Walking around the city in mid-afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I started wondering why exactly Civic is so lifeless at ground level in so many places. Especially west of Northbourne, whole block frontages are blank walls, fire door exits, or frosted glass. The footpaths are a shabby collection of pavers and cracked concrete joined together by bits of bitumen to fill in gaps. Some streets like Moore St are almost bereft of trees. No shopfronts. No life. Lots of dark corners for rubbish to collect and smokers to hang out.
Could it be something to do with the fact that buildings in Civic are limited to maybe ten or 12 floors? All this seems to do is to create an ever-increasing spread of monotonous low rise buildings taking over blocks and former carparks – not that I’m a fan of surface carparks either. But look at what’s happened in the block where the NICTA building is, on Marcus Clarke St. Nice building, but now the block’s full of low rise structures, a set of new dark sterile alleyways, and more blank walls. And soon the huge carpark between London Circuit and City Hill will get its own set of interlocking building-shaped lumps.
With fewer, taller, buildings there would be much less street frontage that had to be occupied, so it could be filled with just a few shops, a cafe and a nice foyer. No need for three sides to be blank walls everyone scurries past. Then the rest of the block could be kept as open space – a park, some trees, maybe something like a child care centre or an adult education facility, and so on.
Or is the problem that there aren’t enough people living in the city? The centre of Barcelona is full of eight storey block-filling buildings in a regular grid pattern, but each block manages to be its own little village – the shops you need are all at ground level, even service stations are buried within the block, and all the upper floors are apartments. Each street intersection is a small tree-filled square. Not much open space, but a whole sense of life and activity that is almost entirely absent from Civic.
I know Canberra is different, but Mr Griffin’s ideas weren’t perfect and they’ve been tinkered with and neglected over the decades. Imagine something like the classic old Sydney and Melbourne buildings (now rotting away), redeveloped to retain the colonnades, restaurants and shops, as well as the hidden treasures of the back alleys with the huge plane trees, but with a few more levels of apartments above? Or why not eliminate the four cloddish blocks filling section whatever it is at City Hill, replace them with a 40-story mixed use tower and join City Hill to the parkland that’s left surrounding the new tower. Fewer, taller buildings – would it work?