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Could a heritage listing protect Canberra’s character from destruction?

Genevieve Jacobs 21 June 2019 21

Walter Burley Griffin’s final version of the Canberra plan, 1913. File photos.

It’s been ten years since the first moves were made to place Canberra on the National Heritage list.

For many locals, the first reaction would still be to ask how on earth you could list an entire city? But planning expert Ed Wensing says that the need has never been more urgent, as the current application to list runs out in a few days’ time, on June 30, and the city’s development reaches breakneck speed.

The request to list has been repeatedly delayed and postponed as one Federal minister after another has punted the decision to the sidelines. Now Mr Wensing has written to environment minister Sussan Ley asking her for a final decision and reminding her that if she fails to list the city, she must provide her reasons.

The intent is not to declare every single building as untouchable, but rather to protect the character of the city as a whole. So the listing would actually be about distinctive Canberra planning ideas like the national capital open space system and the way town centres interact with the bush, or employment distribution across the whole city. The former urban and regional planner and policy analyst concedes that it’s a complex argument to make.

“It won’t stop the city’s growth and it’s not intended to,” Wensing says. “The city has to tackle that. But a heritage listing would provide another layer of check and balance that we’re not destroying the very things about the city that we value most.”

The height of the Parliament House flag pole base limits the heights of every other building in the city, to keep development within landscape limits.

Among those are the height limits: The current restrictions in central Canberra limits building heights to below the base of the flag pole on Parliament House. The intention is to preserve the primacy of major public buildings within the horizon of the landscape, so the city retains a distinct identity as a place that’s dominated by its landscape. This means that a heritage listing would be a major further barrier to leap for developers wanting to create skyscrapers.

But Ed Wensing is also deeply concerned that despite the support from a raft of local experts, there has never been a commitment from either major party at local or Federal level to support the heritage listing. The process began back with the Rudd government when buildings and places associated with Australia’s history of democracy were encouraged to apply. Many town council buildings were listed: Canberra missed out.

“It’s now been ten years since the nominations were made and seven years since the Australian Heritage Council completed its independent assessment,” he says. “Successive ministers of both persuasions just keep signing extensions to the assessment process and the current extension is due to expire on 30 June 2019.

“It’s time for a decision.”

Mr Wensing says that heritage listing would have had practical effects on some major changes to the city in recent decades.

“The massive development at the airport has eroded the distribution of employment across the city, for example. Molonglo and other fringe developments mean our urban fabric is being eroded. If this continues, we’ll lose integral parts of the city’s design.”

He also wants five key documents that describe the city’s planning to be included in the heritage listing, from the original Griffin Plan to the Y plan and the 1984 metropolitan Canberra Policy Plan. The documents are in the National Archives, but including them in the heritage listing would, Wensing says, recognise how important this city’s planning has been on a national and global basis.

“In many ways, we were cutting-edge urban history and design, a garden city showcase of the world,” he says.

And if there is still no decision from the minister, or yet another attempt to push the heritage listing question aside? “Well, at the very least, I’m hoping to embarrass the hell out them!” he says.


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21 Responses to
Could a heritage listing protect Canberra’s character from destruction?
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8:13 pm 22 Jun 19

Yes please!

3:21 pm 22 Jun 19

I think there are important issues to deal with. Countries don't normally heritage list entire cities / city centre unless they have great historic and cultural significance, like Bath in the UK. Canberra just doesn't meet the criteria imo.

5:45 am 22 Jun 19

I don't mind apartments, but it'd really help if they were built to a plan. What we get instead is pure greed at every level, to the point where many of them appear to be falling apart. That's not necessarily all the developer's fault, but nor would I suggest most of them had any idea about what makes a city or a streetscape look beautiful. Sadly, much of modern Canberra's housing can only be fixed with saturation bombing.

And the greatest tragedy is that the original drawings were so beautiful. If you haven't visited the National Capital Exhibition recently, I strongly suggest you do so...

3:27 am 22 Jun 19

'can our city never change?' 😂😂😂😂😂

1:13 am 22 Jun 19

Fine if they heritage list the remnants of the Burley-Griffin plan, but not the shonky blonde brick compromises of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s

10:11 pm 21 Jun 19

Great idea. Can Barr be charged as a cultural vandal

9:50 pm 21 Jun 19

Pretty much no-one outside of the ACT has any respect for the territory.

I'd be hard pressed to name any Federal or State politician (who wasn't originally from the territory) who has any respect or love for the territory.

There's more than enough distain and simmering hatred and envy of the territory out there, that I just don't see how anyone outside of the territory would agree to having Canberra listed as a heritage listed place.

9:32 pm 21 Jun 19

Why they don't listen to the people who put them in to office in the first place only big business.

9:18 pm 21 Jun 19

I just want to hear about 1 politician with vision and moral courage. Feathering their own nests is so very boring and uninspired.

9:17 pm 21 Jun 19

Yes please!

9:13 pm 21 Jun 19

Bit bloody late! Too much has already been destroyed.

9:11 pm 21 Jun 19

Nothing will stop Barr and Co from trying to turn Canberra into Sydney.

    1:50 pm 22 Jun 19

    😂😂 have you been to Sydney lately? The city is such a ghost town it might as well be 2005 Canberra 😂😂

8:22 pm 21 Jun 19

I hope so. Can’t bring it back once it’s all gone.

8:10 pm 21 Jun 19

Too late. We should have been like Paris with a consistent height limit to give a consistent look but developers have free reign.

    9:15 pm 21 Jun 19

    I doubt people in the suburbs would have liked three storey places built throughout the suburb. Your neighbours sell and its redevloped into 6 units. That is what a consistent height would do. Despite what people think apartments in town centres is by far the best solution we have to keep Canberra the great city it is.

    7:01 am 22 Jun 19

    Justin I meant around the city centre. Place looks like a jumbled mess.

    1:41 pm 22 Jun 19

    the thing is we have one of the highest population growths in the country and a low vacancy rate for apartments. Building urban sprawl actually pushes rates up higher as it costs a lot more to deliver services and maintain roads, buses etc over a larger area. I understand the aesthetic look isn't the most appealling, but trying to find a practical solution for the city without ruining the bush capital is not as easy as stopping developers.

    2:11 pm 22 Jun 19

    Justin even if they’d all been 20 stories it would be better. I suspect the vacancy rates about to change though.

8:06 pm 21 Jun 19

I too hate progression...

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