The NCA is no longer relevant
An opportunity has presented itself with the Commonwealth Government’s announcement to allow the National Capital Authority (NCA) to open up the Parliamentary Triangle to more commercial opportunities. (CT 12 July, Page 1, Shopping in the triangle? It’s a private matter)
I have no problem at all with more commercial activity happening within the Parliamentary Triangle. The question is just how to intelligently implement such a change to this landscape that presently serves as a national monument.
This would not be a very simple exercise and would probably require the bringing together of some creative thinkers to put together a new master plan for the whole site. This could be the change that is overdue that could see this important landscape be enhanced, managed and maintained to be one that is relevant to the issues of the 21st Century. At present it is very much on a historic landscape-as-monument model that has really passed its use by date.
I have long argued that all the resource intensive green lawns around the central area of Canberra are not relevant or justified as a major Australian landscape. There are so many options that could be taken up to see these spaces have more resilient and sustainable plants and ground covers.
Planning across Canberra is not managed well. It is very ad hoc. And there are some strange bits to this. The city has a peculiar division in its planning whereby its airport is not subject to the same policies and legislative framework as the rest of Canberra businesses. The result is that all sorts of businesses have been attracted to the airport site that in some cases do nothing for the overall planning and distribution of businesses across the city.
We do not need another area, being the Parliamentary Triangle, to have the advantage of a the NCA own style of regulations that would be sure to disadvantage other nearby commercial activities.
The NCA was established at the time of self-government. Its role was to be the keeper of landscapes within the capital that were deemed to be of national significance. The Parliamentary Triangle is the most obvious of these but there are also other areas such as all of the lake and its foreshores.
At the time, it was felt that some of the landscapes with Canberra could not be handed over to a locally elected government as it would not be able to also deliver against a national set of priorities. Things have changed. We have seen the territory Government act as responsible as any state government and it is now very experienced at dealing with this dual challenging role of being a national capital with national obligations as well as having to deliver on local urban issues.
In such cases as with the City to the Lake developments, other areas on the foreshore and the Northbourne Corridor, we are witnessing a serious duplication of resources and a waste of taxpayers’ moneys. The government should have sole responsibility for these areas and their development.
I suggest that it is now timely for the Commonwealth to hand back to the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government those national areas of Canberra under the control of the NCA. Special structures would be required to ensure that the ongoing national status of the Parliamentary Triangle is maintained.
We need to avoid the ongoing assault of the international styles that now dominates most of our cities. Canberra desperately requires an innovative, aesthetically interesting and vernacular architectural and landscape design style to be developed. If the city is to be different from the other international capitals and major cities, than we need quite a different set of design and urban thinkers.
Sadly we now have the ridiculous situation whereby the NCA has its own design review panel to provide advice to the NCA. Meanwhile the ACT Government has its own processes of seeking design advice for major developments such as the City to The Lake project.
To add to the mix, several of the current NCA design panel members are notorious in that they get themselves on any national panel going and then try to dominate the thinking – usually resulting in bland decisions. They are politely known in design circles as the old guard or simply as the usual suspects. For innovation and creativity we need to look beyond the majority of these panel members.
All the evidence is sitting in front of us all, the NCA model is now no longer relevant to Canberra as the city moves to develop another layer to its unique character. It was a good idea once to have a body such as the NCA, but we are now well into the 21st Century and we require a contemporary and cost-effective management structure for the whole of the city.
Any new planning and development structure needs to have at its core the ongoing engagement of the residents and those nationally with an interest in the country’s national capital. The ACT Government has proven itself to be a mature operation that could easily deliver against its local responsibilities and ensure the continual national focus where relevent. Of course the latter would require the appropriate allocation of Commonwealth resources.
Let it be!
(This posting was edited as a letter to the editor of the Canberra Times)
Paul Costigan, 13 July 2014