14 March 2021

Denser Canberra in danger of leaving communities behind

| Ian Bushnell
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The Lovett Tower

Woden squeeze: The Lovett Tower is to have a 24-storey neighbour on the site of the building at right. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

It may seem like an issue from the department of the bleedin’ obvious, but for the ACT’s community councils, it’s more like groundhog day.

As the ACT Government implements its 70:30 infill policy and town centres become the focus of increasing densification, community councils from Gungahlin to Molonglo are pleading for spaces to be reserved for community facilities and parks to service growing populations.

Woden is becoming a case study of dysfunctional town planning, where high-rise residential towers are crowding the skyline as thousands more Canberrans old and new call it home.

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The revived approval of a 24-storey building on the edge of the Square, and disturbingly close to the 26-storey Lovett Tower, is emblematic of an attitude of cramming as many projects as possible into the Town Centre.

While it is acknowledged that areas of Woden are tired and in need of rejuvenation, and projects such as the Interchange and CIT projects are welcome, it seems little thought has been given to where all these people are going to relax and play, apart from yet more coffee shops.

Another concern is that the linkages and corridors within the Town Centre are at threat as ad hoc solutions are imposed to resolve problems development is creating.

Over in Belconnen, council chair Glen Hyde cites Woden as an example of what needs to be avoided as it explores development choices through the Suburban Land Agency’s latest land releases in the Town Centre.

Mr Hyde sees the releases as an opportunity to provide community facilities and spaces and link the Town Centre precincts, as well as commercial and residential.

In an area where high-rise residential development such as the High Society and Cirrus projects now dominate the skyline, he hopes some of the action will tilt towards what the people who will live, work and play there need.

Nearby in West Belconnen, the ageing Kippax Centre is desperate for an upgrade as increased population, fuelled by infill development and the Ginninderry housing estate, puts the squeeze on the facility.

But the Kippax Fair owners and the community are yet to be given any timetable for when this process may get off the ground.

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In Gungahlin, Community Council chair Peter Elford is exasperated by the disjointed approach to a never-ending consultation on community and sporting facilities. At the same time, in the Town Centre, high-rise residential development continues apace at the expense of commercial job-creating projects.

In Molonglo, Coombs has been a planning debacle, with the completed shopping centre continuing to sit empty and community facilities almost non-existent.

The government appears to have heeded the lessons there and changed its approach in Wright and Whitlam but, like elsewhere in Canberra, community infrastructure is not keeping pace with population growth.

It is something the community there is keen to avoid when the Molonglo group centre is built.

The worsening traffic snarl in the morning exodus out of Molonglo is symbolic of the area’s growing pains.

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A new report commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation has warned of declining tree coverage in our cities and the dangers of heat islands due to development.

It highlighted the importance of green infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and while Canberra appears to be more blessed than other capital cities, increased densification, particularly in the Town Centres, means sufficient room needs to be reserved for plantings of appropriate tree species, permeable spaces and landscaping, as well as mandating green architecture.

All these things appear to be part of the planning landscape in Canberra, yet as the community councils’ experiences show, what is occurring on the ground can result in outcomes contrary to the intent of master plans, government policy and even the best intentions of developers.

In a Territory where land is currency, the government is beset by competing interests as it battles to find the money to pay for the services people demand and provide sufficient land to meet ever-increasing housing needs.

Meanwhile, new Property Council head Arabella Rohde wants a planning system that encourages innovation, out-of-the-box thinking and strives for great development.

The planning system review is tackling these issues but, for many of the ACT’s communities, change may come too late.

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HiddenDragon8:30 pm 15 Mar 21

“In a Territory where land is currency, the government is beset by competing interests as it battles to find the money to pay for the services people demand and provide sufficient land to meet ever-increasing housing needs.”

The ACT does have a narrow revenue base, and Grants Commission etc. processes never quite seem to compensate for that, but these constraints – and the resultant pressure to put revenue ahead of urban amenity – are made far worse by the strong tendency of ACT governments over many years to give Canberrans unrealistic expectations about what we can sustainably afford. To that extent, the problems described in this timely article are the price we pay for trying to live beyond our means as a self-governing jurisdiction.

ChrisinTurner2:13 pm 15 Mar 21

I live next to the demolished ABC Flats. The 2-bedroom air-conditioned public housing flats and 160 mature trees have been replaced by mostly 1-bedroom private apartments with no green areas just concrete, a handful of trees, no community facilities and no replacements for the previous 5 public playgrounds. Also there is no enforcement of noise pollution standards and little or no street sweeping. Who would want to live here?

There is a major disconnect in government policy between ‘densification’ and achieving 30% canopy cover. Kingston and Barton have experienced major density increases but have low canopy cover (around 15%). With developers seeking and approved to build on as large a part of their blocks as possible it is left to the public domain to provide the large canopy trees. However even nature strips are being denuded by people killing off established trees by compacting the soil through parking. Parking Ops and Tree protection need to work together.

The report by the Australian Conservation Foundation found green spaces had significantly declined in the last decade. They was scathing of the ACT and said the ACT needed far more green spaces. The report stated ‘Green cover in the ACT almost halved from 2013 to 2020 to 34 per cent’. Why has green space declined in the ACT, if the Greens have been in power (with Labor) here for many years? What exactly are the ‘Greens’ doing for the environment? Their name is a total misnomer. Improve green spaces immediately or resign.

Most people (not all) opt to live on decent-sized blocks and space if they were given the choice. However the politics (green on one side, property council on the other… or are they actually on the same side?) and planning doctrines are against them.

It’s ironic to see so many of the new suburbs are being named after the giants of post-WWII imagination like Whitlam (who, despite his brilliance and classical education, had a lot of empathy for ordinary Australians) and the great poet Judith Wright. What would they have thought of our current policy makers an the hangers-on in lobby groups? ‘LOL’ might be the appropriate response.

Others of that era included Hugh Stretton (his book Ideas for Australian Cities includes bold concepts such as linear cities) and Patrick Troy (The Perils of Urban Consolidation dispatches many of the engineering and cost-savings arguments for densification). Neither were fully-paid-up members of the planning establishment and they had some pretty acerbic things to say about the “we need more coffee shops” brigade (Troy gave the coffee-shop Don Juans short shrift and Stretton pointed out that more people are interested in gardening, tinkering with cars and playing backyard sport than swilling flat whites and being ‘vibrant’). The point is that they had bold imaginations and they had brains and were in touch with ordinary people.

Those attributes are missing now.

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