The City Renewal Authority is a step closer to starting its plans to revamp Garema Place and City Walk, with the ambition of making them greener, safer and more hospitable.
While I agree that more shade for summer, and an upgrade to the cracked and uneven pavement, would be welcome, the issues with safety and creating a sense of community in the city are more complex than a renovation can solve.
For as long as I can remember, Garema Place – especially the stretch between it and the Civic bus interchange – has been a melting pot for the different faces of Canberra. Workers and professionals mingling with kids and families, and also the less fortunate among us – people sleeping rough, begging for cash, or visibly under the influence.
It’s true that, especially at night, walking through Garema Place can feel unsafe. I spent my 20s living in Braddon behind the old Cooyong flats, and would regularly walk to late shifts at work.
The lack of bright lighting did make the environment feel more sinister – but I think there was also an element of stereotyping at play. Because I was walking past the flats and through an area that plenty of rough sleepers and visibly lower socio-economic people frequented, I assumed it was less safe than other areas.
In reality, I never actually suffered any kind of negative experience in Garema Place, not even when walking through alone in the early hours of the morning. And when I have interacted with people in the area who have needed spare change, or have appeared to be agitated and potentially under the influence, a few kind words is usually all that I exchange with them.
The fact is that Civic still contains the most accessible combination of services that people need to access, especially people in need or experiencing financial difficulties. The bus interchange, Centrelink in walking distance, GPs, employment services – and Garema Place is one of the key connecting points between these places.
Even as we refurbish the urban environment to make it more pleasant for the majority of Canberrans who are looking for a fun and safe place to enjoy in the city, it’s worth considering how the illusion that can be created through furniture and landscaping won’t necessarily change the fact that vulnerable people will always use Garema Place as a meeting place and a transit point between services.
If we want to address the impact that may have on people’s perceived (if prejudiced) sense of safety, we actually need to look at the complex drivers of poverty and homelessness.
Our urban environments are for everyone and, inevitably, what we each seek from them is individual and driven by our unique circumstances.
Uplifting a central location like Garema Place is a wonderful idea, but only if it incorporates and remains inclusive of all sections of our community.