A fix of sorts for Northbourne Avenue



Beyond artists' impressions of rail cars and bustling street scenes, the extent to which Northbourne Avenue is going to be remade by light rail (and urban infill) has not greatly intruded on the public's imagination. The release on Monday of "City and gateway" a discussion paper on urban renewal along Canberra's main entry route should change that, however. Prepared by the Environment and Planning Directorate, the discussion paper canvasses the development of "urban villages" at several key intersections along Northbourne Avenue, the rehabilitation of Sullivans Creek, and the construction of a new bus station on Alinga Street. And, in what planners obviously regarded as their piece de resistance, a plaza is envisioned between the Melbourne and Sydney buildings in Civic, linking the east and west of the city.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr's vision for Northbourne Avenue, elucidated in the document's foreword, is no less comprehensive. He wants a "gateway to the national capital that is worthy of its status … the buildings should be impressive and the landscaping beautiful. It should also be uniquely Canberra – reflecting our position as the world's most liveable city and as the bush capital. It should reflect our determination to continue to come of age as a modern international city".

These are lofty ambitions, and entirely to be expected given Mr Barr's view that Northbourne Avenue's present architecture and appearance (particularly the architecturally significant public housing precinct in Dickson, Lyneham and Turner) is shabby, if not downright disreputable, and that it's overdue for redevelopment of the sort that dovetails with his government's urban renewal strategy.

Cynics are likely to regard this discussion paper as little more than pro-development grandstanding couched in grand but meaningless terms. It's true that words like "diverse, vibrant, people-friendly and quality outcomes" pepper the paper. However, there are ideas that invite wider consideration. One is rehabilitating Sullivans Creek to its natural state, and turning it into a travel corridor connecting Gungahlin to Lake Burley Griffin.

The proposal to slow through-traffic between Alinga Street and London Circuit so as to create a pedestrian friendly plaza (and so end the curse of the Civic East/West traffic divide) is perhaps the most welcome of the proposed "actions". Just how this transformation is to be engineered makes interesting reading, however: the hierarchy, role and function of streets in Civic (and North Canberra) will be "redefined" to reduce through traffic. That's not a prospect that'll please Ainslie and Braddon residents – or motorists wanting to get to Parliament House and points south – but it is consistent with Labor's desire to get people out of their cars and on to public transport.

Less prescriptive is the paper's approach to ensuring that Northbourne's architecture and landscaping is suitably impressive: the authors merely propose "providing more flexibility in the planning system to encourage innovative, high quality development".

Those hoping Labor does its civic duty by Northbourne Avenue will be heartened by Mr Barr's rhetoric, even if the party's record to date suggests its highest priority is chasing the development dollar. This is a public discussion for them.