23 September 2019

Why are we anxious about high-rise? The changing face of Canberra

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Trees and medium density can co-exist happily in a high-quality streetscape.

Hop into your time machine, set the dial to 2038, and the GPS to Northbourne Avenue. Is it a soulless canyon of shadowy skyscrapers or a bustling boulevarde? What about the town centres and the suburbs? How we live in Canberra is changing at warp speed. The govvie, with backyard fruit trees and room to play cricket, is a neighbourhood icon but the government says we’re out of room and that density, not suburban sprawl, is the answer for a growing city.

So should we be anxious about high-rise? Like many Canberrans, I’m concerned about where the city’s heading on the cusp of so much change, so I asked three major stakeholders: the developer, the landscape architect, and the senior bureaucrat.

First things first: we don’t actually have much high rise. At eight to 12 storeys, most Canberra buildings are medium density. Second generation developer, George Kathelakis, who also chairs the Property Council, says good quality medium density is do-able.

But he warns that the profits to be made on residential development risk driving the agenda in this town. “Excellent outcomes are not about how high a tower is, but what’s happening on the ground around it,” Kathelakis says, adding that tall buildings affect whole neighbourhoods. “We need rooftop gardens, planting spaces for big trees on maybe 30% of the site, accessible playgrounds. People feel most comfortable within the canopy of a tree so if you create high-quality streetscapes with green spaces, they’re much happier about density”.

But, he says, it will take “a lot of leadership” to preserve sites and limit their uses. “The government needs to say that schools, aged care, transport, affordable housing and green space must be included in a development. And we’re just not very successful at making that happen”.

Urban and Regional planning expert Professor Barbara Norman from the University of Canberra, favours “nature-based solutions” that green the spaces and cool the environment. “The more we integrate living infrastructure the better,” she says, citing Singapore, where density has increased by 40% while green spaces have increased by more than 25%. “And every development is signed off by their head of Parks”.

She’s urging the government to get our strategic plans right before approving the development, not the other way round. “The challenge is the pace of change. The risk is whether we will end up with a more sustainable city. I am really interested in the government investing much more in monitoring and evaluating these projects as they progress”.

Malcolm Snow who heads the City Renewal Agency with responsibility for Dickson, Northbourne Avenue, Haig Park, Civic and West Basin, says that the community is right to be cynical about some of the “indiscriminate and poorly planned buildings” that are going up across Canberra.

He calls out some developers who, he says, “don’t have a long-term vision but are pre-occupied with pushing limits. When they go beyond what is reasonable, we have to be absolutely certain about strong planning rules. We can’t fall into the trap of continuously shifting the touchline”. Snow says there are no excuses for “low levels of natural light and ventilation, no private open spaces, buildings that depend on air conditioning,” and bluntly labels some developments “the slums of the future”.

Brand new slums in our beautiful planned city are a frightening concept, so who can prevent that? Snow is an advocate for the Capital design review panel. He likes the work community councils are doing and agrees we need transparency, real consultation and a community debate that moves beyond NIMBYism and “an overly simplistic approach to density”.

Does our residential focus make room for trees and green spaces as the city grows?

As the city expands rapidly, who do we trust to make decisions about our future?

Flexible green spaces can be more than the traditional backyard.

I think development is inevitable: this is one of the fastest growing places in Australia. But getting it right will take informed input from all of us. The biggest challenge is to decide who we trust with our future, and how much control to give them. The experts have told me that we can live with medium density if we had more green spaces and stricter limits on developers.

So are they right? Can we do a better job at growing upwards not outwards? And is the ACT government listening to you?

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We fear poorly planned, poorly built shoe boxes that are over priced ‘because they are near the tram’. We fear a government who doesn’t want to listen to anyone with a different view or opinion.

Its not just increased density we fear its where, how, and who’s driving it to what outcome.
Barr, as prior planning Minister and now Chief Real Estate salesman has almost singlehandedly led Canberra down a developers golden pathway, reducing, intentionally, planning and develoment oversight to a status of complete disablement, approving pretty much anything, and a terrible history of retrospectively re-approving developments which were required modifications to meet planning legislation. (I.e. overturning ACAT decisions, Axis apts on Northbourne being a classic example)
We have buildings of appallingly low quality, a history of inappropriate and uncoordinated infill and developers in suburbs breaching planning, site and noise controls on an almost daily basis.
Dodgy land deals and misleading voters on height principles –
Anyone remember Barr crowing about’Parisian style streetscapes, of 5 to 7 storeys’ as part of his election and lightrail sales pitch.?
Thats now 8 or 9 or 12 or….higher?Northbourne framework documents that sell glossy dreamlike outcomes and are a saccharine laden sales guide, with misleading advice, rather than any critical analysis for residents to ‘haveyoursay’ despite the plan being decided, designed and pitched at every opportunity. The Northbourne deal is done and Barr isnt interested in the hoi polloi commentary.
All this poor planning and outcomes under Barrs leadership, aligned to developers and the Unions to support the Labor base.
Its not the highrise we wholly fear , it’s how it gets done and who’s driving it.
I note with some incredulous cynicism, the Northbourne framework completely excludes Downer from developmeny despite the Northbourne frontage being ripe for infill…so where does Barr live? That alone tells you the kind of person we are dealing with.

A wall of espaliered beans and popout baskets of soil growing radishes are no substitute for a back yard where your kids can play. This city’s planning seems to have forgotten the stages of life between “young, childless” and extreme old age.

It’s not the high-rise that scares me, you only have to look at the planning mess the ACT is in to see the gross incompetence of the Barr Government and relevant authorities to realise they are clearly incapable of delivering at considered cohesive plan.

Queanbeyanite6:41 pm 19 Apr 18

You’ve all got it wrong, the local council are just lining CFMEU pockets as quickly as possible, jamming as many pokey flats as possible. The ACT should be abolished and rolled into NSW. The rot set in when NIMBYS blocked development of high rise around town centres where distributed generic Public Service and Private shared offices could be built. Then everyone could walk or cycle to work.

Actually the quality of the space is more important than the density. Double glazing, solar passive, incredibly high insulation rating should be compulsory. It’s a national shame that our building regulations are not more appropriate for the environment. I get some people love suburbia but its actually really unsustainable as the only way to use space. Yes green spaces and community gardens are needed in the higher density spaces and as has been pointed out 8 to 12 stories is medium density everywhere else in the world.

We need to manage the changes so we get quality results that people enjoy living in, that can be achieved in many ways, not just one. As a planned city we have a few advantages (and some drawbacks) in reinventing ourselves, it would be a shame to NIMBY ourselves into a museum of 1980’s suburbia.

I’m also concerned that the ACT govt has an unhealthy relationship with development, driven by both previous ACT and Federal govt decisions. We deserve better. Canberra has so much space that could be better used for all Canberran’s

Caren Florance1:10 pm 19 Apr 18

Yes, it’s medium density but if you’ve ever tried to ride a bike through the (mini) canyons of the Northbourne side of Turner, you’ll know that they are not a good idea. The wind tunnels are awful, and the shade in winter is chilling. Not conducive to pedestrians or bikes.

Capital Retro11:55 am 19 Apr 18

To Paul Murray, who believes Canberra will have over 1 million people one day; with the greatest respect Paul, you are dreamin’ .

I am not anxious about high-rise living in Canberra. I am anxious about buying a lemon from a a developer here. There is too little high quality competition to ensure standards across the board, so it’s very difficult to compare.

High rise “slums” usually come from having masses of housing blocks serving as public housing. What is being built is not huge estates of public housing. Although the way many people describe them, it appears they are thinking of this, rather than privately owned properties that people have a stake in.

Capital Retro11:58 am 19 Apr 18

More so it is private investors that own these boxes and they don’t really care about the aesthetics, just the GAR.

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