Canberra confidential: from Y-plan to why plan?

Canberra confidential: from Y-plan to why plan?
Photo by Linda Xu on Unsplash
Sunday 24 May 2020

By Mark Kenny

This article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

How should a city's planning authorities balance the views of current inhabitants - as expressed through their behaviour - against the purist diktat of plans and designers past?

This is a fundamental, if rarely asked, question, because it goes directly to what kind of democracy we experience on a daily level.

Consider Lake Burley Griffin, and the vexed proposition that some commercial and residential activity should be allowed to capitalise directly on the city's signature - if most physically intrusive - asset.

My (admittedly non-scientific) survey of Canberrans suggests most would spend more time in the central parliamentary triangle segment were there more cultural spark: cafés and bars, and possibly even hotels, commerce and apartments - an obvious proviso being that the foreshore is never privatised.

Yet a longstanding complex of planning dogma, jurisdictional complexity, and "old burgher conservatism" has not only cosseted the artificial lake's pseudo-pristine, ornamental quality, but ensured that it is held at arm's length from Canberrans themselves.

Adjustments have been made, of course, and more are coming in the Acton (Western Basin) part of the foreshore. But change is so hard-won and, frankly many of us will be dead before the city's natural drawcard feels genuinely owned by contemporary Canberrans rather than being managed as an artefact.

Even in the places with the highest foot traffic, for much of the day the lake has the all social pizazz of an empty football stadium.

And, if we are honest, this hauntingly beautiful place can also be a bit scary.

The fact that no woman would feel safe there after hours sits oddly with the cosmopolitan idyll of Canberra's designers after whom the feature is named.

They imagined it at the centre of a dynamic, peopled city, with metropolitan life and activity integrated at water's edge.

What was delivered, though, was less bustling cultural axis and more a desolate gash through a disaggregated city's midriff - basically an investment and spontaneity exclusion zone.

So complete is this planned alienation that even the few public buildings allowed near the shoreline face mostly the other way.

Plans are not ends in themselves. Their legitimacy should be measured against the countless daily decisions of ordinary citizen-consumers - millions of tiny spontaneous preferences that in aggregate tell us how people really want to live, what they value in their city, and where they like to gather.

An exception, perversely, is the ultra-secretive ASIO building, though it is cut off by a multi-lane highway - a Canberra specialty.

With their pale cement stark-itecture, the brutalist monoliths of the National Gallery of Australia and the High Court of Australia perfectly mimic the lake's aloof presentation. Austere, sparse and impersonal. Uncompromising surfaces. Uncompromising rules.

Imagine a more inviting and vibrant NGA - its towering timber and glass atrium entrance, drawing in its lake-city vista among its chief attractions. Imagine, too, its colourfully umbrella'd boardwalk forecourt extending beyond water's edge. Perhaps a ferry bringing folk from the CBD which, by the way, would also meet the lake.

Speaking of which.

For a city already severed by an ornamental lake and its exaggerated riparian zone, Garema Place/City Walk has managed that bifurcation all over again within the CBD.

This mall area is walkable, it's just not workable.

Dominated by blank department store walls and a few marginal shops, it is neither interesting, nor popular.

What should have been a contiguous progression of city growth, south-westerly from peak-retail through to a buzzing Canberra Theatre and Legislative Assembly precinct and extending on down to the foreshore with boutique hotels looking across to the institutions of state, instead simply peters out.

Consequentially, cultural and consumer life has drifted north, away from the lake and into Braddon.

Let's be blunt: malls peaked in the 1970s. We've clung like limpets to ours, presumably waiting for it to return the city to pedestrians.

But the jury is in.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, it's time to concede that closing thoroughfares to vehicular traffic often makes an area less sociable, not more. A few metal sheep reading the paper or doing the knitting will not change that.

Walter Burley Griffin's design for the Federal Capital of Australia, as shown in his 1913 preliminary plan. Picture: National Library of Australia

Like the lake, the personal security cost is clear. Fewer viable businesses, less activity, greater danger.

This is a common story. The "go-to" districts in many cities have blossomed in spite of plans, not because of them.

Yet blueprints are sacrosanct, and even dud decisions seem irreversible in the capital.

Take the Y-plan adopted in 1967.

If its aim was to dilute market concentration and thus frustrate economies of scale, it has worked superbly.

Where a compact city might well have emerged, with radial (and thus viable) public transport corridors servicing a thriving district of high-quality cinemas, pubs, restaurants, retail, and commerce, the 1967 Y-Plan mandated a car-dependent sprawl in which thinly viable town centres (roughly in a Y formation) would suck the pale life from the centre. And all of this requiring a dizzying spaghetti of hugely expensive highways.

Like the urban mall from whose era they hail, these town centres are struggling economically, having delivered little beyond the replication of mediocrity.

But don't change anything, because hey - this has been "designed".

An our-city-is-already-perfect mindset pervades the leafy inner-south, too, where the utterly dismal Capitol cinema complex holds prime position. Perennially slated for redevelopment, this rank and charmless hulk was tired 20 years ago.

Why must whole decades slip by before upgrades obvious to all are actually commenced?

Nearby is the Manuka Lawns bottleneck, a delightful little mall-like area lined with increasingly popular cafés and yet hamstrung by four raised squares of utterly sodden grass, each with a plane tree at its centre.

I say four, but the drainage in these beds is so woeful that a few months back the most northerly tree's roots simply rotted through, and over it went. The others could follow as their squares are also sodden.

Apart from killing these magnificent trees, these dank beds monopolise a space which might otherwise be available for expanded al fresco dining - perfectly in tune, incidentally, with these physically spaced-out times.

Their removal (or reduction) would spur new investment, create extra employment, and attract even more custom.

Yet traders believe that the now treeless (mud) square will not only be retained sans-tree, but will be given over to a flower display in some sort of Floriade outreach program.

This may be the hokiest idea since the slick new light poles in a refurbished Bunda Street were adorned with potted flowering plants - finishing a sophisticated modern aesthetic with the regional accoutrements of a tidy town. Danish modern meets the doily.

Plans are not ends in themselves.

Their legitimacy should be measured against the countless daily decisions of ordinary citizen-consumers - millions of tiny spontaneous preferences that in aggregate tell us how people really want to live, what they value in their city, and where they like to gather.

So, to the National Capital Authority, the city's incrementalist MLAs, and the planning purists, I say consider the possibility that the city is a living, breathing thing, a work that by necessity is always in progress.

Walk along the deserted mall, zip across to Manuka on any morning, and spend time in the triangle through any day.

See what Canberrans value and what they don't.

And then, perhaps, step out of their way.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and presenter of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

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Updated:  25 May 2020/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications