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Canberra’s development dilemma

By Nic Sheehan - 27 January 2015 29

dickson flats

Canberra is undergoing a metamorphosis. Until now, it has grown outwards, slowly engulfing farms and spitting them back out as suburbs, terraforming the landscape from grazing pastures to a white collar playground. Shopping centres, cars, cafes, the tame opiates of the archetypal Canberran.

The age and maturity of this town is becoming more obvious, however. As the houses of Gungahlin roll off the assembly line, they spill East towards the New South Wales border, the high-water mark. But the Capital Territory is now emerging from its prepubescent sprawl to push skyward into the third dimension. Like shiny white iPhones, apartment buildings have begun accumulating along the city skyline, full of the promise of progress and a conveniently compact lifestyle. These lofty shoeboxes practically have a use-by date branded alongside the facade, accompanied by the small cracks which will inevitably begin to show in their cheap concrete casings.

Walter Burley Griffin’s legacy ensured that the planning wonks of this town developed a severe allergy to buildings greater than two (okay, five) storeys. The first consequence of this approach to ‘civic design’ is that residents of Canberra are more or less immobile without access to a car. At the time of conception, Canberra and cars were a match; a city of the future using the horse and cart of the future. Today, as Canberrans we have great roads and are practically forced to use them to get anywhere particularly useful or interesting.

The aversion to urban density raises ramifications that are beyond mere convenience and efficient transport. A great deal of the city’s observable history is at stake. Canberra is relatively young, but one hundred years is still sufficient time to accumulate an identity. This urban identity is crafted through buildings and architecture, unobservable from the city blueprint. Certainly, we have some masterful architecture in this city, but mostly on the Federal side of things, things that were meant to be grand. I’m referring to the everyday, the entire aggregate. Alley ways, nooks and crannies. The combined sense of adventure, nostalgia and the numberless impressions left by the ghosts of the past.

Many of the buildings that hold this cultural and intrinsic value are positioned in high-value inner city areas which were developed over fifty years ago. These buildings are small houses with the odd duplex flecked in the mix. In a city which can no longer grow out, but up, the value of this land is being bid over and hiked up by hungry developers ready to cramp more people into less space. Which prevails, economics or history?

If you have strolled through commercial (once industrial) and residential Braddon, the prevailing force is obvious. Red brick duplexes and warehouses have given way to glass and concrete units, the streets dotted with For Sale signs. Having lived in Braddon for a short time abstract memory remains the only connection to a particular period in my life, as that house and the entire street I lived on was flattened, rebuilt and estranged in two short years. Like a contrived hipster, property developers have pumped out elegant urbane living, but the ironic result is industrial scale conformity. My old haunt is now shockingly homogenous.

It is not just the brick and mortar relics of Canberra’s past that are in jeopardy. The burgeoning creative culture, its genesis found in the repurposing of old industrial spaces, is being rapidly undone. Local vendors are faced with hopscotching from location to location as their previous digs are swallowed by apartments and soulless commercial retail space. Inevitably these industrial spaces that are characteristic of such creative shifts will run out. And then what will be left?

Braddon was the first to go. Now the redevelopment creep marches onward to the doormat of this city, Northbourne Avenue. Previously I would have expressed my distaste for many buildings along Northbourne, notably the Dickson ‘junkie’ flats. As one enters Canberra, these boxy, brown blocks appear Orwellian and ominous. I would have described them as ugly. But taste is relative. Bombarded by the slick and new, the old is now rare and precious.

The death of Dickson Towers is in the pipeline. This is where the debate is crystallised and all the shades of grey revealed. The sale and redevelopment of this land would replace the 157 flats with a precinct of 1099 apartments, valued at a total of $70 million. The “economic benefits” of this construction are estimated to be $380 million. Thankfully, the government can’t just do whatever they please. A roadblock in the application has emerged via the ACT Heritage Council.

The buildings are historically significant at a local and national level. In the late fifties the Capital gained increased administrative importance for the Commonwealth as many government departments were being relocated from Melbourne. The flats were built as a direct response to the influx of public servants and a time of rapid growth. They commemorate the growing pains of a city and the political restructuring of a nation. Sydney Archer, one of the architects is counted among Australia’s most important during the last century. His design reflects the Post-War era of Bauhaus and cubism styles, and is the only complex of its type in Australia to truly reflect these German origins.

Another metamorphosis is the government’s vision of a light rail network, with the central nerve of the system being Northbourne Avenue. Personal opinions aside, the project is a bold one that has the potential to rejig the car-centric status quo and alter the design of the city forever.

This is where we come full circle. The sale and redevelopment of the Dickson Towers is part of the ACT government’s plan to finance the light rail. The next growing pain of this City will wipe the memory of the old one. The future will be at the cost of our history.

What does this mean? At the end of the day there is no clear answer. Canberra, in many ways, needs change. To remain a viable city for the future, urban density is key. The light rail has the potential to be a visionary and transformative project. But it would be a shame to erase and rebuild the entire physical identity of our city. Much like the farms of old, urban Canberra as we know it will degrade and die with monoculture. Diversity, a mix of the old and new, is the ticket to a vibrant and wonderful city.

What’s Your opinion?


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29 Responses to
Canberra’s development dilemma
Maya123 10:28 pm 27 Jan 15

Babby said :

Why do we need such a large population increase in Canberra all of a sudden?

Whether Canberra people want a large population is immaterial. It will happen while no federal government will be responsible and will slow the runaway high immigration. Therefore locally we must plan for more people than we should have.

Babby 8:22 pm 27 Jan 15

The thing with development in Canberra is no one seems to care much what form it takes. Those who are pro-development right now seem to believe Canberra must develop every small parcel of land as soon as possible, with inelegant architecture and town planning.

It looks like Canberra in its growing maturity is going through a phase of self-doubt. Tired of hearing everyone talk about our town as ‘clean’ and ‘well planned’, now we have grotty shopping centres, shoddy road surfaces, and chaotic planning decisions to prove just how disordered we can be. And to counter our tradition of peaceful, low-density planning, a sudden insistence that Canberra must embrace high-density development, no matter how this may affect the longstanding nature of the town and its unique characteristics, as if the city must face up to the harsh realities of life in the 21st century. Really? Why?

Canberra is a city with wide open spaces and abundant natural life. Most of us like it as it is. Plus there is more land right over the border.

I have two questions. Why do we need such a large population increase in Canberra all of a sudden? And when are we going to get a Canberra ICAC?

Kalliste 8:07 pm 27 Jan 15

My biggest question is, do people actually call them Dickson Towers? I really hope not.

I don’t think any amount of paint is going to help out these flats, same as the Lyneham Flats up the street. They’re never going to be attractive and I imagine they are boxes of ice in winter and you feel like melting lava in summer.

While I’ll agree many of the new flats (specifically along Flemington) are pretty damn ugly, they’re not on the scale of Dickson Flats and, hopefully, they have better energy ratings.

Masquara 7:32 pm 27 Jan 15

I know a woman who lives in one of the Bauhausian guvvie 1950s townhouses in Lyneham, one street away from Northbourne, and her townhouse/apartment is gorgeous inside. Beautifully planned and with impeccable aesthetics. Not one of the new flats I’ve seen in the inner north is as good lifestyle-wise.

dungfungus 6:18 pm 27 Jan 15

gazket said :

ACT Heritage Council is just creating red tape.

All those old apartments are well past their use by date and are breeding ground for mold and rising damp and scumbags.

Like the camping ground between LBG and old Parliament House perhaps?

Maya123 4:13 pm 27 Jan 15

miz said :

The Dicko flats look terrible mainly because of the years of (what I would call strategic) neglect. You know, the ‘neglect it -> people complain and/or stop using it -> government decides it is ripe for development because people complain and/or stop using it’ pathway.
However, it seems that strategy wasn’t wholly successful in this case.

Agreed. Those building would look so much better with some maintenance…and a more imaginative paint job. And why be limited by only two colours! With murals for instance they could become art installations. The buildings’ limitations are only because of lack of imagination. The maintenance would include insulation. I don’t dislike the look of the basic buildings; only the neglect and the colour scheme.
Then the surrounds could do with some work.

miz 3:26 pm 27 Jan 15

The Dicko flats look terrible mainly because of the years of (what I would call strategic) neglect. You know, the ‘neglect it -> people complain and/or stop using it -> government decides it is ripe for development because people complain and/or stop using it’ pathway.
However, it seems that strategy wasn’t wholly successful in this case.

Maya123 2:38 pm 27 Jan 15

gazket said :

ACT Heritage Council is just creating red tape.

All those old apartments are well past their use by date and are breeding ground for mold and rising damp and scumbags.

With that boring beige paint job almost any building would look bad, and do (thinking of some boring colour schemes I have seen used – too often – on modern apartment buildings).

gazket 1:19 pm 27 Jan 15

ACT Heritage Council is just creating red tape.

All those old apartments are well past their use by date and are breeding ground for mold and rising damp and scumbags.

mcs 1:12 pm 27 Jan 15

“The buildings are historically significant at a local and national level. In the late fifties the Capital gained increased administrative importance for the Commonwealth as many government departments were being relocated from Melbourne. The flats were built as a direct response to the influx of public servants and a time of rapid growth. They commemorate the growing pains of a city and the political restructuring of a nation. Sydney Archer, one of the architects is counted among Australia’s most important during the last century. His design reflects the Post-War era of Bauhaus and cubism styles, and is the only complex of its type in Australia to truly reflect these German origins.”

Does anyone actually believe this dribble that the Heritage council has used to support its decision?

The Dickson Flats are absolutely hideous. They are in a terrible run down state, and there is only one reasonable outcome – to bulldoze them.

Take some pictures and do a museum piece about their historical importance – there is no need for them to be kept however to achieve this.

Whether what replaces them is going to be any better in the long term is another issue altogether, but I fail to see any significant value in keeping something that is clearly ready to be knocked down and replace.

Next we’ll be hearing calls from the Heritage Council to keep a few of the Mr Fluffy houses, in order to ensure we don’t lose their inherent heritage value and to reflect the ‘growing pains of a City’!

Paul Costigan 12:39 pm 27 Jan 15

Responding to Nic Sheehan.

Good comments. I was reminded of a Dickson Resident Group public meeting several years ago, attended by about 80 people, when locals spoke of the fear that the style of development that was happening in Braddon was creeping into Dickson and Downer. It was not about opposing change and development; it was about the lack of aesthetics. It was about a fear of the monoculture you mentioned.

Similar comments were made at a combined Southside Community meeting when several spoke about their frustration with the lack of good design in the residential developments that were appearing in their streets. Again it was not about opposing developments; but it was about the proliferation of bland cheaply made boxes.

My observation is that residents find it hugely distressing that their local amenities are being gradually eroded by what seems to be an uncaring attitude by our government planning authorities. Sadly it comes down to a lack of vision within these agencies.

arescarti42 12:20 pm 27 Jan 15

Here’s an interesting reality that people tend to forget – at 1.8% PA, Australia has just about the highest rate of population growth of any developed country. We import approximately 700,000 people from overseas every year.

As long as Australians keep voting for governments that support mass immigration, then hundreds of thousands of additional people are going to keep ending up in our capital cities.

There are two options for adequately accommodating those people; either push the urban boundary further outwards, or massively redevelop the existing urban area and grow it upwards.

In the past, Australian cities have been very reluctant to do the latter, and have restrained it through restrictive zoning and planning laws, with suburban growth providing the population blow off valve. Cleverly, throughout the 1990s most cities started heavily restricting suburban fringe development, without simultaneously freeing up restraints on redevelopment on existing areas, all the while the Federal Government ramped up population growth.

The result is the social and economic disaster which is housing ‘markets’ in Australia (any system where the Government decides what is built, how much is built, and where it is built, isn’t a market, it’s a command and control economy reminiscent of former communist societies).

As, the available supply pushes up against what people can actually afford, you get ugly, poor quality, inferior urban product.

You voted for it.

DavidStephens 11:52 am 27 Jan 15

Not fussed about Northbourne, I must say. Good piece though!

Milly Withers 11:46 am 27 Jan 15

Great, thoughtfully written piece, Nic. It’s going to be an interesting few years for Canberra.

I hope that as Canberra grows, we manage to hold on to enough of the older buildings and architecture (including the grungy nooks, alleyways and junkie flats) that make this city feel like home.

miz 10:26 am 27 Jan 15

You are right to note that new developments are only a step away from being shabby themselves, not only because of their design (quirky trendiness tending to date quickly) but because of current building practices. Past ‘architect award winning’ buiildings are generally considered hideous and poorly constructed only 10 years on.
It would be far preferable to set strict building design codes, a la Paris, so new builds do not look so garish and cheap. But I’m afraid the rot has already set in in the older suburbs, where it is trendy to construct huge and ghastly ‘architectural’ boxes instead of reenergising and extending the existing house.

I am sad for Canberra. It’s heyday was in the 1980s and it’s been all downhill from there. The only town centre I like the look of architecturally is Tuggeranong, its stipulated red roofs backed by the Brindabellas projecting a lovely sense of ‘Australia my homeland’ (you know, like when you touch down at Sydney Airport after returning from OS and see all those friendly red roofs).

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