Why doesn’t Civic look like Paris?

Catherine Carter

If you’ve ever whiled away a few hours on the streets of Paris and wondered why Canberra doesn’t resemble the City of Lights, then you’re not alone.

Few of us, charmed by the bridges and bookstalls of the Seine, the tree-lined boulevards and tightly-packed back streets, haven’t wistfully wondered, “what if?”.

Who hasn’t sat quietly in a brasserie or bar, sheltered from the rain by the quintessential red awning, chairs spilling out onto the street, and wondered why we don’t have this in Canberra?

Who hasn’t delighted in the narrowing streets – made narrower by the pot plants plonked on doors steps – and the twinkling fairy lights strung between apartments? By the florists so overabundantly supplied with flowers that buckets of bouquets impede the flow of foot traffic.

There’s even a name for those who find pleasure in sauntering the streets – the flâneur. These amblers can overlook the cobblestoned trip hazards, the press of the crowds, the overflowing bins and perhaps even the dog poo.

While the Avenue des Champs-Élysées might be out of our reach, surely some of the more everyday – but equally pleasing – streets might not be a stretch?

So, why doesn’t Civic look like Paris? A few colleagues of mine from various professions in the property industry were asked this very question recently, and their on-the-ground experience working on development applications is instructive.

Any application submitted to build a development straight from a Parisian streetscape would be rejected, they argue, because it would fail to satisfy many of the rules in the Territory Plan and the requirements of the various service authorities.

Where, for example, are the minimum eight square metre balconies that must be provided as private open space for each of the apartments in this building? And where are the basement car parking and access ramps? My goodness, they’ll all be parking in my suburb!

Why is that awning encroaching over the public land? That’s not allowed under the Unit Titles Regulations?

That café is a potential noise source. I’m calling the Environmental Protection Authority immediately! And it is selling vin de blanc and vin rouge. Surely not? There is no fence defining the licensed area. Good grief, the tables and chairs are sitting there in the open on the footpath.

The street is open to traffic – and so narrow! That doesn’t meet the standards of Transport Canberra and City Services. Triple the width immediately!

Where is the ActewAGL substation? Where is the waste collection room accessible by the 12.5-metre-long waste collection truck? And what about the turning circle to allow that truck to drive in and out in a forward motion?

My god, this is developer greed! Or should we say: Mon dieu, c’est la developpeur gourmand!

In Paris, of course, the municipal authorities provide services that support a delightful built environment. In Canberra, my colleagues argue, we provide municipal services that dictate the built environment.

If our Territory Plan prevents us from creating the street life we crave, then perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board. To be fair, the Chief Minister is looking to address some of these quirks of our planning system but, for the time being, there are some peculiar rules resulting in some perverse outcomes.

So, tell me, if you were sitting down to draft a new plan for Canberra, how would you make Civic more like Paris?

Image: Supplied


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