Did the Chief Minister just fail Urban Design basics?

Paul Costigan 20 February 2018 32
Downtown Singapore. Photo: Paul Costigan.

Downtown Singapore. Photo: Paul Costigan.

I have just spent three weeks in Singapore. And it was here while enjoying life in a tall apartment tower overlooking the busy life along the river that I read online the latest wondrous statement by our Chief Minister on Canberra’s urban development.

‘Oh dear’ and ‘you have to be kidding’ were my first reactions. Surely he did not say that? Oh yes, he did.

Some of what he said just did not make sense, while other bits were just inexplicably naïve.

Our Chief Minister has a questionable history in dealing with things around urban development, urban design and planning. He has a history of making strange remarks about different sections of the local population.

Following the 2016 ACT election, the view was that the Chief Minister no longer held the planning or urban redevelopment portfolios and so would be leaving such statements to his other ministers. Apparently not.

There are so many things wrong with what he was reported to have said. With limits on my wording for this post – I will deal with just a couple:

For instance: “You [can] go anywhere else in the world and they would laugh at you if you said a 12-storey building was high rise.”

Seems our Chief Minister is not aware that a huge number of locals travel and know a lot about other cities. As anyone who travels and observes city planning and/or architecture, many cities have restrictions on where high-rises can be built, many city governments work hard to maintain the ambience of precious parts of their cities and therefore insist on well-proportioned and human scale developments.

Street scene in downtown Singapore. Photo: Paul Costigan.

Street scene in downtown Singapore. Photo: Paul Costigan.

Maybe he has not travelled to many places or maybe he thinks that, having been to Singapore a couple of times, that they have tall buildings everywhere. Sorry – they do not. While there are an enormous amount of well-built towers in Singapore– many being great architecture – there are many other areas that are restricted to being lower buildings.

Then there was this: Chief Minister Andrew Barr has slammed the “small-town, backwards, 1940s mindset” of some Canberrans when it comes to height restrictions in the capital’s key town centres.

I am still not sure what he means by the ‘1940s mindset’. Anyone who was an adult in the 1940s would definitely not be bothering much with such silly statements in 2018.

I suspect that this is another example of his commenting about an imagined homogenous group of older people – being older than him that is. Here’s news for the Chief Minister: People older than 45 years, being his age, have a diverse range of opinions on planning issues – that is, ‘older’ people should not be treated as one class of people with one set of views on issues.

An informed approach to urban design/urban redevelopment would be based on a respectful attitude to all people as individuals, rather than seeing them as groups to be sneered at. We do not see much of this respect from this government. And by coincidence, we have not seen very good urban development outcomes for the last decade or more.

While there remain many other points that could be discussed, I cannot leave this one out: “short, squat buildings that fill up all the available space” were not necessarily better outcomes than “tall elegant buildings”.

It is a sad thing that so many blokes in property development and in politics desire to have tall erect shafts of buildings as their legacy. Do they think that there is elegance to the many bland box towers presently being plonked in an ad hoc manner across Canberra?

Which brings me to a final point or two.

It is about planning! Time and time again people across Canberra have asked this government to resume real planning – as opposed to the pretend thing they now do. Singapore has a comprehensive master planning for the whole island and then localized planning for redevelopment of established areas as well as amazing detailed master plans for their new community developments.

URA planning for new district - solar on tall buildings - loads of green spaces. Photo: Paul Costigan.

URA planning for a new district: Solar on tall buildings and loads of green spaces. Photo: Paul Costigan.

They put these and more on public display at the downtown headquarters of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. I have visited this agency a number of times and always come away thinking – why don’t we do this in Canberra?

It is about architecture and landscape! Again making the comparison to Singapore, many of their buildings are good architecture and many of these are surrounded by an outstanding amount of greenery and well-landscaped places. They allow for generous spaces between buildings.

The ACT Government has failed by comparison. We are losing green spaces and most of the tall buildings are just boring.

If this government could do something about delivering good planning, insisting on good 21st century architecture as well as a comprehensive master plan that includes increasing greenery and biodiversity, then we may be able to have a mature conversation about having buildings of various heights in locations where it makes the most sense.

Canberra had a reputation (in the 1990s – not the 1940s) as a planned city and as a bush capital (meaning loads of greenery). Is it too much to ask that we continue to develop and change along those paths, rather than the present developer-led delivery of more unfriendly environments?

So please – stop insulting people, stop with the misleading spin and begin to deliver a healthy and attractive city that could include architecturally interesting tall buildings and far more green spaces. Then we may begin to trust our politicians again.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Share them in the comments section below.

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32 Responses to Did the Chief Minister just fail Urban Design basics?
mark boast mark boast 3:03 pm 26 Feb 18

Canberra is and should continue to be a showcase of all that is good in architecture. Could we see what is meant by the Chief Minister in detail because it is pointless arguing if we don’t know what we are really talking about?

John Wilson John Wilson 9:42 pm 23 Feb 18

My partner and I ride our bicycles through every nook and cranny in Canberra. It is a continuing, joyful quest to thoroughly immerse ourselves in this city's urban landscape. It amazes me that Paul Costigan hasn't been able to find the reserves and greenery we have here, more particularly in the newer suburbs. Fantastic small and large reserves on every hilltop, wide creek and river reserves with creek beds being encouraged to regenerate, wetlands, lakes, parks, old road corridors preserved as walkways .. the list goes on. We won't see the verdant growth of tropical Singapore when we look down from our towers, but we will see the Australian grass and woodland of the climate we inhabit.

Damaris Wilson Damaris Wilson 10:58 pm 22 Feb 18

Well said, Paul Costigan.

Dingo Dom Shanahan Dingo Dom Shanahan 10:17 pm 21 Feb 18

Garema place needs to be flattened we need an architect to re design how the space is used and move the merry go round already

Julie Coker-Godson Julie Coker-Godson 9:52 pm 21 Feb 18

I lived in Canberra during the 1960s/70s/80s/90s and left in 2004. What has been done to that city in the 14 years, especially in the CBD is woeful. The centre is now overly dominated by tall buildings that create wind tunnels and too much shadow, dark and depressing colouring of said buildings and whereas it used to be a sunny and open place, it looks more closed in. It is truly awful. Kippax is another area that is shocking to see in 2018 compared to those earlier years. The long solid wall covered with graffiti looked like a prison wall the last time I saw it. If that is what you consider intelligent urban design you have well and truly lost me. Burley Griffin would turn in his grave if he saw Canberra today. Self-Government destroyed Canberra in my view and I believe it should be abolished.

    M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 9:59 am 22 Feb 18

    Yep. Well said.

    Robert Knight Robert Knight 2:15 pm 22 Feb 18

    Except the city is now witnessing a burgeoning after hours vitality with significant economic return to small business and the ACT economy. People are voting with their feet and actually spending time in the city enjoying its new found urbanity. That’s not to invalidate your observations, but you should admit they’re entirely subjective.

    Julie Coker-Godson Julie Coker-Godson 3:46 pm 22 Feb 18

    Robert Knight No, they are not subjective. The CBD should be a place to be in the business hours not just the after hours, not everybody wants to be out and about in the middle of the night and a lot of people who have lived in Canberra from the 60s to the 2000s have said the same thing.

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 8:20 pm 22 Feb 18

    Julie Coker-Godson, unfortunately the Canberra you grew up in bore no resemblance to Griffin's Canberra. It was certainly never his intention for Civic to be a loose scattering of buildings in a sea of surface parking, regardless of how hard the NCDC tried to convince people otherwise.

    Julie Coker-Godson Julie Coker-Godson 8:58 pm 22 Feb 18

    Ryan Hemsley It wasn't his intention to have buildings over 4 storeys in the CBD either and this has been blithely disregarded since self-government which the majority of Canberrans did not want when they held a referendum on the issue. They were ignored by the Hawke Government which resented the NCDC as did a lot of left wing thinkers at the time.

    Obi Wan Obi Wan 10:01 pm 22 Feb 18

    Canberra is gone due to successive bad local governments only interested in votes and money, I bet in 10 years time we won't have any more green areas the lakes will probably be occupied, traffic will be impossible, crime rates like Melbourne, public health destroyed (actually already is) and I won't be surprised if many federal department move out, actually some already tried.

    Really sad to see my beloved city being treated like this by greedy politicians.

    Julie Coker-Godson Julie Coker-Godson 1:57 am 23 Feb 18

    Obi Wan I agree entirely. Interstate pollies of the left variety always resented Canberra getting what they believed was the better deal with regard to planning and roads etc. There was great resentment that Canberra was chosen to be Australia's capital. It was always in the left's mind to shut down the NCDC and introduce self-government. It was pathetic when it started and remains so today. Just read the history on self-government in the ACT - it's sad.

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 9:39 am 23 Feb 18

    Julie Coker-Godson, I'm pretty sure there were buildings taller than 4 stories in Civic well before self-government. The main difference now is they don't stand isolated like tombstones in a graveyard of asphalt.

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 10:02 am 23 Feb 18

    It's also pretty common knowledge that the Fraser Government started the process of abolishing the NCDC. The right-leaning Institute of Public Affairs once denounced this city as one of Australia's 13 "biggest mistakes". Where do people get this idea that lefties have some sort of monopoly on Canberra bashing?

Greg M Ews Greg M Ews 9:16 pm 21 Feb 18

Here a sensible and constructive response to this issue- put forward to the Standing Committee of the Legislative Assembly on the housing inquiry just before it closed. Perhaps our Chief Minister is in desperate need for some qualified advice!


Belconandonandon Belconandonandon 7:43 pm 21 Feb 18

I agree with the Chief Minister. It’s frustrating the way some people in Canberra automatically equate higher density development with bad urban planning, even though higher density development can and should be a part of a good urban planning policy, particularly in a city like Canberra that’s already way too sprawled out.

The ACT government actually does provide quite a lot of information on development applications and master plans, most people are just too lazy to look them up.

Wing Nut Wing Nut 7:18 pm 21 Feb 18

You only have to look at Barr’s ethically questionable oversight of the old LDA to see where this was heading. Urban planning is a token gesture at best; being seen to be doing something while doing nothing.

Rita Colozzi Rita Colozzi 5:58 pm 21 Feb 18

What he said "Canberra had a reputation (in the 1990s – not the 1940s) as a planned city and as a bush capital (meaning loads of greenery). Is it too much to ask that we continue to develop and change along those paths, rather than the present developer-led delivery of more unfriendly environments? So please – stop insulting people, stop with the misleading spin and begin to deliver a healthy and attractive city that could include architecturally interesting tall buildings and far more green spaces."

Patrick William Patrick William 5:43 pm 21 Feb 18

Brendon Hill - Singapore 👌

Margaret Freemantle Margaret Freemantle 3:43 pm 21 Feb 18

Please give us quality buildings with attractive staircases. Help with our huge obesity problem and will be a good look

Michael White Michael White 11:48 am 21 Feb 18

But I like apartment buildings. And do think the ones in my area look interesting. So much better than the industrial buildings they’re replacing. I’d much prefer them to more houses on the edges of the city.

Michele Gorman Michele Gorman 11:02 am 21 Feb 18

Totally agree. So many of our buildings are so boring, no imagination. Don't always listen to all the people who don't like something different. You might find they are the minority Mr Barr.

Margaret Chalker Margaret Chalker 10:34 am 21 Feb 18

Thank you Paul Costigan.

Steve Whan Steve Whan 10:33 am 21 Feb 18

Tiny narrow streets, no parking, medieval 'smashed glass' street plans, single lane major arterial roads, trendy impractical side road building access, poor building access, lifts too small for ambulance stretchers, ..... = contemporary canberra town planning in action.

    Michael Ahern Michael Ahern 4:11 pm 21 Feb 18

    You just described Gungahlin perfectly....

    Robert Knight Robert Knight 2:09 pm 22 Feb 18

    So we should plan our city based on industrial requirements and the free movement of vehicle traffic instead of the human scale needs of people?

Jade Bowden Jade Bowden 10:23 am 21 Feb 18

I think it's important that building quality is addressed by the ACT gov. New builds are being signed off without inspection or guarantees by the gov bodies and builder. I'm in a complex with huge engineering flaws. The plans should never have been approved. Now it's up to all current owners to fork out MASSIVE amounts of money to fix the issues. Take care of your citizens and your city's reputation.

chewy14 chewy14 9:08 am 21 Feb 18

1. Barr didn’t say he wanted high rise buildings everywhere, and the author has provided an example of Singapore where high rise buildings are used in certain areas with greater restrictions in other areas. Exactly what Barr was suggesting for Canberra.

2. The author should note Barr’s use of “some Canberrans”, so he isn’t suggesting that older people are a homogenous group. Seems like the author doth protest too much, Barr’s critique must have hit a bit close to the bone.

3. So after complaining about Barr’s critique of Canberrans who instantly object to tall buildings, the author then instantly objects to tall buildings. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

The author wants more urban planning? Perhaps he should read the reams and reams of planning strategies and masterplans on the governments websites outlining all the issues he’s talking about?

What he really means is that he doesn’t like the planning visions or outcomes of this work, that might affect areas where he lives. In which case, he’s free to make his thoughts known at the next election, exactly like everyone else.

    mcs mcs 10:02 am 21 Feb 18

    Its the same old story Chewy – at least there is consistency within the Author’s views on the world, as tiresome as they may be.

    We must be about due another article on the ‘Dickson Parklands’ next 😛

    maryclare maryclare 8:45 am 24 Feb 18

    Agree, get’s a bit same same.

Paul Costigan Paul Costigan 9:08 am 21 Feb 18

A footnote to my post –

Across Australia – unfortunately Canberra is not alone in getting it wrong on development, planning, architecture and landscape design.

There’s loads of good research on these topics so there is no reason for the ACT Government and its agencies not to have a good understanding of how to go about 21st Century urban development.

Here’s one example of a good article written this month.


Arjay Arjay 8:21 am 21 Feb 18

I dont know where in Singapore you’ve been Paul, but from my recent trip I would describe 80% of the buildings there as being:

a) tall, (12 stories and above), and
b) boring

There were notable exceptions, of course, but the overwhelming impression is one of tall, boring buildings stretching as far as the eye can see.

I imagine the main reason they can afford that green space is because almost all Singaporeans live in apartments. Good luck convincing Canberrans to sacrifice their 5 bedroom McMansions in exchange for a bit more greenery.

Let’s be honest – if anyone seriously proposed bringing Singapore’s urban form to Canberra, they’d be chased out of the city with pitchforks.

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