Can urban villages transform Northbourne Avenue?

Most of us, I suspect, without giving much thought to the matter, would say that a sense of place, a sense of being at home in a town or city, grows as we become accustomed to it and learn to know its peculiarities. It is my belief that a sense of place is something that we ourselves create in the course of time. It is the result of habit or custom.

The inimitable J. B. Jackson, essayist, cultural geographer, and interpreter of the everyday American built environment, made this pithy observation in his 1994 book A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time. Given current debates in Canberra about new developments, and because I happen to think that questions of cultural sustainability and people's sense of place should be critical considerations, it seems timely to consider Jackson's musings from a local perspective. In particular it set off for me a train of thought when The Canberra Times published a headline on January 18 relating to Northbourne Avenue: 'Grand entrance for city planned'.

Future Canberra: An artist's impression of Northbourne Plaza.
Future Canberra: An artist's impression of Northbourne Plaza. Photo: Supplied

Chief Minister Andrew Barr suggests a grand boulevard gateway entrance to the national capital is a long-held aspiration and that the current gateway falls short of local and visitor expectations. Strange, because when I take visitors along Northbourne, including international ones, there has never been such a reaction. Rather the opposite is the case. Also, isn't Northbourne a boulevard already, or has the dictionary definition – wide road in a city usually with trees on each the side or in the centre (Cambridge Dictionary) – changed overnight?

The clue to what is meant presumably lies in the reference to a renewal strategy with hubs and urban villages where Northbourne will be lined with medium and high-density apartment blocks: the kind of development that one critic recently described as family-unfriendly housing.

The term "urban village", conjuring visions of a romanticised rus in urbe character, is spruiked internationally as a way of trying to capture images of people living a lifestyle associated with a traditional village. Whether this will be achieved along Northbourne is open to question, unless there are different planning and design approaches to the ones seen too often across Canberra where apartment blocks crowd sites leaving very little in the way of quality landscape space.

Jackson's observation that people create sense of place invites speculation. Is there likely to be a positive correlation between physical layout/character and development of a sense of place and belonging? Well, yes there is. Does physical layout – where buildings and spaces in a harmonious balance that create liveable places encouraging social encounter and social behaviour – play a critical role? Of course it does, so why is this ingredient missing from so much of Canberra's new development.


We need to know and understand how people perceive and experience the city and its spaces as with Kevin Lynch's work back in the 1960s. He observed from places like Boston, Massachusetts, that "nothing [in the city] is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequence of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences … Every citizen has had long associations with some part of his city, and his image is soaked in memories and meanings." Lynch questioned people on the route each took to get from particular points in the city.

He found people have favourite routes which they navigate. They tend to remember these primarily from the spaces encountered – streets, hard urban spaces, parks, favourite spatial spots – rather than building masses per se. Interestingly, of course, building masses help to define spatial edges, hence there is a synergy between the two. Elisabeth Beazley's classic book Design and Detail of the Space between Buildings similarly deals with the "bits" that go in between the different parts of the urban landscape. She demonstrates the fundamental significance of spaces to urban sense of place.

An artist's impression of a $2 million verge refurbishment project for Northbourne Avenue.
An artist's impression of a $2 million verge refurbishment project for Northbourne Avenue. Photo: ACT government

This brings us back to the urban village concept. It originated in Britain in the 1980s with particular characteristics. These include the idea of a distinctive residential district where functional form and character are influenced by a particular community. It is an attempt to rediscover a lifestyle where interpersonal relationships are important in everyday life. Development is typically characterised by medium-density housing, mixed-use zoning, good public transit and an emphasis on pedestrianisation and public space. Urban villages are seen to provide an alternative to patterns of urban development such as traditional suburbs.

There are criticisms of the concept revolving around the extent to which the term "urban village" is nothing more than an advertising pitch to make development sound trendy and sexy, and the extent to which it is unrealistic because it ignores broader social and economic realities.

Nevertheless the underlying idea in principle has merit, but a successful outcome where Jackson's idea of people creating sense of place over time will depend on the spatial qualities and, I venture, to suggest a diversity of people. If the one and two-bedroom apartment ghettoes we are seeing in Canberra, repeatedly criticised in The Canberra Times by Jack Kershaw, predominate along Northbourne Avenue they will miserably fail the Jackson sense of place test and the urban village concept, not least because of their lack of private, semi-private and public external spaces.

In established urban areas Jackson's sense of place will have links to public ideas of what is people's heritage. In this connection, current commentary on urban sense of place and heritage is particularly topical vis–a–vis proposals for major redevelopment at Manuka. Undoubtedly, as Tom Webster's letter (February 27) clearly articulates, there already is a distinctive Manuka sense of place and that heritage is not merely buildings, but the whole ambience and liveability of the Manuka area including people, their activities, habits and customs.

Perhaps the Chief Minister and the proponents should take note that people like their Manuka heritage, their spaces, their village. Come to think of it perhaps Manuka is the exemplar of the urban village concept and someone in government should listen and learn to the people. In the end heritage and sense of place are about people. Listen to them.

Professor Ken Taylor, Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies, The Australian National University.