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Creating a future vision for Civic

By Paul Costigan - 13 May 2015 78

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There are loads of documents, reports and expert forums regarding the future of Civic. There is an abundance of pretty pictures, bad graphics, meaningless flowery statements and far too much powerpoint planning rhetoric – but what we need is action.

A recent Property Council report emphasised the need for less regulation and more government financial assistance for developers in the area. Is that what others call rent-seeking?

Last year, a forum on rejuvenating Civic was presented by Big Ideas on the ABC. An expert panel was asked how to breathe new life into what was described as the tired centre of Canberra. The experts came out with some gems, including:

  • Doing away with the pedestrian areas and bring back cars to the streets (I recommend that the academic who suggested this idea read this article on how cities outgrew the automobile)
  • Proceeding with the City to the Lake development, on the grounds that even though it is to be way over to the west of Acton, it will somehow bring people into Civic
  • Arguing that Civic’s future is already being guided by an expert panel called Civic CBD Ltd (that’s the property sector)

There is not much on offer from all these reports and forums. And I do wonder why Civic was not made-over before money was spent on the development of the new CBR branding.

While Civic remains dominated by a big box mall with sad precincts attached, it is no surprise that there was a marketing problem when the chief minister visited Singapore to talk up business opportunities. What did the planning bureaucrats think would happen when the minister’s overseas guests walked around Civic and observed an absence of people?

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The planning bureaucracy is constantly flying in experts who speak earnestly in the current urban planning language. The experts are here for a day, drop a few ideas, do some local media and then head home. The planning bureaucracy gains a few new words to use in their reports to the minister for urban renewal – the chief minister. I hope he has been impressed?

The debate is dominated and led by the property sector. Their predecessors would have argued that Civic, then a series of pleasant and busy pedestrian plazas, had to have an oversized mall, the Canberra Centre. Collectively the experts, the bureaucrats and lobbyists avoid any discussion about the major obstacle to the rejuvenation of Civic, the Canberra Centre, nor do they mention the impact of the massive box on surrounding precincts.

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The current trend, as experienced in Yarralumla, Dickson and elsewhere, is to throw token opportunities to the community for their input and then the planning agencies use their suite of questionable planning codes to open up opportunities for the property sector.

Sadly the perception remains that there is no leadership from the government (or its bureaucracy or other sectorial interests) on how Civic could become a sustainable urban space with new aesthetically pleasing developments that address climate change adaptation and provide locals with a city centre to be proud of.

Canberra is a culturally rich city with a huge numbers of people with an extraordinary range of interests and expertise. Our politicians are not engaged with – and do not empathise with – these people. Our politicians are viewed as being walled in behind layers of advisors, lobbyists and bureaucrats.

The ACT Government needs to work around their entrenched bureaucrats and lobbyists and link directly with the layers of creativity and intelligence in this city. Some form of action is required whereby creative ideas are welcomed, talked about and then sorted through to form a vision for Civic.

Informed creativity is urgently required to be engaged and to formulate a vision for the centre of Canberra. One Big Idea will not do it this time!

I remain optimistic that our local elected politicians could rise to this important urban challenge. Is the Chief Minister ready to take up the challenge?

This article is the second in a three-part series exploring Civic’s past, present and future. Read the first post in the series

What’s Your opinion?


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78 Responses to
Creating a future vision for Civic
Mark of Sydney 12:30 pm 14 May 15

Paul Costigan said :

Dear all

Some people like to be inside when its cold and others who love Canberra in winter like to be outside in the Canberra winter sunshine. That’s diversity. The former Civic plazas were busy places at any time of the year. I used to frequent them as did many others. But they are no longer an attractive place to be.

and yes, meanwhile be wary of those locust swarms. At the moment others may wonder what people in Dickson, Reid and Yarralumla (and others) are on about – but you may think different if the Minister for Urban Development’s (The Chief Minister’s) locust swarms were to appear in your street.

Dear vintage123. Your idea on a think tank is close to one suggestion I propose in my next piece, next Wednesday. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but am aware that the planning bureaucracy and the property council are not steering us towards anything sustainable or innovative. More soon.

If NewActon, Braddon (and Kingston Foreshore?) are the result of locust swarms then bring on the locusts. IMO, innovative developments like these, with minimal input from residents’ action groups or the National Capital Authority, are the best thing to have happened to Canberra in recent years.

With due respect to your expertise Paul, I don’t think we need you, the Chief Minister or resident groups to decide where cafes should be located to catch the sun. Within broad planning guidelines that take into account competing interests of those can be adversely affected by decisions on land use, I’m quite okay with the business operators, who have skin in the game, to choose where to site their cafes.

Paul Costigan 12:13 pm 14 May 15

Dear rubaiyat

sorry missed your last comment in my reply. Agree the whole Civic area is a failure. And I share your let’s not be sacred about the future of City Hill; presently it is a useless mound that serves no purpose at all. And I know there are heritage people who will now trash my letterbox for saying that. And what is that new silver monument on the east side?

You also reminded me that a couple of decades ago it was hard to find a cafe that was located to catch the afternoon sun in Canberra. Gus’ Cafe was it. It is a lot better now but your thoughts are on track – make sure future ones are placed correctly.

and knowing a bit about Canberra’s planning and who did what and when – I know that traffic/roads planners always ruled the day. But that’s another long story for another day.

VYBerlinaV8_is_back 12:08 pm 14 May 15

Yes yes, something needs to be done.

It should be vibrant, modern, clean, green and attract a range of visitors.

Why can’t those pesky developers pay for it?

Paul Costigan 12:02 pm 14 May 15

Dear all

Some people like to be inside when its cold and others who love Canberra in winter like to be outside in the Canberra winter sunshine. That’s diversity. The former Civic plazas were busy places at any time of the year. I used to frequent them as did many others. But they are no longer an attractive place to be.

and yes, meanwhile be wary of those locust swarms. At the moment others may wonder what people in Dickson, Reid and Yarralumla (and others) are on about – but you may think different if the Minister for Urban Development’s (The Chief Minister’s) locust swarms were to appear in your street.

Dear vintage123. Your idea on a think tank is close to one suggestion I propose in my next piece, next Wednesday. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but am aware that the planning bureaucracy and the property council are not steering us towards anything sustainable or innovative. More soon.

rubaiyat 11:50 am 14 May 15

Canberra needs a New Centre, relegating the existing mediocre, poorly planned and built area to be demolished or returned to bushland or overgrown with Moreton Bay Figs to become a jungle tourist attraction a la Ankor Wat.

I know it will get howls of outrage but City Hill, which is nothing but a huge traffic island, should be flattened or completely hollowed out with a clean transport hub under, that cross connects north-south and east-west. A Big Picture (very unlikely) VFT station to the outside world or at least the airport, or Medium Picture centre of a Canberra network initially linking the Inner North and Inner South, extending outwards later.

Ground level should be a suitable glassed over and sheltered cafe/shopping space to suit our summer/winter climate and a ring of new development surrounding. Importantly all sides are to be easily accessible for pedestrians, and cars diverted elsewhere.

The City’s failures are 100% due to being designed for the cars. End of story. Northbourne Ave cuts the City in half. It is the reason hardly anyone goes to the unattractive less accessible West Side or can circulate around the city easily. All the buildings lining Northbourne are as dead as doornails. The rest is even bleaker car parks.

Start again, and this time work with a heart, new life, new workplaces, new usable open spaces, and for heavens sake work with the sun and the climate. We surely can’t be that terminally stupid still in 2015!

wildturkeycanoe 6:28 am 14 May 15

Cover the entire area with a glass canopy so it is dry when it rains and warm in winter, that might make it a little more inviting than the cold, windy, leaf-littered alley that it is currently.

rubaiyat 11:20 pm 13 May 15

bryansworld said :

It’s not just the negative impact of the shops inside the Mall attracting people away from other parts of the City. The design of the Mall itself encourgaes people inside – what’s with all the blank walls and fake shopfronts? How did the City’s planners allow that to happen? It’s bad enough for them to be a pushover, but to let the developers get away with sneaky design tricks like this is outrageous.

I see you have the same peeve as me.

The single reason so much of Canberra is dead. Nothing at street level. Or Public Service offices with the windows painted over.

I know most people just drive into the colonic car entrance, up the pimple faced concrete backsides of all these buildings, and few even bother checking what is on the outside, but that makes for horrific cities.

Does suit those short sighted people whose world is bounded by the cup holder between the seats and the makeup mirror behind the sun visor, and are not only completely indifferent to everything else, but totally unaware that it even exists.

farnarkler 7:01 pm 13 May 15

Come on let’s get real here. For three or four months of the year you don’t want to be out in the elements in Civic. What exactly do people want to see in Civic? We’ve got a merry-go-round, a few fountains and a big movie screen type thing. Ok they’re not fantastic but really, what do you want to be put in Civic which would make it more vibrant? Turn Garema Court into a residential building? I hear a lot of moaning but not a lot of solutions. By the way, the next place the locust swarm will land is around the new building where the Canberra Club and the Wig and Pen used to be.

vintage123 5:51 pm 13 May 15

Hi Paul.

We could lobby CBD Limited for the creation of an architectural and design sub committee and or working group. Or something of that nature such as a subordinate think tank covering ideas on how civic could become a sustainable urban space with new aesthetically pleasing developments that address climate change adaption and provide locals with a city centre to be proud of.

bryansworld 4:36 pm 13 May 15

It’s not just the negative impact of the shops inside the Mall attracting people away from other parts of the City. The design of the Mall itself encourgaes people inside – what’s with all the blank walls and fake shopfronts? How did the City’s planners allow that to happen? It’s bad enough for them to be a pushover, but to let the developers get away with sneaky design tricks like this is outrageous.

Paul Costigan 2:44 pm 13 May 15

and yes dungfungus – the developers and the planning bureaucrats are moving across the city very much like ‘a plague of locusts’.

Paul Costigan 2:31 pm 13 May 15

Dear vintage123

Thanks for your comments. I definitely agree that changes to planning requirements are required to encourage the rejuvenation of Civic. I also agree that a new mix of residential and commercial is essential.

That’s the easy part. The problem is that there is absolutely no trust in the current managers of planning and development in Canberra and no leadership coming from the Chief Minister (as Minister for Urban Development).

The current mob would allow developers to mow down anything and everything and plonk down a host bland box buildings and then they would move onto their next projects – leaving Civic to be as boring as some of the suburban centres in cities around Australia and elsewhere.

It is going to require another set of hands to guide this. It will require intelligence and creativity and a lot more. Despite my statements about how bad things have been allowed to get in Civic, I can see this as a wonderful chance to do something different and to put Civic (those bits outside the mall) back on the map for locals and tourists. I think it can be done.

More on this in next week’s piece. Plus I suspect I may have to write another couple of posts on Civic as the issues and ideas keep coming.

vintage123 2:28 pm 13 May 15

Hey dungfungus, your analogy to locusts had me in stitches. Quite true actually.

dungfungus 2:14 pm 13 May 15

vintage123 said :

Hi Paul.

The current planning guidelines for civic are not conducive to development. Specifically building heights and set backs and zoning. As such developers take a path of least resistance and have focused energy into projects along new Acton and the foreshore where favourable conditions and incentives to develop exist. Furthermore most of these developments are single dimension in that it is vacant carpark like areas whereby a build up approach is undertaken, as opposed to civic where an integrated or demolish to construct model would be required.

The only real viable solution I can envisage is to introduce considerable incentive for developers to develop the site into a combined high density residential and retail precinct. Obviously this would require a re jig of the current planning guidelines and regulations. It would also pose a significant logistical challenge in consolidating the areas worth or lease and commercial arrangements.

However if this was achieved then I believe the centre would become more appealing, more useful and more attractive for residents and visitors.

vintage123 said :

Hi Paul.

The current planning guidelines for civic are not conducive to development. Specifically building heights and set backs and zoning. As such developers take a path of least resistance and have focused energy into projects along new Acton and the foreshore where favourable conditions and incentives to develop exist. Furthermore most of these developments are single dimension in that it is vacant carpark like areas whereby a build up approach is undertaken, as opposed to civic where an integrated or demolish to construct model would be required.

The only real viable solution I can envisage is to introduce considerable incentive for developers to develop the site into a combined high density residential and retail precinct. Obviously this would require a re jig of the current planning guidelines and regulations. It would also pose a significant logistical challenge in consolidating the areas worth or lease and commercial arrangements.

However if this was achieved then I believe the centre would become more appealing, more useful and more attractive for residents and visitors.

I am not convinced Canberra has the capacity to convert any more “future visions’ into reality.
The two factors that are now missing are people and finance.
The current areas of activity are New Acton and Braddon (the futsal pop up has gone nowhere) and the nomads making this happen previously went to other areas like Garema Place, Bunda Street. Years ago, the Boulevard was the in place. The next cool destination will be Constitution Avenue.
Its called churning.
It’s like a single plague of locusts. You can see where they are and you can (sadly) see where they have been.
At the same time their scouts are scoping the next “green pasture”.
On the money side, well our Government is “overcommitted” already and will be broke soon.

vintage123 1:26 pm 13 May 15

Hi Paul.

The current planning guidelines for civic are not conducive to development. Specifically building heights and set backs and zoning. As such developers take a path of least resistance and have focused energy into projects along new Acton and the foreshore where favourable conditions and incentives to develop exist. Furthermore most of these developments are single dimension in that it is vacant carpark like areas whereby a build up approach is undertaken, as opposed to civic where an integrated or demolish to construct model would be required.

The only real viable solution I can envisage is to introduce considerable incentive for developers to develop the site into a combined high density residential and retail precinct. Obviously this would require a re jig of the current planning guidelines and regulations. It would also pose a significant logistical challenge in consolidating the areas worth or lease and commercial arrangements.

However if this was achieved then I believe the centre would become more appealing, more useful and more attractive for residents and visitors.

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