23 September 2019

Gungahlin by-design is coming to your suburb

| Paul Costigan
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Turner development site. Photo: Paul Costigan.

My post last week on the lack of good design and planning that is evident in the more recent parts of Gungahlin definitely caught a lot of people’s attention.

There is another side of this debate that may have relevance for many who threw in their comments about Gungahlin.

Have you looked around your own suburb and observed some of the recent housing and apartment developments? You may notice a style of housing that bears some resemblance to the worse of what we have seen built in Gungahlin – and right across Australia in all manner of suburban areas – both new and old.

Recently a Manuka resident maybe took things a little too far when they said that the ACT Government was turning their cherished suburb (Manuka/Forrest) into another Gungahlin.

I suspect that putting aside the insult about Gungahlin, most people knew exactly what was meant.

There are many houses now being built on blocks (houses demolished) in the Manuka / Forrest area that are pretty ordinary looking (if not ugly), are huge (when compared to the former) and have resulted in a reduction in the greenery possible on the site – and across the suburb.

But this is not unique to the inner south of Canberra – it is happening in all the older and well-established areas – and again all across Australia.

Only the other day I came around a corner in Campbell and had to stop and take in what was in front of us. There stood two amazingly large residences that had a few token plants around the edges (mostly ornamental grasses). As for what would have been part of the green infrastructure of the suburb, is now a potential heat island that must be chewing up heaps of energy during these warmer days.

So where did we go wrong with preserving Canberra as a bush capital – as a garden city?

Most voters are aware that this is happening and the message was clear at the last election. Or at least we thought it was clear. But – apparently not.

After years of planning (or lack thereof) being driven by the LDA agenda – sell anything and build anything and ignore the residents – the Chief Minister stated that he was taking actions. Sadly for the many residents with serious concerns about planning and development, he got it wrong.

Yes he did away with the LDA. But was that going to provide a new approach to planning and development in both older and newer areas? Nope!

We had big announcements for the new City Renewal Authority (bringing vibrancy to Northbourne, Civic and bit more). Apparently the second new agency, the Suburban Land Agency, has come into being but will do land sales only.

And the rest? Being the suburbs where we all live. No problems there apparently.

Manuka site. Photo: Paul Costigan.

It is business as usual. A bad sign being that the level of statements by residents groups on planning and development have not reduced. The issues remain unaddressed. There is no discernable change of culture within our government to how our suburbs are being redeveloped.

Take what has been just announced for the now infamous Manuka Oval site. Yet again we see all manner of spin being used to justify why the ACT Planning Minister used his ‘call-in’ powers (again) to approve what may or may not be an appropriate building on the site. “Call-in’ powers are those being used to circumvent the full DA process and therefore diminishes community engagement.

Nope! No changes there! Just more of the same spin.

Why does any part of the government really think anyone believes all that rubbish written by their ‘communication’ branches. Spin doctors for short.

As for the rest of our garden city, what has happened in many parts of Gungahlin is incrementally being allowed to change the amenity, the greenery and the ambience of our established suburbs.

So when people have jumped on board to criticize what has happened – and is still happening – in Gungahlin, have a thought that maybe you need to pay attention to what is happening closer to home.

And please! Do not bring up the old rubbish that those who oppose this bad design and ad hoc planning regime are somehow opposed to development and do not want more residences built in their suburban areas. Most residents have embraced the fact that things change. It has been so for a long time. Over the last decade, there has been a continuous increase in the number of houses, units, town houses, apartments etc.

What the government continues to not want to deal with is that people care for how their suburb will look in the future and how their children may not be able to enjoy the suburban ambiences that the present residents have had the privilege to enjoy.

People in older suburbs, including that spokesperson in Manuka, do not want the worst of Gungahlin to continue to incrementally destroy the joint.

Maybe instead of spending a huge amount of taxpayers’ funds on the stadium at Manuka (is there a stadium disease at the moment?), the ACT Government could invest in its own planning directorate and boost the specialist expertise.

Anything would be better than the present ad hoc approach.

Surely a ‘planned’ city that has a well resourced and highly skilled planning directorate – with good leadership – would not allow this trashing of the suburbs to continue.

Sadly it looks as though the same topics, being good design, suburban planning, biodiversity, climate effects in the urban areas, and the preservation of the city we love, are to be election issues next time.

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

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If anyone thinks that Canberra’s current planning system is leading to a better city, they are deranged and/or delusional. The current government is in thrall to developers – and do not imagine for one minute that the Liberals would be any better – obsessed with high rise/high density and with despoiling the natural beauty of Canberra (City to the Lake development, anyone?) The building site next to the Assembly building is a case in point. Does Canberra need any more hotels/office/blocks/lane ways/coffee shops/car parks? Like it needs an outbreak of bubonic plague. Does it need more trees, sympathetic architecture and better city services? Sure does.
Messrs Barr, Gentleman, etc: stop this rampant development, take time to look at – really look at – what’s around you. Reassess what you’re doing to this city and try to keep your greed and development mania under control. Sadly, the only thing that concentrates a politician’s mind is the prospect of losing an election and that won’t happen in Canberra while the alternative government is so inept.

Literally anything is better than retaining the surface car parks that blight City Hill and West Basin. The fact they were built at all is a national embarrassment.

And for all their faults, the City to the Lake plans are at least vaguely sympathetic to the Griffin vision. Certainly more so than the modernist dystopia we’ve been saddled with up until this point.

I notice that the building site next to the Legislative Assembly has had about ten protected-height trees cut down. I didn’t see any advice of that happening from the authorities …

Paul Costigan2:37 pm 17 Jan 18

Thanks Arjay

I was aware of Tony Hall’s work – once had him to a seminar I organised (early 2000s)– but have not seen anything from him recently – so really appreciate that pdf.

Do you have a date for it? must be later than 2009 given his references. He was definitely one of the researchers who was onto this early – but as yet his voice – and others – have been ignored despite what is happening in clear view.

And I tend to agree with his conclusions – being a major part of the problem.

And I agree about those that reminisce about the NCDC – if it had continued, it would have eventually had to bend to the political pressure (big property lobbying) and would have also allowed development to happen as we see it today.

Hi Paul

Citations suggest that it is indeed from 2009. I believe Tony Hall’s most recent work on the matter is from 2010, when he published “The Life and Death of the Australian Backyard”:


I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but it looks like he condensed his findings into this article:


Interestingly, you can see the exact same phenomenon occurring in New Zealand, where two-storey houses are now the norm:


A couple of years ago Mrs 1968 and myself walked the Camino De Santiago, 800kms across Spain. After weeks of walking through and staying in thousand year old towns we one day walked into a new “Resort town” complete with golf course and aquatic centre, built apparently for English retirees prior to some sort of market crash. It looked like a piece of Gungahlin Sliced up and dumped in the middle of Spain except it was like a ghost town. The English could no longer afford to buy in and the Spanish we sensibly staying away in droves.
The result was hideous and un-nerving.

Capital Retro2:03 pm 18 Jan 18

Did it have a light rail?

Paul, you might be interested in this research paper by Tony Hall, which details the very phenomenon you describe:


The author pins the blame on “contemporary social values and behaviour” and suggests capping plot ratios at 35% for detached dwellings.

And as much fun as it is to reminisce about the NCDC, you need only look at southern Issacs to see that the trend towards bigger houses, smaller blocks and narrow streets started before self government.

I’m not really sure that the suburb of Isaacs is a good case in point. The average block size of houses/single block townhouses sold in the Suburb in 2017 was 880m. Whilst there are a few townhouse and small blocks at the southern end of the Suburb, I believe many of these blocks were designed and released for development after Self Government began in 1989. However, there are still plenty of big big blocks in Southern Isaacs and the average size is still ‘double the average’ for new house block size releases in Canberra.

While it wouldn’t surprise me if the worst parts of Isaacs were partly the result of a cost-cutting Territory Government, the issue of narrow roads goes back at least to 1987: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/118305607

Michael White7:53 am 17 Jan 18

Paul, it’s hard to take you seriously when you can’t even get basic facts right.

There’s no agency called the urban development agency. There is, however, the suburban land agency. You moaning nimbyism is a testament to you sensationalist and poorly researched opinion pieces you dress up as journalism.

Another poorly written article that jumps from rant to rant without serious suggestion for alternate policy and poorly reasoned arguments.

Capital Retro2:09 pm 18 Jan 18

That’s a bit harsh.

I assume you don’t see the need for an “alternate policy” in which case why don’t you just tell us all why all is good with the current system.

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