’ Workshop. The place hums every night of the week.
“Next up; Fyshwick, Red Hill, Dickson and the famously daggy inner north, driven by the ANU’s rising status, endless student demand and the new Canberra light rail that opens in 2018—likely well ahead of Sydney’s.”
Beyond Farrell’s assertions, there is also Gungahlin—the fastest growing suburb in Australia—and our CBD, once upon a time a ghost town on weekends, largely thriving thanks to the revitalisation of Bunda Street and a push towards high density living. Twenty years ago, apartment living in Canberra—particularly in the city—was rare. Now you can’t look sideways without stumbling across construction site after construction site of new developments, with everyone from families to retirees capitalising on the benefits of high-density living.
Yet some critics believe Canberra is caught in a precarious spot —no longer content to be simply a “bush town,” but not quite ready to grow into its new identity of thriving capital.
If we are going to own the tag of “international city” there is still some work to do, according to consultant and property leader Catherine Carter.
“The fact that Garema Place is still such a wasteland after all these years is incredibly disappointing,” she says.
“City Walk is still largely devoid of life, while the Sydney and Melbourne buildings remain tired and tatty. In spite of the rhetoric, I think the fact of the matter is that urban renewal in our city centre hasn’t—until recently—been a genuine government priority.
“For the first time though there is genuine light on the horizon—the new City Renewal Authority established by the government in 2017 has a remit to lead the transformation of the city centre, including Civic, Northbourne Avenue and Haig Park.”
Housing affordability is another pressing issue as our city expands—a problem Canberra can’t afford to have, warns Catherine.
“Already, in cities such as Sydney, even workers on above average wages fear they’ll never get a foot on the property ladder,” she says.
“When key workers such as nurses, teachers and police officers can no longer afford to live in a city, then we have a problem.”
To allow for better housing affordability, Catherine believes there is a case for dual occupancy developments and densification in established areas—but she acknowledges it’s a contentious issue.
“It’s difficult when trying to balance a situation when existing communities would like to see things maintained just as they are, while others would like the opportunity to be able to move into established suburbs and take advantage of the lifestyle options available to people living in inner suburbs, such as easy access to local shops,” she says.
“I think there is certainly a case for more densification on brownfield sites, but it needs to be managed in a way that’s responsive to community needs and which is respectful of community opinion.”
But will our push for densification mean we could be at risk of losing the very qualities that make Canberra unique, such as our wide open spaces, bushlands and strong sense of community?
“Increased density and continuing the garden city character are not mutually exclusive,” asserts Catherine.
“Increased urban density offers people housing choice as well as greater access to amenities such as local shops and public transport options, which I think is worth considering in the density debate.”
Then comes the other side of the question—will some of those defining qualities become irrelevant, as Canberra grows into bigger shoes?
Indeed, University of Canberra urban planning expert Richard Hu believes the current features that make Canberra unique from other cities—driving, low density, suburbanisation—are not actually sustainable in today’s challenges of climate change and energy use.
“Densification creates better sense of community with good planning and urban design, compared to our existing urban sprawl structure,” Richard says.
“Canberra, as a sprawling city, has many legacies from the 1960s and ‘70s when Modernist urban development and planning dominated, which require urban renewal to regenerate, such as Woden.
“The city centre, meanwhile, has transformed significantly in recent decades—for example Braddon, New Acton—with more amenities, residents, residentials, and quality urban design.”
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr agrees.
“Not all of Canberra’s ‘unique qualities’ should, or can, be preserved,” he says.
“The best way to protect the character of our garden suburbs and the farm and bushland that surround us is by ending needless urban sprawl through more concentrated development in the CBD and town and group centres, which also makes these areas better through more services and entertainment options.
“We know our population is increasing by around 7000 people each year, and this settlement approach is part of ensuring we can house them all without excessive sprawl or losing what makes our suburbs such nice places to live.”
Yet there is concern, in our rush to develop, that there are too many “quick-fix” construction standards. While Mr Barr says the ACT Government is undertaking a comprehensive set of reforms to the way building work is regulated in the Territory, former ABC radio host and long-time Canberra resident Alex Sloan says she has noticed a “big rush to the bottom.”
“We have seen old buildings of character demolished, cheaper rents disappear, small quirky businesses forced out,” she says.
“Urban planners talk about assets of ‘grittiness and fine grain.’ The old buildings that made some of our streets interesting have been replaced with monolithic structures with very high rents.
“When it comes to our buildings, there is too much bland design and in some cases, crap standards.”
Standards are something the National Capital Authority (NCA)—the body tasked with ensuring that the city “and the Territory are planned and developed in accordance with their national significance”—take very seriously.
The organisation is responsible for the preservation of some of the city’s iconic buildings—Parliament House, Old Parliament House, the High Court and the National Gallery of Australia. It’s not often in the headlines.
Controversy was stirred earlier this year, however, after the West Block buildings—some of the earliest erected in the area—were sold by the federal government to ubiquitous developer GEOCON, who will look to turn the historic building into a “luxury hotel.”
The sale marked the first private land ownership inside the Parliamentary Triangle.
Once home to the National Library, the Crown Solicitor’s office and the Australian Electoral Commission, the site was also a World War II bomb shelter, which was used to decode messages between Australian prime minister John Curtin and British prime minister Winston Churchill.
Other buildings in the area, including the Anzac Park East, Anzac Park West and East Block buildings, are currently up for sale.
The ACT Greens had previously opposed the West Block sale, saying it was “deeply concerning” and a blow to our national heritage.
Last month, the NCA also opened expressions of interest for the sale of Canberra landmark The Lobby, to make way for a new restaurant, bar, café, place of assembly or tourist facility.
NCA Chief Planner and Deputy Chief Executive Andrew Smith believes the new developments will be a positive for Canberra’s future, while still honouring our early history.
“The National Capital Authority is responsible for ensuring the Parliamentary Zone is a vibrant and active place within Canberra,” he says.
“A new restaurant, bar, café, place of assembly or tourist facility will no doubt reinvigorate the iconic Lobby site, supporting a vibrant Parliamentary Zone.”
Former ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell agrees densification surrounding our most iconic sites will be a good thing, but if we’re going to grow positively, there is work to be done.
“We need a state-of-the-art convention centre. We need an efficient public transport system, with urban infill along the light rail lines. We need to see ourselves as a meeting hub for the Asia Pacific region, and we need to be less reliant on the public sector,” she says.
“There’s a lot of things we can do that we haven’t done yet. It’s a damn better city than when I was Chief Minister 20 years ago. We just need to make sure we make the next 20 years as good as the last 20.”
Perhaps the people best placed to reflect on Canberra’s changing face are the ones who have been here so long they are practically etched into our city’s fabric.
One resident who has seen Canberra change before his eyes is Manuel Xyrakis. When his parents, Nick and Alice Xyrakis, moved here back in 1960, the population was around 50,000. The couple purchased the then Ainslie supermarket/milk bar in 1963 and it’s been in the family ever since.
“Back then there was a butcher, baker and fruit shop at most of the local shops, because that’s where everyone did their shopping,” says Manuel.
“There weren’t any big malls or anything at that stage. It was very different.”
Then came the late-1980s, where the introduction of larger supermarkets gobbled up most of the market, sending those smaller businesses into decline. Luckily, the Xyrakis’ business survived—and in more recent years, Manuel says new life is being breathed into once decrepit shops as more people appreciate the personal aspect of their ‘local’.
Despite this, Manuel is concerned Canberra’s growth could be bad news for many smaller businesses.
“It’s very hard sometimes, when the big shopping malls are air-conditioned, and areas like Kingston Foreshore are by the lake. People always flock to the ‘new’ things, which can make it hard for the older, smaller businesses.”
However big it grows, Manuel is certain Canberra will always retain one of its most defining qualities: its sense of community.
“It’s one of the reasons I will never leave, no matter what,” he says.
That small-town sense of togetherness allowed Emilio Cataldo’s parents to easily transition from a small village in the South of Italy to the then unfamiliar Canberra community in 1960.
Emilio’s father Giuseppe set up his first hair salon on Marcus Clarke Street then on the outskirts of the city in 1965. Cataldo’s, now in Ainslie Place and with a second salon in Woden, has become Canberra’s best-known hairdressing empire.
According to Emilio, Canberra got its “momentum” when Lake Burley Griffin was completed in 1963.
“It was the confidence booster Canberra needed,” he says.
“From then on, we just grew and grew. Now we have a lot of technical/IT companies here which is helping our business sector. We’ve got a highly-educated workforce that has helped Canberra grow. We’re also getting young people leaving Canberra but then returning to make it their home, which wasn’t always the case.
“I think it’s because Canberra is becoming an international city without losing any of its positive features like ease of transportation, great universities and proximity to nature.”
And while he is enjoying watching our city bloom, Emilio is concerned about protecting what makes it special.
“I do believe we have to be careful, as we grow, to protect these green spaces. You look at New York City, and they’ve got Central Park which is famous for being such a beautiful green space amongst all the concrete.
“We need to allow increased density in certain areas and re-think the limits of our building heights. Our city could really benefit from increased high-rise buildings which will promote creative architecture and a more appealing, international cityscape.”
As a smaller city, Emilio believes we currently have the advantage over the larger cities thanks to our ability to redesign more effectively.
“It’s a good thing we are still growing because we’re always striving to be better.”
IF anyone should have the last word on our city, it’s Alex Sloan. The former-ABC radio presenter spent a good slice of her career championing all things Canberra, after moving here in the mid-1990s.
“There is a liveliness that wasn’t here 23 years ago,” Alex reflects. “Apartment living, people walking on the street, cyclists, walkers, light rail is coming. There are delicious additions and changes to food, restaurant and café culture.”
Alex believes some of the biggest risks to our city are bad planning, poor quality quick-fix construction, climate change, an ageing population and health services. The other challenge is properly preparing to be a “big city”.
“Part of Canberra’s challenge will be managing transport planning, from cars to public transport,” she says.
“We can do things really well. Look at our commitment to leadership in renewable energy, right under the noses of the appalling decisions made in the house on the hill. The ACT was a leader on Same Sex Marriage and returned a wonderful 74 per cent in the postal vote.
“So why don’t we get ahead of the game on transport planning, autonomous vehicles or telecommunications?”
As for our future, Alex emphasises the need to be mindful of the economic base of the city.
“If people are moving here to retire we need younger innovative, creative people to be able to live and work here too,” she says.
“What this generation, of which I’m a member, needs to remember is we bought housing at much more affordable price. We need to let the next generation in. We need creative people, artists, actors, musicians, writers. Think about the great cities around the world and why you want to visit them–usually it’s to do with the arts, great design and a cultural throb. If our artists can’t afford to live here they will leave.
“One of more memorable tongue-in-cheek suggestions during Canberra’s Centenary was a “Whingeing Wall” down by the Lake, (trademark Ian Warden). While I think that’s a brilliant idea the flip-side is big-hearted, broad minded generosity. If you can be generous with your time or resources, give what you can to ensure Canberra remains a fantastic place to live in the future.”
This article originally appeared in Magazine: Home for Autumn 2018, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here.