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No evidence to support drive for higher density

Date

The citizens of Canberra are being subjected to a re-drawing of the Territory Plan by stealth. We are being asked to again approve of incremental changes to the Territory Plan to fundamentally change the form and structure of the city when what is needed is a review of the Plan as a whole.

The community needs to know that the planners do understand and provide for the structure and form of our city rather than inviting us to agree to proposals for which the planners provide no evidence and for which they are silent on their longer term consequences.

The current proposal ''Draft Variation 308 to the Territory Plan'' is simply another device to respond to developers - in this case the ''developers'' being the Community Services Directorate and the Catholic Church - seeking permission for a massive redevelopment of section 7 in Reid and sections 52 and 57 in Braddon.

While at first sight the proposal might seem innocuous, the fact is that along with other initiatives in train it will lead to a massive change in the form of Canberra.

The proposal would lead to an astounding increase in density and provide the opportunity for other landholders nearby, including in Civic, to seek similar increases in development density on the grounds that it was a precedent to which they are also entitled. It would lead to increased pressure to allow commercial development in heritage-listed Reid which is already the location of commercial activity on residential leases eating away at the edges of the heritage area. It would also compromise the existing residential developments in Reid and Braddon and lead to ambitious developers trying the same ''stunt'' elsewhere in North Canberra.

The justification for the change in density is that it would make the area and city more sustainable. Although the documents are replete with such assertions, there is no credible research evidence provided to substantiate them. Nor do they define what they mean by ''sustainable''.

A consultant report provided as ''justification'' for the type of development proposed makes many assertions about the supposed benefits but fails to provide systematic research evidence in support of the proposal. The report of so-called community consultation is an unstructured exploration of the views of a handful of participants in a meeting to discuss the issues. It also assembles assertions from other consultants that are tendered as supporting evidence but which is in no way relevant to the nature and history of Canberra or of the ambitions of the community.

Most of the claimed reduction in water and energy use can be achieved by using modern fittings and appliances and behavioural changes that are not a function of density. Indeed research evidence from other Australian cities indicates that the higher the density the higher the per capita consumption of energy and of water.

One of the more egregious aspects of the proposal is that it would result in a more than 75 per cent reduction in the public housing in the central area. Coupled with other extant proposals to redevelop public housing provided elsewhere in the city, this would lead to a further reduction in the proportion of public housing in the ACT.

Although the proposed development is based on the assumption that it will lead to greater use of public transport and greater degree of walking there is no evidence presented that the public transport system is being developed to cope with increase in demand. The proposal is essentially based on the assumption that people living in high-density housing have little need for private transport so that it would be appropriate to make lower provision for car parking. No credible research evidence related to the scale, form and structure of Canberra or other comparable cities is presented in support of this assertion. Moreover, the one group that might, due to its lower income, have lower demand for private motor vehicle use is the very group whose housing would be reduced. Even if the current low-income households were relocated to other low-income housing they would have fewer options to engage in community activities because they almost certainly would not have convenient access to the opportunities and services provided in the city. The information session held on February 7 made the claim that ''the changes will allow high-density development and some mixed-use development such as shops, offices and open space''. It omitted to point out that there would be a reduction in open space, that there is already a surplus of retail space across the road and that the last thing we need on the major circumferential route around Civic is traffic generating activity on it that office developments lead to. It is possible that some of the present development needs a facelift but that does not mean that it needs to be pulled down.

What this city needs is a competent planning authority that bases its policies on sound research into the needs of its citizens rather than the short-term aspirations of developers and their crude ambitions.

Professor Troy is at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University.

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