Canberra Urbanity

The Dangers of being Malled

originally published December 2010

In late 2010 I took a photo of a Christmas tree in the main street of Geelong. The structure was all lit up and stood a proud three stories high. What is striking about this image, taken around 5pm one evening, is that there are so few people in the photograph. Elsewhere at this time of the year the streets and plazas are busy with Christmas shoppers and those out for a very warm evening’s promenade.

What my photo fails to show is that the evening crowds are packed into the building behind – being the main shopping mall for the Geelong CBD. This particular corner, even though it was right in the centre of the CBD, had a feeling of danger as the main occupants were several bands of very loud teenagers who obviously ‘owned’ these corners.

Later that year I was strolling the streets and parklands of Southbank as well as wandering around the corner into the West End streets. The diversity of activities in these areas is totally amazing. There are parents with pre-schoolers in the new water play area, there are teens and families in the park, wandering the street markets, in the water, crowds of people sheltering from the sun in cafes and bookshops and other commercial hubs. It all adds up to communities of people accessing these amenities for a whole host of pleasures. All these open areas feel safe and are attracting various levels of the community to share the spaces and in doing so the public spaces become very occupied by families and people having a good time –their presence becomes the security for others to be welcomed. All this outside activity – and no major Mall in sight. And I hear that’s the way the locals wish it to stay.

In early 2011 I wandered the streets of Civic here in Canberra, something I do not do much these days. If you have not done this yourself, then may I recommend a walk around the streets of Civic, being City Walk, Petrie Plaza and Garema Place. What you will see is that the one branch of the ACT Government has done a wonderful upgrade of the streetscapes and some aspects of the place is looking pretty good! New chairs, artworks and new paved areas. All good – BUT – why are there so many shops now closed and where are the huge crowds of Christmas shoppers.

Yes they are just a short walk away jammed into the very successful commercial hub – The Canberra Centre Mall. There is no doubt that the lack of coordinated planning and design has led to the life being sucked out of the once very popular civic plazas and open spaces. The Mall is doing well – but we have this dysfunction whereby the ACT Government upgrades the open areas in spite of the past decisions of  the planning authorities to allow the building of this huge commercial shed into which so many of the shops have moved  – or closed – and with them all those who would have otherwise been promenading about in the civic open areas enjoying the latest street upgrades.

The ACT Planning Authority in recent months published plans to redevelop the Dickson shopping centre as a major hub for the Northside communities (The Dickson Residents Group were denied a late response). It is this planning approach that the locals are concerned about given that any redevelopment will very much be their local shopping precinct, their town square and their place for both shopping as well as social interaction. Along with other plans for the inner north, the residents have made the call that the future of the shopping centre should be linked to the future of the surrounding residential areas and visa versa. Sadly the locals received nothing but a big fat negative from the Minister and the ACTPLA on their request for a fully integrated plan for the area. One wonders whose best interests this planning framework is serving.

The levels of trust in the ability of the present planning structures to deliver a vibrant shopping and commercial hub in Canberra’s northern suburbs just cannot get much lower. The challenge now is for the communities in and around the Dickson shopping precinct to be resourced to develop a set of principles to underpin the required integrated design approach for the whole surrounding precinct.

Such a plan could see Woolley St transformed into having upgraded buildings with apartments and offices above the street levels, possibly Woolley Street pushed through Cape Street to the south to join up with a revamped parkland – involving the now over engineered drain being transformed into a linear park and wetland.

Such a linear parkland – joining Challis and Cowper – would be extension to the commercial centre and act as a drawcard for families and visitors.

I am not sure how all of the above will fit around the areas now dominated by the Dickson Tradies and their numerous social and club facilities. But I do suggest that one day soon someone has to tap them on the shoulder and point out the benefits of employing an architect to provide some form of more pleasing aesthetics to their street frontages along Dickson Place and Badham Street.

The other architectural wonder that must be removed are the buildings occupied by the ACT Planning Authority. I stood in front of this again just yesterday and came to the conclusion that any planning advice that radiates from such an ugly box would have to be compromised – despite the best efforts of the talents within. This monster should be the first to go to allow for the surrounding streets to be enlivened and for the replacement to be 21st Century structures with diverse usage that enhance the landscapes that surround it – both ecological and aesthetically.

The heart of Dickson itself is a complex of lanes and older building stock. Before any thoughts are given to the future upgrades of the buildings, lets hope that many design minds will be brought to bear to enhance these laneways and plazas. These spaces could be breezeways that offer opportunities for cafes and other forms of social interaction and thereby encourage even more people into these spaces and maintain a future for smaller shops and other businesses.

The major issue to be considered by residents is the concept of the second major supermarket. This requires much more consultations than have been undertaken to date. The concern is less about the supermarket itself, but whether in fact if such a new large complex was to be located within the Dickson shops, would it also suck the life out of the surrounding precincts.

The upgrading of the shopping centre as a major commercial hub requires much more design thinking than has been promulgated through the ACT Planning Authority’s documents to date. An integrated design approach that set out certain principles that may allow for the second supermarket needs to ensure that the open precincts are empowered with enough diversity and activities to ensure the commercial viability of the smaller shops as well as the enticement for people to gather and enjoy the surrounding lanes and precincts. It is not good enough for the ACT government to say that it has produced a planning document for the shopping centre and that residents should have had their say. The whole process to date has delivered absolutely no confidence that the environment and people have been considered the prime drivers for the changes proposed.

The Dickson shops have recently become a moderately busy hub for not only shopping but also for social needs for the community and those who work in the area. All this needs to recognised much more so in the context of the residential areas surround the shopping centre.

So yes – I return to the concept of wider precinct planning as now requested by local residents through their residential groups.

The Dickson residents along with those in other surrounding suburbs are looking to 2011 to be the year of real community engagement. A year whereby a transformed ACT Government design, planning and development structure delivers on the hopes and aspirations of its diverse communities – and does not allow for the life to be sucked out of its streets and open spaces.

It is time for a 21st Century model of precinct planning.

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