Outdoor malls and paved public spaces have been the hallmarks of vibrant cities the world over. Singapore, New York, Wellington, Shanghai – these are just some of the locations where I have enjoyed a meander through a bustling outdoor boulevard lined with stores and cafes and thriving with locals and visitors alike.
When I take those images and transpose them to Canberra’s Garema Place, the vision dims somewhat.
Garema Place has been the subject of debate for many years and has evolved over decades through numerous versions of its potential. Older relatives remember a time when Garema Place was the hub of outdoor dining, a safe environment to enjoy a meal while letting the children play in the open square.
Of course, other memories will include the ongoing use of the space by the homeless, down and out, and drug-addicted members of our community, its proximity to the bus interchange bringing all sections of Canberra’s wider populace together (whether they like it or not).
But even just in my own memory of frequenting Garema Place over the last 15 years, I’ve witnessed the swift decline from a space that still clung onto some remnants of the glory it was designed to encompass into a hollow empty space where (imagined) tumbleweeds blow, only enlivened three times a day when office workers walk to and from work or travel through the space to grab lunch at the Canberra Centre food court.
The outdoor dining culture, the use of the space for rallies and public events (difficult to imagine in COVID-19, but they did happen and could still happen again) seems destined to die out, especially if the development plans for a hotel by Geocon, and the inevitable ongoing expansion of the Canberra Centre unfolds (the latter might not be locked down, but I can’t imagine prime real estate just across the street from the existing Centre will be left untouched for long).
Now, as plans for a mixed-use precinct on the north side of Haig Park from Braddon are promoted, I can’t help but wonder why the City Renewal Authority maintains the charade that the government gives a hoot about revitalising Garema Place when all of the development to date seems bent on driving traffic further and further away from it?
A consultation recently closed on the place plan being drafted for Petrie Plaza, City Walk and Garema Place, and I’ll certainly wait to see the proposed strategy when it’s announced. But it does seem interesting that in the many years throughout which Canberrans have been calling for a revitalisation of Garema Place, numerous other development plans for the areas around the city (indeed, the areas closer to various apartment developments), have been swiftly approved and put into action.
The City Renewal Authority states on its website that Garema Place is part of the ‘the heart and soul of Canberra.’ If that’s the case, and so little attention has been paid to it, Canberra’s soul appears to be in purgatory.