Canberra Civic: spotlight on the city centre

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For too long, the centre of Civic has been neglected in favour of other parts of our city. The centre of the Canberra should be obvious, inviting and viable. Instead, Civic has been snubbed in favour of other precincts.

In 2010, Jon Stanhope announced that City West would be the focus of redevelopment in the city through the ANU Exchange project. Separate from this, the Molonglo Group has created a superb precinct at Acton that demonstrates what can be achieved through entrepreneurialism. To the north, Braddon is quickly taking off as a sought-after area for entertainment and residences. The government has also announced ambitious and expensive plans for "City to the Lake", to Civic's south, and the government's redevelopment of ABC will pull the City East over Cooyong Street for the first time. So, in a city serving 400,000 people with several competing town centres, the CBD is being pulled to the north, south, east and west. With so much off-centre focus, it is no wonder that the heart of the city, City Walk and Garema Place, is not as good as it could be.

I am cautious about governments that have grand bureaucratic plans about where people should go. While a framework and broad land-use planning are required, especially in a leasehold system, we should not be overly prescriptive in trying to pick winners. Where possible, we should define the threshold and allow creativity from there onwards.

I believe that part of the reason for the decay in the city centre is due to government's move towards getting rid of vehicular traffic and installing pedestrian malls. Such malls can work well in very busy cities, but even then, they have their problems. In a city such as Canberra, to have a near 50-metre wide mall along City Walk, the width of the Bourke Street or Pitt Street malls, with a fraction of the people movement, is questionable. This is evident at any time of the week other than weekday lunch hours, but even then, pedestrian traffic is light.

There has also been some talk about shutting down Bunda Street to vehicles and creating a pedestrian mall there too. To have parallel malls and no roads for 500 metres between London Circuit and Cooyong Street would do a tremendous disservice to the heart of the City. While the artists' impressions and grandiose plans will show countless people riding bicycles and sitting at out-door cafes, the reality is that the city centre would be abandoned.

Even in 1976, The Canberra Times published a piece by E Duek-Cohen, University of NSW Built Environment lecturer, which included:


Why is it that the new pedestrian mall in Civic, one of the best-designed street conversions of its kind in the world, and Canberra's most lively and active area by daytime, in the evening falls dead and soulless?

I am not suggesting that having a large volume of vehicle traffic is optimal, but having increased access, movement, and passive surveillance is a good thing. Of course, during festivals, parades and other public occasions, roads can always be closed.

Rather than looking to close off another street, perhaps we should be thinking about how we can reactivate City Walk, perhaps with the return of vehicles. Could we consider a cobblestone or paved one-way road from the bus interchange to Ainslie Avenue near the fountain at the western side of the Canberra Centre? It could be similar in appearance to that of the road along Queen Elizabeth Terrace in front of Reconciliation Place beside Lake Burley Griffin. Such a road could be open for taxis, goods vehicles and perhaps small buses during business hours and general traffic at night. Such activity would help bring vibrancy and patronage to City Walk but be too slow to entice rat-running. Such a road, which would resemble a path perhaps delineated with bollards, could easily be closed for the Multicultural Festival and other events.

Vehicle traffic has not hurt Kingston, Manuka or Dickson, and some would say it has helped keep these precincts going. Of course, roads in these areas can be closed for particular events, but at other times, the convenience and security provided by the roads are an advantage.

People will always point to European cities as examples where malls and piazzas seem to work well. However, in those cities that have grown around a town square over centuries, the density and compactness make these locations far more viable for a pedestrian mall within walking distance of a larger portion of the population.

I hope these remarks will provoke some thought about how to best rekindle what can and should be a vibrant part of our city; City Walk. I am not wedded to the above ideas, but I am confident about the need to address concerns about pulling the city in every direction, and leaving the heart of Civic ignored. In the interests of visitors, traders and residents, I think Canberra can and should do better.

Alistair Coe is the ACT Liberals' shadow minister for planning.