Canberra Urbanity

original published November 2010


The debate in Canberra, particularly around my own suburb of Dickson, of the future of infill and the need to redevelop our suburbs has now focussed on the dire need to change the way this territory does the business of planning and development. The Canberra community is not fighting to halt development, but is wishing to influence the planning and development decisions to ensure that development delivers on the needs of present and future generations, the young and the elderly, and need to address the full range of human and environmental issues – being housing, health, ecology, transport – and you know the rest.

Australian States and Territory Governments have followed the traditional model for planning and development of having a Planning Authority and Planning Departments. In addition, to deal with identified special needs, most States have installed Government Architects and there are a range of specialist Authorities set up for particular planning and development precincts.

Even a casual observer would have to agree that government planning and development process in Canberra has lost the confidence of the local communities. The present Planning Authority has come to be regarded as very much the model we inherited from the 20th Century and whose structures and modes of operation are being judged by the community as not being capable of dealing with the aspirations of the local communities and the realities and complexities of the 21st Century.

Back in the ‘golden years’ of the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC), design, planning and development were very integrated functions of the Authority. Despite all sorts of reservations about how local government has functioned since, I am of the strong opinion that the  NCDC’s departure was timely and was the correct decision. However, in the transition from the Commonwealth’s NCDC to the present government structures, major elements of the Design, Planning and Development formula went missing. And it shows in the outcomes we have witnessed in the last decade or two of suburban developments in and around Canberra.

Contemporary research and policy for cities now points to the need for an integrated approach that incorporates all aspects of Design to be considered alongside the traditional planning and development issues. In a State not too distant from Canberra, one such new model has recently is being installed. It is the South Australian Integrated Design Commission.

Given the dire circumstances surround planning and development here in Canberra, it is now timely to suggest to the ACT Chief Minister that the ACT Government follow the lead of the South Australian Government and to look to linking Design, Planning and Development into one overarching commission to work directly to the head of government. Such an Integrated Design Commission for the ACT would bring about a far more integrated approach to design, planning and the delivery across all our settlements, large and small, metropolitan, suburban, rural or wherever.

The key objective of an Integrated Design Commission is to advocate for the value of design and to advise on processes to achieve design excellence in the built environment through an intelligent investment approach. The Integrated Design Commission for the ACT would connect the strengths of relevant aspects of the ACT Government, the private sector and professional organisations and would use integrated models of collaboration and highly inclusive and transparent decision-making processes.

The Integrated Design Commission model avoids the specialist approach that has been the tradition of Planning Authorities whereby one profession, Planning, has been mostly in the dominant role.  The Integrated Design Commission is intended to engage and integrate all design disciplines and create a trans–disciplinary model of integration in depth and breadth, and not a hierarchy or bias of professions.

Constructive engagement through consultation with communities to raise public awareness of design should be a major part of the Commission’s work. Decision making processes should engender trust amongst all stakeholders, while fostering mutual respect and understanding of all disciplines.

Such a model of integrated decision-making must be up-front and occur throughout the design, planning and development process; engendering a value on design excellence and encouraging innovations. Disciplines of design include: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Interior Architecture/Design, Community Development; Urban Design; Urban Planning, Heritage Conservation/Preservation/Restoration; Adaptive Reuse, Regional Planning, Rural/Suburban Communities, Industrial Design/Product Design, Lighting Design, Communication Design/Graphic Design, Interaction Design, Exhibition and Experience Design/Way finding/Public Art.

Design excellence should be achieved through leadership and recognition that solutions come from constructive partnerships between academia, government, industry, professional organisations, and the community. The Integrated Design Commission could comprise: A Commissioner who could be appointed from any relevant profession and who oversees other key positions such as the Government Architect, Chief Landscape Architect, Chief Planner, Chief Engineer and others and be advised by a multi disciplinary board of about 8 to 10 Design Professionals. But all the structural details would be subject to many discussions which I am sure the ACT Chief Minister could ensure delivers for the residents and the environment of Canberra.

Other areas of interest for the Integrated Design Commission include: Developers and Property Sector, Environmental Scientists and Managers, Heritage and Conservation Specialists, Human/Social Scientists, Infrastructure Specialists, Community/Indigenous Culture Leaders, People with Disability Planners, Service Providers, Social Planners, Housing Specialists, and social Inclusion Consultants. And if there is anyone missing, be assured that in using the term Design, I mean it to be all embracing of all aspects of society that benefit from good design for our built environments.

The Integrated Design Commission of the ACT model should deliver a whole-of-Government approach in advocating for and advising on design, through advancing and integrating all targets defined in the Government’s Strategic Planning. The Commission should bring a high level of expert knowledge to improve understanding in the design, development and delivery of the built environment.

The Integrated Design Commission of the ACT should provide leadership and independent expert advice and strategic direction to the Chief Minister, their Ministers, and significant decision–makers in government on all matters relating to design and the built environment including land use, ecology, housing, urban design, green infrastructure, infrastructure, transport, energy.

Such a Commission would easily deal with the approach being requested by the Dickson residents. That future planning should not be based on treating the residential areas separate from the commercial centre, but that the whole precinct and the people who live and work there would benefit from a larger integrated precinct planning and design process. It is really that simple!

The Integrated Design Commission of the ACT would of course allow for intelligent and constructive conversations between the residents and their elected representatives and bureaucrats. I make this last point as I have come to realise how much professional expertise lurks behind the leafy front gardens of my quiet suburb. The shame has been that our current crop of Planning Mandarins just have not embraced the community and have not tapped into using this collective intellect to deliver resilient, engaging and healthy urban and rural environments here in Canberra, ones that are designed in balance with natural and cultural systems.

It is indeed time for such a fundamental change.

A primary source for this article has been text from a 2009 South Australian Integrated Design Commission document.

Please comment (silly stuff will be trashed)- and use this to make contact - personal contact messages will not appear publicily

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *