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Why density is the secret to a liveable city

Catherine Carter

The world’s most liveable cities aren’t packed with people – but neither are they sprawling suburbs in search of a city.

Canberra currently has a population density of 173 people per sqm, considerably less than Sydney’s 400 or Melbourne’s 453, but more than Brisbane’s 145 or Darwin’s 44 per sqm.

Mumbai has 29,650 people squeezed into each square kilometre. Clearly, no one wants Canberra to become a Mumbai. But what about a Copenhagen with 816 people per sqm? Berlin at 984? Or dare I say Paris at 2,723?

If you like vibrant streets with busy shop fronts, parks and squares alive with people and activity, and an interesting and intriguing mix of building types, then chances are the common factor is density. 

Density for density’s sake isn’t necessarily beneficial, says director of Canberra Town Planning, Kip Tanner.

“However, if increasing density allows more people to live close to employment opportunities and services, but also provides amenity in terms of open space and community facilities, then it can result in great outcomes.”

Kip says we need to understand the shifting demographics in our city and the different aspirations of people from different cultures and generations.

“Families still need large and flexible homes, access to playgrounds and somewhere to play footy, but they don’t necessarily need a huge block of land. People downsizing still need space for visiting families and grandchildren, and they don’t necessarily want to live in a tiny apartment. Most people want to be able to walk to the local shops. What we really need are housing choices that cater for everyone’s needs.”

Few people realise that the density of inner Canberra was higher in the 1960s than it is now, Kip says.

“In 1966, when Canberra consisted only of the Inner North, Inner South and the first few suburbs of Woden, the population of Canberra was 96,000. By the 2001 census the population of this area had dwindled to just 74,000, generally attributed to a reduced number of people per dwelling. By 2011 the population of the same area had climbed back up to 83,000, but was still less than the 1960s. The population is returning with the development of smaller dwellings in the inner areas to cater for our smaller family units.”

Kip says developments along Canberra’s light rail corridor will cater to our changing demographics and our changing aspirations. They will contribute to our plan for a grand entryway to the nation’s capital, but more importantly, Kip says, “they will bring life and energy to the avenue, making it an appropriate first impression for visitors.”

Elisabeth Judd, a Director at, says that density in Canberra should be tailor to reflect and enhance the unique Canberra planning context.

Density doesn’t have to be a dirty word and it can mean different things to different people. High density in Canberra would probably be considered medium to low density in Sydney or Hong Kong. What’s important is achieving the right building typologies in the right places to enhance our lifestyles, and to build a Canberra that will be right for right now and for future generations too.”

Design quality and public realm play a big part in getting it right, Elisabeth says. “Canberrans are discerning and proud of our city. Bigger buildings have a bigger impact, so new density needs to create great internal spaces and contribute to an exceptional streetscape. There’s a real opportunity too for new development to contribute to quality spaces between buildings and on-the-ground connections to make for a positive and sustainable lifestyle.”

Social equity is also a key concern.

“We should be setting an example in terms of offering diversity in Canberra. New development should create space not just for the wealthy but for people looking for more affordable living options and small or start-up businesses too”, Elisabeth adds.

Kips’s colleague Pieter Van der Walt, also a director with Canberra Town Planning, says he was surprised by the city’s low-density when he arrived in 2003. “Canberra was more sleepy country town than world city,” he says.

But over the years, he says key pockets of density have delivered a “richer and more vibrant cityscape”.

“We are increasingly becoming a city with a diverse and layered population that wants more choices than low density, townhouse and simple apartment housing choices. Density provides the opportunity to re-imagine how we live, how we play and how we interact with the city.”

Add to this the enhanced sustainability, active and public transport opportunities, and more efficient use of land and resources and “we have a strong sum of benefits from densification,” Pieter says, adding that densification in key locations can help us preserve low-density housing in other parts of our city.

“I think we live in an interesting time in the history of the city where we get an opportunity to be part of the character change from the historically low-density administrative centre to a vibrant, diverse and modern city,” Pieter adds.

“We have a unique setting with unique landscape features that can be leveraged and re-imagined as a canvas to create the future Canberra for generations to come. It’s a big responsibility in terms of the future of this city but an exciting prospect all the same.”

Feature image: Martin Ollman


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

  • Angie Carey

    Insightful article.
    What is often missed in a discussion about cities is night-time activities. What I miss about European cities is the nighttime meandering. Commerical art galleries, bookshops, quirky jewellery and fashion shops – open most evenings. But even when closed they provide great window displays. The streets have good lighting and draw in the late night wanderers. In Canberra it’s either eat, drink or go to the movies. Or thankfully the theatre. Paperchain and Muse do lift Manuka and Kingston respectively – but there is no equivalent in the city during the evenings (how I miss Electric Shadows bookshop). Nighttime liveability is a oft-missed component when discussing cities.

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