Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
When you want to know where to go, it's a good idea to know where you have come from is a dictum once suggested to me by Professor George Seddon, and it has always struck me as sensible.
As we approach the centenary of Canberra, possible National Heritage Listing and discussion on planning changes to density rules in our suburbs, it is timely to reflect on the historical context of Canberra and where we are going.
It is now 25 years since a conference was held at the Australian National University in which leading planning thinkers speculated on Canberra of the future. We are now in that future and critical aspects of the vision for Canberra as a place not like any other have been replaced with planning directions not set within the context of Canberra as a special city. Rather there seems to be an official determination to make it like other cities: at least one local politician has suggested Canberra of the future will be like Sydney.
The centenary program from a planning perspective is narrowly Griffin-centred and appears not to be addressing a wider picture: an exception is a proposed Canberra Museum and Art Gallery initiative, 2113 Canberra Odyssey Exhibition. But Canberra did not begin and end with the Griffin plan. Discussions between 1901 and 1908 on the visions for a federal capital consistently focused on the symbolic role of the Australian landscape.
Walter Burley Griffin certainly understood the symbolic role of landscape to the Australian psyche and planned a city in and of the landscape that offered a blueprint that centrally guided subsequent planning until recently.
Griffin's plan often mistakenly quoted as a garden-city ideal was in a fact a city-beautiful model with radiating avenues and axes linking landscape inside and outside the city. But it did include some garden city overtones.
It was John Sulman (who succeeded Griffin in 1921) and the Federal Capital Advisory Committee that decreed Canberra would be developed as a garden city; it was a policy that was successfully followed by the National Capital Development Commission, not least through the establishment of the National Capital Open Space System.
Notably Canberra was confirmed by the NCDC in 1970 as ''a city in the landscape'' and ''a beautiful one'' where beauty would ''be more enduring [than in other cities] because it was formed primarily in the splendour of the landscape''.
Certainly Canberra's morphology will change, but will this mean the very soul of the city, its landscape setting, becomes devalued? Take the inner hills and ridges of the National Capital Open Space System as an example. Can you imagine Canberra without the bush-clad hills framing the city and views out of the city? We are already losing the latter in views from Civic as high rise development is permitted without any overall plan of the effect on view lines.
In contrast to this, major cities around the world with inspiring views to surrounding hills, such as Vancouver, ensure major view lines are protected from high rise buildings. There have been occasional references by local politicians flirting with the idea of urban development on the inner hills. For whom are they speaking?
It is interesting to note that during the Ming and Qing dynasties it was the custom of every city or town in China to select generally eight [sometimes a few more] best landscape scenes in the vicinity that best represented the local character. The selected scenes were normally those preferred by the local people. Why have we not addressed such planning concerns for our city in the landscape?
Within this historical context and Canberra's international reputation as a leading example of twentieth century planning - a reputation which is more often held in higher esteem by an international audience than an Australian one - a fundamental question arises.
Are people who live in Canberra prepared to accept change that alters their idea of how they want to live and how will the city in the landscape be planned? Will many people's expectations of living in a pleasant, leafy setting be mitigated in any way(s)?; what kind of city in the future do we want in the face of increasing densities and urban infill?
We know that urban densification and infill will occur at selected points in the city. But the question we may legitimately ask is, will this continue to take the form of minimal or no landscape space in the medium density developments? Wall-to-wall exterior concrete or hard paving in medium density developments with no space for tree planting is now all too often the case. Yet medium density and garden city character should not be mutually exclusive.
However, existing planning guidelines progressively and increasingly put in place since 1988 with minimum street setbacks based on common national planning is seeing the essential character eroded. This is developers' planning not planning for people. If lack of landscape space so critical to Canberra's sense of place continues in new developments, what will extensive stretches of Canberra's residential areas look like in the future?
Apart from the visual and physical uglification will be the impact of increasing the urban heat island effect, less recharge of the ground water system because of lack of permeable ground treatment. Increasing density should be accompanied by responsible consideration of ecological and social sustainability, not just short-term economic aspects of selling the land and filling it with the maximum number of dwellings under the guise of sustainable development.
We are told constantly that we cannot sustain journeys to work by car from Canberra's suburbs because the age of petrol is disappearing. Last night on Chinese television, I saw a report on an electric Mini Cooper capable of travelling up to 240 kilometres without recharge. This does not seem to enter into the thinking of long-term planning or those tired references to suburbia as some monstrous social evil.
This prompts me to ask what kind of city do we want for the future so that we and our successors can say the vision of the city in the landscape, while changed, is their valued inheritance from us. Unless planning guidelines are reviewed, I fear the inheritance will be a devalued one.
Professor Ken Taylor is at the ANU's Research School of Humanities and the Arts. He is currently a Visiting Professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at Tongji University, Shanghai. He will deliver a public lecture on Canberra shortly at the World Heritage Institute for Training and Research Asia Pacific at Tongji.