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Canberra Civic: spotlight on the city centre


Alistair Coe

The heart of the city, including Garema Place,  is not as good as it could be, Alistair Coe says.

The heart of the city, including Garema Place, is not as good as it could be, Alistair Coe says. Photo: Emma Macdonald

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.

40 comments so far

  • Ha ha ha. Worst idea ever.

    Car culture
    Date and time
    September 02, 2014, 12:00AM
    • Interesting thinking. However, deeper analysis will reveal other problems which contribute to the lifelessness of the city centre/pedestrian precinct. It is obvious, for example, that cities with a lively (and safe) centre -- yes, even a pedestrian one -- offer the right mix of things to attract people, and these are places such as clothing shops, bookshops, music shops, entertainment venues, and buzzy little cafes which are still open in the evening. In contrast, Canberra's city centre, especially the pedestrian precinct, has inexplicably squandered much of its street-level real estate on dull retail and service outlets which shut at 5.30pm.

      Date and time
      September 02, 2014, 12:38AM
      • I agree, I was happy when Starbucks shut down but at least people went there!

        Teph 2
        Date and time
        September 02, 2014, 11:34AM
    • I think Alistair is absolutely right in his summation of the problems of Garema Place and City Walk. At night time Garema Place/City Walk is a gloomy and uninviting space. The restaurants there are in need of better support from the local government with better street lighting and more life in the streets, the type of life and lights that accompany cars and roads.

      If the City Walk and Garema place was surrounded by apartment blocks with people living in them, there would be sufficient street life to allow the closure of the streets, however with limited pedestrian traffic, the steet should be reopened to vehicles as suggested to provide lighting and safety to clientele of Garema Place and City Walk restaurants and bars,

      lara of Kingston
      Date and time
      September 02, 2014, 1:17AM
      • Garema Place is the only part of Civic that gets even moderately busy in my experience. I think the focus for making Canberra more vibrant should be to increase the residential density of inner-city suburbs like Turner, Campbell, Yarralumla, Barton, and the rest of Braddon to that of the Lonsdale Street area. Having a significant residential population around the city would sustain more retail outside of lunchtime which would in turn attract more visitors. I'd actually like to see City walk continued around Civic parallel to London Circuit (via Marcus-Clarke and Allara streets) connecting to the lake, making it easier for cyclists and pedestrians to access the city from the inner north and south. Encouraging inner-city residential development and diverting road traffic away from the CBD has been a large part of Melbourne's urban regeneration since it's 1980s nadir, I think it can work in Canberra too.

        Some guy
        Date and time
        September 02, 2014, 4:56AM
        • We couldn't pedestrianise Marcus Clarke Street. It's the main access road to New Acton and City West from the North.

          Date and time
          September 02, 2014, 3:20PM
      • I am sorely afraid that the Civic design takes into no account the fact is was designed to be one hub of a number of satellite town hubs. The construction of the mini-megamall has done nothing to improve the civic feel of the place but it has down a lot to move pedestrian traffic away from the outside shops into the Gruen factory - at the same time drawing punters away from the other Malls.

        It comes down to population in the end. Would Canberra be better if it was more concentrated on a traditional gird pattern with Federal Government south of the Lake and the city living to the North? And only have one single CBD to service the 300 thousand remaining residents? That would cater for the transient population of apartment dwellers, moving out to bigger houses in the suburbs and support a rail transit system that was not a White Elephant.

        I think, suspect, believe that we have got the town planning of Canberra seriously wrong. The concept is laudatory but the execution and reality is sadly vastly different - as most social experiments seem to be.

        Outraged o'P
        Date and time
        September 02, 2014, 7:12AM
        • Yes. I have always regarded the basic tenets of the old NCDC decentralised city plan as overly car-driven and deeply flawed. We know that Canberra has more road and parking space than Los Angeles (Cbr Business Council study of the early 1990s). A nightmare.

          Canberra - Weston
          Date and time
          September 02, 2014, 12:01PM
      • Almost can't believe I agree with this article. Unfortunately, it's just high on issues, but low on analysis of underlying causes or solutions.

        Date and time
        September 02, 2014, 7:23AM
        • Or, say, a tram line down the middle...

          Date and time
          September 02, 2014, 7:25AM

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