ACT Planning Minister seeks an idea

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On a recent visit to Wollongong I observed the notices for and then read about the consultations for a major project: Wollongong – A City for People. Being a frequent visitor to this wonderful coastal city, I have some understanding of the urban issues facing that city’s local council.

There is a very common unresolved issue that so many cities, including Wollongong, are grappling with – unsuccessfully. Namely – what to do when the central area is dominated by a big box mall that has sucked the life out of the formerly busy shopping streets?

Canberra’s Civic area has the same problem and like Wollongong (and so many others) it has yet to work out a solution of how to breathe life back into the commercial areas adjacent to the mall.

As in Wollongong and Canberra – we have seen a host of experts arrive to drop a swag of ideas and then depart leaving the government to produce documents with loads of pretty pictures. Over time that is what we end up with – loads of pretty pictures. But we still have nothing to address the issues around these largely abandoned open spaces.

Part of the problem here in Canberra is that we seem to be approaching such redevelopments in an ad hoc fashion. While there are the coming major projects along Northbourne, and several others around the city and in other areas of the city, this government (and I mean all parties involved) has not even come close to suggesting what should happen with Civic.

Instead the electorate is being bombarded with distractions and numerous other projects that somehow need to be addressed urgently and take priority over the future of Civic.

We now see that the ACT Planning Minister and a cohort of consultants and business people are about to head off overseas to see if they can pick up even more ideas.

I applaud the initiatives to look outside our own boarders, but do wonder if anyone involved thinks that more ideas will assist this city at this crucial time of its maturity as an international city.

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Canberra has had decades of planning bureaucrats and consultants putting forth their latest fashionable and imported ideas about urban development, urban villages, transport, housing etc.

There has been a long history of experts being flown in to put their case for their favoured approach to urban issues. There has also been a practice of importing expensive architectural consultants to deliver on such projects.

All the imported concepts sound wonderful and were very successful (most likely) in the places that initiated them. But Canberra is not Seattle, it is not Tucson, it is not Copenhagen and it is not (insert any other city that is currently in fashion).

After all those years of conferences attended by our planning bureaucrats, after all the parliamentary overseas study trips, after all the incoming experts and the mountains of glossy documents produced by the various agencies, what have we achieved – besides mountains glossy brochures – that feature the same set of images as used in so many reports for other cities?

One would have thought that with all those decades of new ideas and new approaches, that by now Canberra itself would have developed its own case studies that should by now be proud models that could be exported for others to think about.

With so much investments – where are the wonderful results!

Where is the unique Canberra urban style, the local architecture and landscape designs that the rest of the world should be flocking here to see?

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I am not against the Minister going overseas to look around and to talk to others about their success stories. Definitely not!

Do I think anything will come from the business people and consultants accompanying him? Yes – unfortunately we will now be bombarded with even more arguments for their pet development projects.

Here’s a couple of alternative thoughts on what is needed – and what is wrong with the present overseas tour as planned.

demolish-01This city needs the government to invest in local consultants and to insist that local expertise becomes more independent of government (and the developers). They need to be encouraged to bring forth innovations – to get creative again – to base everything on good design and real sustainability ( not green wash) – rather than more of the same based on what the development and property lobby seek in order to maintain their levels of profit.

The city should by now have an abundance of innovation and design relevant to Canberra in architectural, environmental and landscape design. We don’t.

The government needs to invest in local expertise for the long-term so that urban models are developed in a ‘Canberra style’ – not just another pastiche of the current fashionable out-of-the box imported bland box styles.

We need to build the capacity of our local expertise to deliver local projects. Let us dream of the day when local project ideas are being poached for use elsewhere.

Most importantly what is missing from the Minister’s announcement is any mention that he is going forth into the world to seek out models of best practice in community engagement.

It is time for local governments, including the ACT Government, to drop their resource wasting bad practices in how they deal with their own residents.

It is time that the ACT Minister for Planning and his government stopped thinking that they are doing things for the residents but instead learn to work with the residents to bring about all the complexities of change that come with a maturing city such as Canberra.

If we were talking about an overseas study tour to look at successful community engagement models and the resultant urban successes, then that would be worth the investment of taxpayers’ money!

Over to you Minister.

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