2 February 2020

Has the Bush Capital had a Brazilian?

| Braedan Kidd
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National Arboretum. Photo: Jack Mohr.

Driving through the new housing estates on Canberra’s North Side last week, I couldn’t help but think the landscape is becoming rapidly reminiscent of Western Sydney’s congested sprawl of cookie-cutter homes. There are big houses on small blocks and a narrow labyrinth of streets that don’t flow on to each other. What sticks out the most though is the complete lack of greenery. Bushland is lapping at the edges begging to integrate with the new development but we, as consumers, are not having a bar of it.

Aerial View of Dunlop

Aerial View of Dunlop. Photo: Jack Mohr

Over a century has passed since one of Canberra’s most prominent visionaries got to work with the afforestation of this once empty sheep station. Charles Weston, Horticulturist and Arboriculturist, was tasked with reversing the degradation of the site and establishing a truly unique landscape worthy of the Nation’s Capital.

100 years later and we are at risk of losing our green identity. In the quest for jobs, money, and growth, we have forgotten the true soul of “The Bush Capital”.

Our city’s connection with the bush is slowly but surely diminishing. We ignore studies and data on not only the ecological but also the health and productivity benefits the green landscape promotes. Energy efficiency ratings are mandatory but without the plant cover, we’re cooking the streets and roofs and trapping the heat. Our beautiful mid-century vernacular architecture has been replaced with concrete blocks with no consideration for gardens. ‘Just whack an air conditioner in and she’ll be right’ is the common attitude to modern-day Canberra house design.

Why is there not a push to incorporate biophilic design elements into our homes? Kellert, Heerwagen and Mador’s “Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life” indicates the benefits of incorporating these natural design elements include the cooling of the city through the reduction of the Urban Heat Island effect, reduced energy needs in buildings as a result of the added insulation plant life provides, improved biodiversity, and improved health. The CSIRO’s urban heat-mapping data (as incorporated in the ACT’s Climate Change Adaption Strategy) show the new estates light up like a Christmas tree with greater surface temperatures recorded on a hot day than that of the established leafy counterparts.

Metropolitan Land Surface Temperature 2014

Canberra’s Metropolitan Land Surface Temperatures 2014
Source: ACT Climate Change Adaption Strategy.

The ACT Treasury predicts that Canberra will grow by another 100,000 people within the next 20 years. That could spell many more poorly planned estates that do not harness the image Charles Weston worked so hard to cultivate.

If we’re not careful, an innocent trim of the bikini line may turn into a full-blown Brazilian.

Would you like to see better landscape planning in new estates?

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wildturkeycanoe8:10 am 11 Mar 18

Wow, I just posted regarding lack of parks and playgrounds in another story about lack of single dwellings, but it would have fitted better in this discussion. Hear, hear. More trees for Canberra. Hypocritically though, I am about to rip up two bottlebrush and one waratah from our yard to fit a third vehicle parking spot. While I hate to do it, with a teen learning to drive it is necessary. To offset the loss however, there will be a new frangipani tree going up and we have a backyard full of fruit bearing vegetation already. If we could afford more than a 460 sq metre block, the destruction would be unnecessary.

Capital Retro11:30 am 11 Mar 18

Actually, I was about to make a comment pursuant to your observation on the other thread about apartments lacking larger children’s playgounds, a similar situations will develop regarding lack of parking space but it could be more relevant on this thread.

The point I make as that with our children becoming old enough to drive they will get a car – they are so cheap and convenient that public transport will never be an alternative for them in Canberra.

There is no additional on-site space in unit blocks for extra cars; indeed a lot of the new developments won’t have any allocated parking at all. There will be no space in the surrounding streets so what is the solution?

If on the other hand, if your drivers licence age kids are living at the family home and that home is a stand alone house with space between the front door and the road one has the choice of sacrificing part of the garden to allow them to park off the street as you have done, albeit reluctantly.

As I have said previously, parking in some of the streets in Gungahlin (not just the newer suburbs) is becoming impossible. This has become a planning disaster all because the government still believes that people would prefer to use public transport yet their recent target from 8% to 11% public transport use is actually falling and is now near 6%.

Good on you for planting more trees.

Capital Retro11:13 pm 09 Mar 18

Canberra has a similar history to Brasilia which is currently sucking in about 100,000 unskilled people a year. They are mostly living in slums on the extremities of Brasil’s capital. The population is over 3 times that of Canberra.

Do we really want to go down the Brasilia road?

While I love trees and agree with the concept that mature trees = less heat, I think the conclusions drawn are wrong.

If you look at the older parts of Gungahlin on the heat map, they’re not dissimilar to most of Tuggeranong. Kingston’s doing OK, despite its density.

It’s more the age of a suburb. These days suburbs are moonscaped and smoothed before construction, which is good for drainage and avoiding future local flooding. Unfortunately it also means a wait for that established, cool, green environment. But it does come, eventually.

The reference in the comments to Radburn style planning is erroneous, as the newer suburbs reduce private open space but increase public open space, making it readily accessible for all, which is in line with Radburn philosophy. Several of our newer suburbs have won awards for just that.

Give a suburb 20 years before judging it. The older Gungahlin suburbs are pretty good in my opinion.

HiddenDragon5:29 pm 07 Mar 18

“….What sticks out the most though is the complete lack of greenery…..”

Indeed – but what really “sticks out” is the contrast (or more frankly, contradiction and hypocrisy) about the bottom-line driven lack of greenery in new developments, and many redevelopments, and the at times almost manic determination to preserve trees in established suburbs. The latter, and the resultant costs and risks borne by some residents, is justified by carefully chosen words about the benefits of the “urban forest”, but if those benefits are so great, why are we not seeing provision for the development of Canberra’s future urban forests – or at least some worthwhile greenery which goes beyond token garnishes…….?

It’s interesting – there are whole streets of smaller (500-600m2) blocks in places like Ainslie that don’t suffer from this problem. I think the reason this has become such a big issue in the newer suburbs is because people are now consistently building houses that fill up most of the block, regardless of how big that block may be.

For instance, the other day I saw an absolute monster of a house being built in Lawson that streched to all three fencelines, on what turned out to be a 1000m2 block! At two stories, I have no idea how it avoided breaching the 50% plot ratio restriction, but there it was for all to see.

This has also been happening on redeveloped blocks in the older suburbs, with more modest buildings being demolished to make way for houses that are twice the size and have almost no private green space.

The truth is, when it comes down to green space or floor space, people are overwhelmingly choosing floor space. It’s a trend that’s happening all over Australia, with no end in sight: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=nRF1zMXTkukC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

For example, compare Lalor and Piper Streets in Ainslie to Kettle and Evadell Streets in Gungahlin: https://i.imgur.com/jyQkRNN.png Despite sitting on smaller blocks, the houses in Ainslie have backyards that are proportionally much bigger than the yards in Gungahlin, where the blocks are almost entirely taken up by the footprint of the house.

If people seriously want big backyards and leafy suburbs, then they’re going to have to stop building such enormous houses.

One thing to be mindful of is that older Suburbs like Ainslie have ‘on average’ three times larger Nature Strips than the newer Suburbs. These Nature Strips are not calculated as part of the block size and they often hold large attractive trees that were planted by Government.

Some of the new and old comparisons of block size are difficult with narrower streets, less small green spaces in streets and much smaller nature strips.

Do the sums on the square KM of the Suburb and the number of lots. This shows how the Government is squeezing far more lots into a Suburb (which is probably a good thing).

While it might be true that the average size of Canberra nature strips has fallen over time, it’s worth pointing out that the roads and nature strips in the examples I’ve cited are roughly comparable in size:



It just goes to show that small blocks, narrow roads and (comparatively) small nature strips can produce leafy suburbs if people don’t get greedy with the size of their house.

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