13 March 2024

Dickson shops revitalisation won't change inequality in north Canberra

| Zoya Patel
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The upgrades seem to be based on an idealistic notion of who uses the shops and how, as opposed to the reality. Image: CRA.

Anyone who has lived northside knows that the Dickson shops are a necessary evil.

Dickson shops has a reputation for being dirty and dangerous, and the site has been a source of frustration for Canberrans for a long time. In my entire lifetime, I haven’t seen any significant upgrades to the area (or at least any that have made a noticeable difference, apart from the addition of Coles a few months ago), so I should have been excited to hear that the City Renewal Authority is consulting on planned upgrades to the shops. Instead, after reviewing the proposals, I feel a combination of frustration and resignation.

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This isn’t because the proposal doesn’t offer positive upgrades. Ultimately, given the location and existing infrastructure at the shops, I think the proposed changes seek to do a lot with fairly constraining circumstances. The idea of decluttering Taglietti Square and making it more amenable to community events and gatherings is a good one, as is improving the concourses between different areas of the shopping precinct and focusing on proper lighting and clear access to improve safety.

The issue is that the upgrades seem to be based on an idealistic notion of who uses the shops and how, as opposed to reality.

The dream is that the shops are a space for families and north Canberra residents to do their weekend groceries, grab a coffee, wander through to the library or stop by for a snack after visiting the pool. Undoubtedly, many people do use the shops for these activities. But there is another significant cohort in north Canberra for whom Dickson shops is a key part of their day-to-day lives, and that is the homeless and those suffering significant economic disadvantage.

Just take a look at the comments on this publication’s initial article about the revitalisation project, and you’ll see that the biggest issue people cite with the shops is the feeling of being unsafe because people are sleeping rough, begging, or generally being in the shopping area and demonstrating antisocial behaviour.

Unfortunately, no amount of new garden beds, bike racks, or seating will address the issues of economic inequality, a lack of access to amenities outside of the shops, and the need for more adequately funded social services.

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If we want the shops to be a more inviting, welcoming space, it must serve the purposes of all Canberrans who use and need the area. Should there be co-located community development and social support services in the precinct? A community centre where people can find support, warmth and shelter when they need it during the day? North Canberra Community Services is nearby, but even that short distance can be a barrier for people needing holistic and targeted support. It’s understandable that the shops are a more popular place for vulnerable people to hang out, closer to the broader community.

One thing is for sure, pretending the issue with Dickson shops is limited to the outdated structures and pokey layout will miss the point entirely and potentially end in a lost opportunity to make a real difference to north Canberra communities.

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davidmaywald11:03 am 15 Mar 24

Good on you Zoya for acknowledging the elephant in the room, plus for drawing the sharp contrast between the pretty pictures and daily reality…

Tom Worthington4:24 pm 14 Mar 24

I chaired the Dickson Precinct Community Group, formed a couple of decades ago, for the ACT Government to consult on a previous refurbishment of Dickson shops. This was a bit more than a coat of paint (a search of the web will find the report). But that was a long time ago. I had hoped the development with the Coles supermarket in it would revitalize the area, but it turned out to be just a supermarket, and not much else. What the Dickson shops now need is knocking down and replacing, not with just more shops and apartments, but some more community facilities.

The drawing and imagery of the Dickson shops seems to have little resemblance to the current situation. A fair proportion of people who currently hang out near Woolies, the old Commonwealth bank and outside the library look and behave like people who might appreciate or benefit from additional support. I suspect that many shoppers are “in and out” as quickly as possible. I doubt that nicer garden beds etc will help them much, but most public areas need a refresh every now and then and perhaps the people who hang out around there will enjoy a nicer environment.

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