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Want to see Canberra at its best? Invest more in its people and less in infrastructure

Zoya Patel 29 July 2019 54
Are we losing the essence of what makes Canberra great? Photo: George Tsotsos.

Are we losing the essence of Canberra? Photo: George Tsotsos.

How is culture created? How do cities gain worldwide reputations? What is the cost, and what can be gained?

These are questions that Canberra is grappling with now, and the answers being presented by the Barr government are clear – buildings, buildings, a tram and more buildings.

I was recently at Grand Central Station in New York, at that special place in the concourse called the ‘Whispering Gallery’. The story goes that if you stand in one corner of the ornate archway, and a friend stands in the opposite one, you’ll be able to whisper into the walls and the sound will travel straight to their ear.

It’s an incredible building – but what makes the Station, and indeed New York so rich with culture, is not the building. The buildings are just the setting for the centuries of human culture, which has evolved in a way that is unique to the city. In fact, Grand Central Station was rebuilt three times, to better suit the needs of New Yorkers.

Coming back to Canberra, I was struck by the marketing terms employed by developers spruiking the numerous new buildings being thrown up across the city.

Branx, one Braddon apartment block is called, a name that heralds the gritty urban borough in NYC, the Bronx. Another apartment development in Woden is called Grand Central Towers, and offers a lobby to rival the Station in NYC. Geocon offers (or threatens, depending on how you feel about it) to ‘shape Canberra’s skyline’ – a skyline that many residents already love for the way it offers an uninterrupted view of the mountains that ring the valley.

Soon these will be blocked by apartments, apartments, and more apartments.

Here’s the thing – you can’t create a vibrant city through imitation, and by investing in buildings without investing in people. You know why New York has Grand Central Station, and the High Line, and the Brooklyn Bridge, and any number of other iconic architectural landmarks? It’s because they evolved over many years, dreamed into being by New Yorkers, based on the culture of that city. They were intended to enhance the culture, not replace it.

Importantly, New York is what it is because of the people in it, the industries it houses, and the role it plays in America more broadly. With this in mind, the desperate attempts to mimic that city in Canberra seem even more ludicrous.

Instead, why not play to the unique characteristics Canberra already has? As the Bush Capital, people come to Canberra precisely because of our lower urban density, the access to nature parks, and the stunning views that stretch (uninterrupted by high rises) across the lake and between mountains.

Infrastructure projects should be focused on adding value to the community in areas of identified need, rather than strategically to enhance sites of current development projects that will ultimately only be available to high-income earners (i.e. the numerous apartment complexes being built on Northbourne Avenue and starting at over $300,000 for one-bedroom plans).

Light rail in the city. File photo.

More and more apartments are taking over Canberra’ unique skyline. File photo.

Frustratingly, even when the Government decides to invest in culture, it is once again with the ambition of imitating famous cultural events from America, instead of investing in local communities.

The plan for an arts and music festival that rivals South By South West (SXSW) is particularly ludicrous. That festival, based in Austin, Texas, was created by a community of musicians and artists, who used their skills and networks to develop an event designed for the people it attracted; it evolved with the objective to serve artists and to connect that art to the community, not with the objective of selling more apartments and grabbing more tourism dollars.

That the ACT government assumes that by throwing money at bureaucrats they can create something similar in Canberra is offensive to the artists here, who have been working for decades to create a scene that is unique to our city and who have been doing this with minimal investment from the government.

I have worked on multiple grassroots festivals and events in Canberra, and they have been exciting and vibrant, and able to attract interstate artists precisely because they have grown out of authentic arts communities that exist independent of the government. They are free to explore and experiment the way that the arts should, rather than being beholden to the numerous approval and procurement processes of the public service.

Yet just a few years ago, the newly re-elected Barr government tried to sneakily cut arts funding by 60 per cent without informing the community, making it harder for the arts culture to thrive in Canberra while simultaneously using its lack of thriving as justification for launching a government-run festival instead. (It should be noted that after collective action from Canberra artists, the funding was restored and a new advisory council on the arts established).

Of course, the other aspect of this rhetoric about ‘revitalising’ Canberra that grates is the assumption that Canberra isn’t vibrant already. It’s an assumption predicated on there being a straight line drawn between ‘vibrancy’ and ‘bustling metropolis’. It ignores the numerous ways that cities diverge from this stereotype, and remain exciting and unique.

Leave Canberra alone – let us grow and change naturally, rather than trying to force this square peg into a round hole.

Zoya Patel is a writer, editor and communications professional, based in Canberra. She is the founder and editor of Feminartsy, an online feminist arts and literature journal, and was named ACT Young Woman of the Year in 2015 for her commitment to raising the profile of women’s voices in the media. 


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54 Responses to Want to see Canberra at its best? Invest more in its people and less in infrastructure
Ctl_Alt_Del Ctl_Alt_Del 10:16 am 09 Aug 19

Nothing more cringeworthy than seeing names borrowed from elsewhere. There was a building in town once that had ‘Times Square’ happily emblazoned on it :/

ACT has a habit of trying to create culture by bureaucracy. Lonsdale Street Braddon being a good example. It was growing nicely from grass roots energy and then the government declared it was a hipster precinct, muscled in and completely gutted its vibrancy.

Nick Swain Nick Swain 10:11 pm 08 Aug 19

Good article Zoya! People make our city, not buildings. Unfortunately the ACT budget is massively dependent on construction and to fund the light rail the government needs to starve cultural activities (some say even anything not connected to light rail). There’s massive profits going to a small number of developers at the cost of community facilities and services.

Leanne Catanzariti Leanne Catanzariti 10:26 am 07 Aug 19

Do what you want in the cities but leave our surrounding country alone.

Joe Roos Joe Roos 5:59 pm 06 Aug 19

Well said!!

Scott Sherwin Scott Sherwin 9:39 pm 04 Aug 19

Its screaming obvious that the time has come to reopen The Private Bin

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 6:43 pm 04 Aug 19

“Here’s the thing – you can’t create a vibrant city through imitation,”

Very well said, indeed.

Anything vaguely resembling genuine “vibrancy” (surely THE most overused word of the last 10 years) and diversity (a close runner-up) is always going to be a challenge in a town which is so strongly middle class and careerist, and generally takes itself far too seriously, but is certainly not assisted by relentless imitation – it’s so five minutes ago, complete with a rising intonation.

Megan van der Velde Megan van der Velde 10:38 am 04 Aug 19

Great article Zoya. I could not agree more with everything you have said. Having lived here for 30 years I have watched the development with interest and the over development with horror. I moved from Sydney to get away from the dreaded monoliths and now we are getting inundated with them here. I only hope that the trouble Sydney is having with poor quality building puts the demand for these horrible towers down and so they stop building them. People mostly live in them because they have no choice. Build something more in line with the bush capital theme.

Kerry Mulgrue Kerry Mulgrue 8:40 am 04 Aug 19

Someone once said, "Canberra is 11 suburbs in search of a city". That statement is truly telling because Canberra is about the people who live here and NOT about the commercial districts.

Emilia Della Torre Emilia Della Torre 6:03 am 04 Aug 19

The problem is people already pay taxes. Building rates raise new revenue. Our Chief Minister not only does not invest in the people of the ACT. He does not even respect them enough to let the city naturally evolve.

Paul Davenport Paul Davenport 2:58 am 04 Aug 19

Speaking from UK, in my opinion Canberra is one of the most beautiful and surprising cities in the world. It lacks the egotistical towers that stand like phallic symbols in other major cities and instead it loses whole suburbs in broad vistas of trees and gently rolling hills. I stood, earlier this year outside the National Arboretum and gazed towards Mt. Painter - the view seemed to go on forever despite the fact that Belconnen was within my scope, just trees and hills. What an extraordinary achievement to have created a Capital city that has quiet places and open skies, a city that is both welcoming and unassuming. So unlike brash Sydney, crumblingly gentrified London and Athens of the concrete. Perhaps Paris might even envy Canberra?

Alex SmilyLex Alex SmilyLex 1:24 am 04 Aug 19

Bring back its recently gone soul at night. Its now back to the strangle soul it had in the 80's

Steve Duda Steve Duda 12:51 am 04 Aug 19

They said just let Sydney grow too... Nek minut Urban Sprawl for 30km. Terrible idea.

Planned cities work best.

Michael Roy Michael Roy 8:54 pm 03 Aug 19

We definitely can't go with continued outward expansion but Sprawl bad densification good is an over simplification. We have a huge missing middle density, one that responds to the human scale yet provides sufficient density to promote walkability, social interaction and affordability. This along with select mixed use and proper integrated transport could revitalise our suburbs and help build communities again.

Frances Leonard Frances Leonard 8:52 pm 03 Aug 19

Clean up the city, eradicate the weeds, the rubbish, mow the grassed areas, take care of green spaces and accentuate the beauty of the trees and open spaces. In regard to high rise development do developers have to submit a landscape plan as well to the ACT Gov’t? Because there are developments that have no quality landscaping with their finished product.

Monica Tiffen Monica Tiffen 8:06 pm 03 Aug 19

It is so beautiful, with the variety of trees, and the Lake.

Malcolm Campbell Malcolm Campbell 7:22 pm 03 Aug 19

How about you stop spending money in Canberra and spend some of it on country towns and villages. As far as I’m concerned you have spent to much in Canberra already

Shirley Hadfield Shirley Hadfield 5:44 pm 03 Aug 19

NYC is a vibrant city.

Full of high rise apartment buildings!

Jai Darling Jai Darling 5:30 pm 03 Aug 19

Literally one of the best things about this place is how integrated we are with the bushland in and around the city and it's major hubs.

Daniel J. Fitzpatrick Daniel J. Fitzpatrick 5:14 pm 03 Aug 19

Everyone in this thread commenting, no matter which side should take a read of this.

https://insidestory.org.au/a-city-in-search-of-its-centre/

    Elroy Jones Elroy Jones 5:51 pm 03 Aug 19

    Daniel J. Fitzpatrick CC: NCA. Lake is the biggest loss in all of this. Remarkable that the city operates less than 1km out of view of the lake.. also remarkable that people still argue it should be kept as is.

Gary Keogh Gary Keogh 3:10 pm 03 Aug 19

Regarding the part about developers and marketing, I thought "Kingston Harbour" sounded a bit pretentious.

I agree, Canberra doesn't need to pretend to be like NYC. It should just be its own city.

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