Canberra Urbanity

Views from the front veranda

originally published December 2010

There’s something very peaceful about returning to this suburban street after working interstate for too long and too often. Here we sit amongst the intense greenery of Dickson, the rush of breezes amongst the lush trees with the occasional squawk or chirping of birds. Layered on this filters in the voices and music of the three young renters next door, the sounds of the baby from the newly arrived couple across to the left, the chatter of the seven-year old with her parents heading out on bikes, the sound of students coming and going down the road, and of course, a dog or two (as there always seems to be around here). Maybe soon this will be joined by the sound of one of the immediate neighbours and their teenage children enjoying dinner outside tonight. A diverse mixture in such a small part of Dickson. And this is what the ACT Planning Minister sees as a threat!

Twice within the last week I have witnessed the term ‘Nimby’ used as a derogatory term to define the ambitions of local Canberra residents. The issue of what is happening across Canberra’s older suburbs has become a little bit of a worry given the recent response by our planning chiefs that the local infill redevelopments are to be driven by ‘market forces’. With the growing mistrust of the ACT’s current planning regimes, the term ‘Nimby’ may in fact point to something that is being avoided by our planning bureaucrats.

Recent events have demonstrated the inadequacy of the planning mandarins to engage the community in intelligent and honest debates about their communities in which they have invested for the future of their families. Just how difficult would it for the local residents to be invited to sit around the table and to openly work through the many options for future housing and infrastructure developments that would be accepted for Canberra’s future residential precincts. Dickson residents have requested a more holistic approach to the future of their area – and again it seems that while a precinct plan is logical – for some totally illogical reason the bureaucratic response has been to undermine this concept within the minds of their Ministers as if the sky will fall if such a locally based approach to planning was adopted for one suburban area as a model for others.

While it would be easy to see the cause for these troubles as the lack of ‘people skills’ within the highest echelon of the planning regime, maybe these faults are pointing to a well overdue structural reform of the ACT Government’s whole planning and development regimes.

The current model is very much seen as one we have come to endure rather than one that delivers communities for the future. There have been years of so-called consultations with various groupings of the community resulting in a planning structure that delivers to developers a regime that says ‘you propose what ever you wish and then we will see who challenges’ – if anyone happens to spot the development in time! We now have zoning within suburbs being changed without realistic notice and the dropping of former neighbourhood plans to suit larger territory planning. Being a Dickson resident, I was shocked to see plans for a Marsden Street site that simply begged the question – what is the state of local planning that would allow this developer (who is also an architect) to even think that such a travesty of housing design and a total disregard for suburban ecology would be acceptable under the ACT Planning Authority’s planning regimes?

Where is the vision for our suburbs to come from? Given the planning kings presently hold views that the peasants as revolting – and they are indeed in revolt – then such precinct thinking and future community design may have at last have come home to rest from it should not have been taken – with the residents themselves. The challenge for this government now is to hand back the future of local communities to the community itself and through them to their future generations.

In the first instance the ACTPLA model should be abandoned – it is already a dead-office-walking – so why not put it to rest. The planning function, together with talented staff, should be joined with other visionary functions to oversee community integrated design within the most appropriate department. The next challenge would be to position some form of regulatory function away from the design and planning functions so that Canberra could return again to having transparent monitoring of development, be this new developments or infill. There are just too many stories around the suburbs of developers delivering shocking housing units that simply flaunt the original agreed development proposals and final signed off agreements.

Such a revamped design and planning department should then be able to engage with the local residents to work through the development of diverse, affordable and sustainable housing. The Dickson residents have been well-informed by other residents groups of the misuse of the terminology affordable and sustainable by ACTPLA to realise that these terms are delivering very restricted housing options to inner suburbs. These same suburbs once had much more diversity but now thanks to the ACTPLA’s translation of affordable and sustainable, the diversity and cultural mix is being reported as very much diminished.

The new ACT Community Design and Planning Department could work with the residents on precinct plans that deliver a diverse range of housing, business and commercial options all designed with the ecology of landscape as a paramount consideration. A Dickson (and other inner suburbs) of the future may have more townhouses, more apartments, possibly changes to streets and other infrastructure to allow for increase movements and improved public transport but at the same time build in increased green infrastructure to address ecological and sustainability and encourage alternative modes of transport. All of this could be integrated into the planning of the shopping and commercial centre which in itself could include new options for housing.

I finish with an observation from one of my frequent walks through Dickson. A new house recently completed is an attractive two-story dual occupancy. The residents look across the road to another new development. The latter is a two-story bland concrete blockhouse of six or so units with no room left on the block for greenery. The residents of the former look at out the bland and would obviously resent the view. The residents from within the blockhouse, at least those on the front, enjoy the enticing aesthetics of the well designed dual occupancy opposite. There’s an injustice here that should not be repeated.

The challenge for the ACT Government is to change the way we do the business of community design and planning and to look to integrated design supplying a healthy and engaging future for a diversity of residents in Canberra’s inner suburbs.

Over to you Chief Minister – and for me? back to the front veranda and a cup of tea.

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