An Opinion Piece
Dickson Section 72 – Community Consultations – 20th Oct 2014
On a cool Monday evening, more than one hundred local residents from surrounding suburbs gathered in the Dickson College hall in response to the invitation to attend a workshop staged by the ACT Government.
The topic for the evening was the future use of Section 72 Dickson, the community site behind the Dickson pool and stretching up to the nearby playing fields.
The important detail overlooked by many was that this meeting was not called by the Land Development Agency, not by the Economic Development Directorate, or by the ACT Land and Planning Authority (ACTPLA). At the bottom of the invitation was the address for the Community Services Directorate, which includes the sections who look after public housing. Therefore the motivation for the evening’s consultation was not as most of the attendees would have expected.
Locals are concerned about the push by our government for residential units on this community site in central Dickson. The concern is not about urban infill in general, but rather that there are numerous proposals for intensification that we know about and that there remains very complex traffic, pedestrian and other transport issues still to be addressed. The overall concern remains that the ACT Government is overseeing the necessary urban infill of the inner north of Canberra through a very annoying ad hoc process whereby each development proposal is treated alone and not in the context of some overall planning strategy for the whole area.
Most were attending to see if they could have a say in the future use of the site as a community precinct. Most want the site enhanced to become a more attractive community and precinct to offer an improved range of community and cultural opportunities. This is an opportunity to improve the whole green infrastructure of the site. This could involve planning over time to improve the linkages not only to local neighbourhoods but also to improve that part of the waterway, known as the Dickson Drain, so that we could have a linear parkway linking the Dickson Wetlands to the community facilities and through to the Dickson Shops.
My first question on the night was to the speaker from the Community Services Directorate as to whether the evening’s consultations were predicated on the assumption that the ACT Government wanted to build residential units on this community site. The answer was a more general one about the importance of urban infill, the coming of the light rail, Northbourne Ave, the redevelopment of the shopping centre and several other statements. The attitude was that the residents do not understand and appreciate such broader issues.
To many of us it became very clear that the night’s work was about securing some agreements from the residents. A version of such agreements would later be used in an application to the ACTPLA to vary leases for this community site so that the joint developer, being ACT Land Development Agency / the ACT Economic Development Directorate and the ACT Community Services Directorate, could sell parts of the section 72 to deliver what these two directorates (as developers) have already deemed to be desirable.
As the workshop progressed, residents raised all manner of ideas and concerns. However because the professionals in charge of the evening had clear instructions on what issues needed to be highlighted, the debates were directed back to those matters that would assist the joint government developers to get their application for lease variations through ACTPLA.
During the evening there were several calls from residents for any proposals for section 72 to be considered in the context of other developments in the area, in the context of other proposals that the joint directorates had in mind and that all this be part of a larger area planning for the total area surrounding the Dickson Group Centre. I am not aware of any attempt by any official present to take up the challenge to consider section 72 developments in the context of the whole area.
Many highlighted the need for good design. Residents continue to be very disappointed with the lack of control by ACTPLA, or whoever, to ensure that the future infill is not simply more of those badly designed and cheaply built units that continue to be delivered throughout our beautiful older suburbs.
The professionals running the consultations tested one particular idea several times as if they needed to repeat it till they got the correct answer. The concept was whether there could be some form of housing for aged people within the site. The target seems to have become the now vacant land where the former Downer Club and Observatory had been situated (till it mysteriously burnt down). I did not hear much support for this. Rather people remain open to talking about what opportunities there could be for such housing if the government could include the planning for this in the context of all other developments planned for the areas surrounding the Dickson Centre.
Some of us had attended with a reasonable level of optimism given the former discussions and meetings about the future of section 72 Dickson. Sadly there remains an enormous distance between the motivations of the joint government agencies and the residents. The former clearly wish to see revenue generation land sales and subsequently various forms of residential units on section 72. Whereas the residents are very clear in expressing their aspirations and visions for section 72 to remain primarily as a community and cultural precinct.
At present there is no trust evident within the community for the ACT Government’s proposals for Section 72 Dickson. This is not to say that anything could be considered. The pressing issue for all of us is that the manner in which these consultations are being run is very demeaning and patronizing and that the process is not about real long-term community engagement.
A question: If this proposal for lease variation is eventually approved in some form, how much trust is there in ACTPLA to deal with subsequent applications by other developers under the approved lease arrangements?
The culture of how planning and development is managed in Canberra remains very problematic. Something needs to change if the visions and aspirations of the local communities are to be addressed. We departed the scene to the cool of the evening with the feeling that the opportunity to work with and for the local community had been squandered by the government agencies involved.
We now await the promised second community consultations to discuss their three options for the site. It was stated that this will presented in a month or so – at least before Christmas.
There’s now a follow-up piece – The Future of Dickson Section 72 as a Community Site – The Dickson Community Cultural Parklands – click here
and here’s an update – a full proposal – click here.
and for other thoughts on the state of the planning of Canberra – click here