Aerial of Canberra, down Northbourne Avenue. Photo: National Capital Authority
Canberra is sometimes called ''several suburbs in search of a city'', and any visitor to the national capital could be forgiven for agreeing with this assessment. Approaching the CBD from Northbourne Avenue is a ''blink and you'll miss it'' experience, while any weekend visitor wandering down City Walk will wonder where all the people have gone.
The truth is, a city without a vibrant centre is a city without a heart - and large parts of our city centre are in need of urgent CPR. The city centre is ripe for reinvention, and the ACT government's release of The City Plan is an opportunity for Canberrans to reimagine and reinvigorate our city's heart.
The size of the opportunity is as vast as the CBD itself, and we're talking a large area. The CBD is 116 hectares in total, and the 1.5-kilometre walk from the Canberra Centre to the lake is something that many have observed requires a ''packed lunch''. Each week day, 38,000 office workers make their way into the city centre, while a further 30,000 people head for the Australian National University. People come to shop, socialise and do business. The city centre is not just another town centre, but should be seen by all Canberrans as the principal focus of economic, social and cultural activities.
As the first overhaul since 1983, The City Plan is certainly long overdue. While many separate plans - made by the ACT and federal governments - have tried to establish the city centre's character, growth and development, this is the first to set the direction for its development to 2030 and beyond.
The ambitions laid out in the plan provide for more people living in the city centre, less through-traffic, better connections across the city and to the lake, and a modern built environment that fosters a dynamic and vibrant atmosphere.
The ACT government has outlined five priority projects. One is the redevelopment of the ABC flats, which is expected to deliver more than 1000 new residential units. This project is under way and has been welcomed as the first step towards attracting more people to inner-urban life.
A second project is to ''develop options to lessen the impact of through-traffic in the city centre''. Another project, The City to the Lake, will ''progress site investigations, feasibility studies and business case development on the West Basin lake foreshore, Parkes Way 'smart boulevard', convention centre, aquatic centre and Canberra theatre and stadium projects to support future government decision''. An ''economic development analysis'' will also be undertaken as a separate project to encourage development, redevelopment and reuse in the city centre, while the development of an urban design framework aims to ''guide high-quality building and capital works''.
Canberrans could be forgiven for thinking The City Plan is a plan for a plan. And yet, unequivocally, the community feedback has been to ''just get on with it''. So, how do we create a three-dimensional city centre that is unique to Canberra?
Lighthouse public sector projects such as light rail, a convention centre, football stadium and aquatic centre can act as incentives for more investment from the private sector. Many of the areas of Canberra that hum with vim and vitality are already the result of private-sector vision, energy and capital investment.
Whether you're catching a flick at the Palace Electric, sipping martinis by the bar at Hotel Hotel or enjoying a coffee at Mocan & Green Grout, you can thank private-sector investment for the experience. Similarly, the buzz of student life is audible at the ANU Exchange.
When we look at some of the areas that have set people talking - NewActon, the ANU Exchange and Lonsdale Street in Braddon, for example - they have one thing in common: a little bit of chaos, which comes from a collision of ideas and a determination to be different.
All of these projects have been realised through private-sector investment, with a good deal of passion for this city included in the mix. Government can achieve a lot for Canberra by creating a framework that encourages the private sector to get on and do things, particularly in areas where it has the specialist skills and expertise.
While some in the community may worry that progress by ''greedy developers'' will destroy Canberra's character, the price of doing nothing is great. Currently, the hallmarks of our city centre are transport bottlenecks, empty streets, boring building facades and ageing infrastructure. What should be the engine room of Canberra is, in reality, a provincial town centre.
We need to work together to create new landmark addresses that attract people at many different stages of life, to rejuvenate our tired buildings, to reduce our over-reliance on the car and to make working in the city an attractive and competitive proposition.
The City Plan is a good start, but the big question from industry is: what's next? How do we implement it? Or is it a plan for another plan?
Catherine Carter is ACT executive director of the Property Council of Australia.