Government Architect – what’s that?

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Canberra is usually referred to as being a designed and/or planned city. Sadly this boast is becoming a thing of the past given all the recent bad planning and development decisions.

Despite these on-going errors, there are core aspects of Canberra that we can still be proud of, that deliver the amenities we love and are the reasons we live here.

The issue is – what next? The city desperately requires design leadership to guide the complex integration of landscape design, architecture, planning urban development, housing and more.

Last week the ACT Government announced the appointment of Catherine Townsend as the new ACT Government Architect.

I am sure there was dancing in the streets by residents who have been calling for Design to be a top priority in the decisions about our urban spaces and suburbs. Maybe the ACT Government will now care for how the city will look in the future rather than leaving it to the developers to do what they wish. Well maybe not!

Is there any chance that having an ACT Government Architect will deliver a better city? And just what is a government architect?

There are optimistic expectations around such a role – given the title. Unfortunately based on the history of the outside influences on the planning and development agencies, I suspect anyone in this position will have an uphill battle on their hands.

It is a big ask for any one person to influence the current bureaucracies and their political chiefs and to get them to accept that ‘Design’ should underpin the city’s planning and development.

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Go back a century and the role of government architect was quite powerful. They designed and oversaw the building of significant buildings – here’s an example – click here.

This is definitely not the situation across Australia today. While the roles vary from state to state, government architects are now more advisory with limited influence on the real outcomes.

You can read here what the architects think the positions are about. They have lofty ambitions and fairly high-minded statements about how the world would suffer without architects providing design leadership for our cities. OMG! A world without architects – who could imagine that?

In general since the role reappeared about a decade ago within state and territory governments there has been very little evidence of improvements to how our cities are being developed. One has only to glance at the quality of most of the new suburbs and the quality of those towers popping up within the inner city areas.

In Canberra the role of the government architect is housed within the infamous planning and development departments – who are seen to be heavily influenced by the voices of the property lobbies. Best of luck with that!

The Minister said in his statement that they ‘may’ ask for advice from the government architect. In other words, advice is all it is – and then only when it is deemed necessary.

To date we have seen no change in how a government architect has influenced the ACT Government to place any priority on residential issues such as neighbourhood character, climate change, green infrastructure and the future of open spaces – especially parks.

The government architects have probably attended loads of committee meetings. But what has been achieved? Not much except that they attended a load of meetings.

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But – there is a ray of hope in all this doom and gloom.

I know of panels where Catherine Townsend, the lucky person just appointed as ACT Government Architect, led discussions on complex topics. She inspired others with her wit and her expertise. And then there is her statement quoted in the press: “How do we capture the citizen voice?”

So maybe – and I am being optimistic – maybe the new ACT Government Architect could somehow extend her levels of influence and – maybe – she could bring about a design led revolution to the way planning and urban development happens here in Canberra.

And while I am at it – maybe she could also get the ACT Government to understand the value of aesthetics – which is something that current politicians and their consultants, such as architects, seem unable to deal with.

Maybe she could get the government to understand the value of community engagement.

Maybe we could see climate change issues actually addressed in planning and urban redevelopments. (no more green wash)

Is all this too much to hope for?

It is spring – so why not!

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