ACT Government lacks design leadership

A pamphlet arrived in Dickson letterboxes that won’t bring much joy to the other areas of the city. It announced that $3 million is to be spent on Woolley Street, Dickson.

This will do little to balance how funds are spent across Canberra.

And, by the way – not many in Dickson were exactly jumping for joy at this news, either.

This is the same City Renewal Authority that delivered little to write home about in the way of design. Loads of pop-ups, temporary structures and faded paint here and there. Expensive distractions while cookie-cutter apartment buildings appear in greater numbers.

The authority recently boasted about the City Walk upgrades in Civic. This has brought in more chairs, planter boxes, a grassed area and adornments along City Walk.

It works because there are more seats. But somehow it doesn’t quite work. It looks like left-overs cobbled together to do something “modern”.

Did anyone from the outsider-dominated authority take time to understand Civic’s open spaces?

The area has been redesigned every couple of years over the last few decades. It’s not the design of open spaces that needs the attention. It continues to be that the Canberra Centre attracts people away from the shops around the open areas.

Frequent tarting up of these spaces seems like a waste of money when the unresolved issue is what to do to bring shoppers into these open plazas.

Despite all these distractions, there are many good shops in the open plazas around Civic, but obviously not enough foot traffic to keep certain businesses operating outside the Canberra Centre mall.

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Another piece of design has been the Northbourne landscaped works that accompanied the light rail.

In 2015, an ACT minister stated that: “Following the introduction of light rail, the Northbourne Avenue corridor will continue to be a tree-lined boulevard that is designed and landscaped to be a grand entrance to the national capital”.

The wild grasses look better than the often-dead patchwork of lawns that previously made up the centre landscapes along Northbourne Avenue. Those former gums were magnificent even if they did have the habit of falling over. They’ve gone – so let’s not revisit all that.

Will the replacement trees and landscapes provide a grand entrance to this city? I hope they do soon, being sometime in the next couple of years.

In the first year there was a lot of weeds but the maintenance seems to have now caught up and the wild grasses are now dominating.

What was published in the pre-construction publicity is yet to be realised. I recall from 2015 that there were images of an abundance of flowers among the grasses (see top image). Fingers crossed that this is still to happen because along with more mature trees, that will make the whole corridor work. Definitely like those swaying wild grasses.

The corridor design was pre-City Renewal Authority, so there is a good chance it will look like something designed for Canberra rather than some ideas plonked here from elsewhere. Using local designers works, apparently.

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I have asked several colleagues to name good public-garden design or landscape work delivered recently somewhere in Canberra.

Everyone has struggled and often has been derisive about some of what is being done in the name of design. No-one was thrilled about what was done along Constitution Avenue – or at least they didn’t accept the hype. It has benefitted from some overdue maintenance recently.

The city is overdue to have a design leader and a team of experts who insist on good landscape design for large and small public works throughout the whole city – and ensure we get more people-friendly parks and gardens (especially in and around Woden).

The need for design leadership in urban matters needs to be treated seriously to allow Canberra to regain some credibility in landscape design – what the place used to be about.

Hopefully, someone in this Labor/Greens government understands why landscape design is important.

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This article is a version of the piece originally published online with City News

Paul Costigan is an independent commentator and consultant on the visual arts, photography, urban design, environmental issues and everyday matters.

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