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Is Lake Burley Griffin being sold down the river?

Lake Burley Griffin is often referred to as the jewel in the crown of Canberra's setting. If one thinks of the iconographic imagery this evinces of a precious stone and a crown, then surely it means seeing the stone in the context of its setting. The stone is enhanced by its setting and the setting is enhanced by the stone: a synergy between the two where their combined effect is greater than the sum of their separate effects. Any jewellery aficionado of the Antiques Roadshow can attest to this.

Relating this analogy to LBG anticipates the acceptance that the open space setting around the water body is critical to the idea of the lake as Canberra's jewel. Equally significant in the city's sense of place as the city in the landscape is the lake's large scale spatial and visual relationship to the defining hills and ridges, the National Capital Open Space System.

Views across the lake to the hills and ridges and views back to the lake are quintessential elements in the city's dramatically exquisite stage-like setting: Judith Wright's "tawny basin in the ring of hills". The visual sweep of green space effortlessly continuing the surface plane of the water then transcends the distances of Canberra's landscape views, linking with surrounding landscape components. It is all rather akin to the related parts of an elegant symphony.

In addition to the invaluable setting for the lake creating visual harmony what other use does the landscape surround serve? Expressed simply what we have is an extensive linear space that serves as doing space and seeing space. We can physically occupy the doing space: walk, run, cycle and so on. But equally important is the symbolism of the seeing space role of LBG. Indeed for many people it will be more important and not just for Canberrans, but for national and international visitors to the city.

The concept of public parkland around the lake also maintains intellectually and physically the democratic ideals on which the foundational vision of a capital for the nation was based. It was to be a city that would be the Pride of Time and a world leader in city planning. This lofty idealism was transferred to the Canberra site once it was chosen. Indeed Scrivener's recommendation of the Canberra site took this into consideration in 1909. It was also inherent in the design competition guidelines of 1911.

It is for these cogent reasons that a group known as LBG Guardians is concerned at the development proposals including apartment blocks on land flanking West Basin of the lake. The area stretches from the southern base of City Hill along the western side of Commonwealth Avenue and extends by landfill the existing shoreline of the lake.

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The development plan is a joint exercise between the ACT government and the National Capital Authority. Some idea of the extent of the development can be seen in the 2004 report by the NCA, The Griffin Legacy, and in Precinct Code in Amendment 61 to the National Capital Plan (Figure 56 West Basin – Indicative extension of the city to the lake).

Notable in this connection is that one would assume the name "Griffin Legacy" would denote it follows, at least on major items, Griffin's spatial planning and indicative built form as shown on the "Final Plan by Walter Burley Griffin 1918".

As far as West Basin is concerned this is not the case. Griffin had continuous public parkland around the lake. The development will destroy Griffin's planned parkland ideal. An ideal maintained until now. The development will blight the lake's parkland, the city's urban form, its city in the landscape ethos, Commonwealth Avenue and vistas from City Hill to the mountains beyond. The dense development in West Basin will block public access and public use.

By virtue of the NCA plan the ACT government has been able to grab the land ready for sale to developers. This will deprive Canberrans and visitors to the national capital of a significant vista across the city. West Basin development will destroy the seeing space value of the landscape of West Basin, It will not even replace it with any form of doing space apart from a limited fringe at the water's edge replacing the relaxing (visually and physically) grass/water connection.

The buildings will block views across the lake to the NCOSS, which is the backbone of the plan of the city. Opportunity for the public to enjoy the views will be replaced by views being the private domain of the people who live in the apartments: hardly the essence of democratic open space. A compromise could be accommodated as at West Lake, Hangzhou, China, where scattered low-rise built development is incorporated into extensive lakeside parkland where views across the lake are not compromised. Indeed, some intrusive buildings are planned for removal.

In a city like Canberra with its distinctive landscape setting we have a right to expect our governments, through their agencies, to take into account in planning schemes the views and vista through, out of, and into the city as new development is considered. It happens in some other cities around the world where, such as Edinburgh, a study was commissioned to map important vistas and views. Some years ago Vancouver undertook a similar study. What is happening to our city?

Professor Ken Taylor is at the Australian National University's Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies.