Canberra Urbanity

Are we being served?

Originally published January 2011

Christmas meanderings through Canberra inner north suburbs was a very pleasant way of exercising. The streets were very quiet and the weather very accommodating for these excursions. It was also a timely chance to observe the local levels of commitment to dealing with climate change. It seems every other street in inner Canberra has some form of house being rebuilt or refurbished. But the real attention within the local communities has been on proposals for knocking down adjoining homes and their replacement with multiple units.

Given that we suddenly find ourselves in the second decade of the 21st Century, we would now expect that our governments would have had time to adjust their local planning requirements to address Climate Change within all new suburban and urban developments. The natural expectation would be that new buildings would by now include a multitude of mechanisms that provide for on-going sustainability with even greater emphasis on reducing climate change impacts now and for the future.

All levels of Australian Governments need to respond to the significant challenges of providing sufficient, appropriate and affordable housing opportunities for a growing population, and this applies as much here in the Canberra Region as anywhere else in this country. It is now gospel that the provision of affordable, good quality, accessible housing protects the health, safety and wellbeing of the public together with the health of the broader natural environment for existing and future generations.

Here in Canberra, there have been the necessary noises that government comprehends that current housing challenges are inextricably linked to broader national sustainability challenges – including the impacts of climate change, environmental degradation, population growth, economic development and demographic change on urban settlement dynamics. Therefore there would be the expectation that our local politicians and their chief advisors would have installed practices that integrate landscape and building design as a key mechanism for achieving more climate-responsive, socially equitable and affordable housing solutions.

So why is that when local residents look through applications for development of residential blocks that there is so little evidence of such criteria in developers applications? As any local developer must be applied under the current legislative requirements, the responsibility for how these climate change and sustainable issues are to be addressed must be directed at those framing our planning regulations.

The community expectation is that current government thinking would be showing leadership and by now would be ensuring that any redevelopment of existing suburbs would include a commitment to improving landscape ‘performance’—particularly within urban ecosystems—in the context of addressing broader issues of sustainability and adapting to climate change.

Unfortunately any walk through the inner suburbs of Canberra quickly reveals that the decision-making processes continue to have a questionable impact on residential development. New developments have generally not been underpinned by a genuine respect for the value of the associated landscape and suburban context. Developments are not addressing or maintaining the landscape performance potential of our local and regional environments that should be far better harnessed to inspire, enable and support residential design solutions which would meet the needs of developers, homeowners and the broader community without compromising natural environmental integrity.

While walking the streets during Christmas and New Year, it was very obvious that maybe someone in authority has a very close relationship with the providers of air conditioners. It seems that all new developments are totally reliant for heating and cooling on wall mounted air conditioners. All new balconies are now decorated with the latest models of exterior fans. Sadly there is just no sign of new solar power panels atop all these new rooftops. Any water capturing features are minimal if not absent completely.

Given is now ten years into the 21st Century, the time has arrived for our governments, in particular our local politicians to demonstrate a commitment to ensuring that all new redevelopments within existing suburbs address climate change issues. These new developments need to also contribute in a positive sense to the rich tapestry of the our suburbs in question, are mindful of how they relate to their location and context in each suburb, and also to broader patterns of historical development and a sense of place. Residents are very mindful that much development to date has been defined and driven mostly by development applications made by developers large and small. The driver for change has been very much cloaked in grandiose words of addressing the need for infill and even occasionally using the much abused word of ‘sustainable’. However the reality is that these suburbs have been invested in by local individuals and families  – these suburbs are not the play thing of the current crop of planners and the developers – they belong to the local communities and the future generations.

In recent articles in newspapers several developers have stated that the attitude of local residents must change on the subject of infill. One local senior planning bureaucrat was even quoted as saying that the community seems to be hyperventilating about the topic of the redevelopment of the inner suburbs. I put it to all involved that the local residents are very much aware that change is happening but have to date been very disappointed about the attitude of the local authorities and a small number of developers. It is not the attitude of the community that needs to change. The change being sought in 2011 is in the attitude of the government through its planning regimes. Let’s be positive about the future and embrace an integrated approach and respect the community, the families and their generations yet to play cricket in the quite inner streets.

The citizens of Canberra look to their political leaders to ensure that new developments, as they became part of the fabric of the nation’s capital, embrace design excellence and innovation. The community expects that the government, and here I include both the ACT Government and the National Capital Authority, remain committed to making connections between people, enhancing opportunities for positive social interaction, reinforcing social identity and civic pride, encouraging social inclusion and contributing towards to improved social health, prosperity, morale, goodwill, neighbourly behaviour, safety and security.  It is really quite easy. Just take the people with you and work together.

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