Putting capital on right track
As we approach the 2013 centenary, KATRINA SCOUGALL and DAVID FLANNERY argue that Washington DC offers a model of how Canberra could sit better in the national consciousness and a unifying project for the people who live here
The end of next month marks 100 years since the closing date for entries in the Federal Capital Design Competition. The winner, as we all know, was Walter Burley Griffin, who was ably supported in the preparation of his submission by his wife Marion Mahoney.
This noteworthy milestone is a tangible reminder of the fast-approaching celebrations next year for the centenary of the naming of the capital; a year during which Canberra must consolidate in the local, national and international consciousness its real and symbolic role as our national capital. Canberra also needs to secure for itself the long-overdue respect it deserves.
At the very least, February's anniversary gives us an opportunity to explore what we would like the centenary to celebrate and achieve and propose some long-range infrastructure concepts for the next century.
About 170 years or more after the United States' capital city of Washington was founded, its planners developed a proposal for a rapid transit system and the result was the Washington Metro, which officially opened in 1976. It is now the second busiest rapid transit system in the US. A concept for a similar network could be considered for Canberra.
The way in which Canberra was formed, and what contemporary Canberra embodies, are sources of national frustration for many Australians; many consider the city as a compromise that satisfied no one. From its location to its purpose and layout, an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction dominates many discussions about Canberra. Perhaps Canberra is in need of a makeover or maybe Walter Burley Griffin's naturalistic approach to its design is not fully appreciated.
In 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia was established, ratified by Queen Victoria with the signing of the Constitution Act. With the inception of a new nation, came the need for a national capital. There was much political wrangling between Melbourne and Sydney over which would become the capital. Ultimately, resolution was achieved with the inclusion in the constitution of a clause declaring that a new capital would be built within New South Wales, no less than 100 miles from Sydney, and that the Federal Government would remain in Melbourne until the new city was ready.
The story of the establishment of Washington over a century before Canberra's genesis holds many similar parallels. In 1787 when the United States of America established its constitution, the question of its capital city arose and several cities including New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Richmond vied to be the capital. A compromise was reached to establish the District of Columbia, a federal district separate from any of the states, and this new state would contain the capital city. Like Washington before it, the construction of Canberra served as a focal point for the newly formed nation.
The need for a federal capital also necessitated the need for a new city plan. Griffin and Mahoney laid out the city around an artificial lake and cleverly integrated City Beautiful and Garden City concepts within the Australian bush setting. The most prominent aspect of the plan was the geometric axial arrangement of main avenues and vistas. The design strongly integrated the city within its natural setting and is the reason that the city is often referred to as the bush capital.
As the seat of government, Canberra plays a vital role in the nation's development. It is where Australia's national government meets, and is the location of the High Court of Australia, the headquarters of the Australian Defence Force and numerous other Commonwealth Departments. Many of the nation's most important institutions, museums and galleries are located in the national capital, some of which include the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Museum of Australia. Aside from having such markedly important people and buildings located here, harbouring the national government remains the city's primary purpose; notwithstanding that private sector employment has expanded significantly over the century.
The integration of the city with its surrounding landscape is the one element of the Griffins' original design that has fared the best in the century following its inception. This access to the natural environment remains unmatched by any other Australian city. Although this is desired in most cities, mainstream Australian culture seems to take pleasure in criticising Canberra as a place to live.
A large portion of this criticism takes the form of satire and is written by Melbourne or Sydney-based journalists, whose comments aim to label the city as a ''soulless'' place dominated by utilitarian roundabouts and excessive land zoning.
Commentary is fixated on only a few negative aspects of the city, namely, a sense of artificiality, a lack of vibrancy, a lack of corresponding amenities such as public transport and an overall unclear and under-utilised urban form. Regretfully these assessments are deemed correct in the estimation of many. Even locals are taking a critical stance toward their own city, as is evident in a 2006 article by Canberra journalist Alex Tricolas:
''A lack of amenities along with the relatively low-key lifestyle attributable to suburban sprawl have given us a reputation for being a boring place to live and changing perceptions is going to take more than a cheesy marketing plan.''
The Centenary of Canberra celebrations in 2013 will, therefore, be a rare opportunity for all Australians to rid the national capital of its associated stigmas and commemorate its role as the capital of Australia.
The vision of the organising group, Canberra 100, is that all Australians should proudly celebrate and share in the centenary of Canberra, our nation's capital - the city that tells the story of our country's freedom, spirit, achievements and aspirations. This vision is a huge challenge given the open resentment shown it by many Australians.
To increase the pride and ownership of Australians towards their capital, the celebrations need to be a national event, similar to the Australia Day celebrations held each year in January. The nation needs to see its capital transformed into a vibrant city.
Education on the role and design of capital cities will be another very important component of the centenary celebrations to provide an improved understanding of the concept and design of the nation's capital.
Securing international media involvement will also help establish wider recognition. This level of attention cannot be achieved through small-scale celebrations which is why a high level of funding has been secured to promote a capital in which Australians can take pride.
What differentiates Canberra from its more established interstate counterparts is the implementation of visionary planning from its very beginning - a legacy that is still very important to Canberra's growth 100 years on.
The Griffins' plan constituted a well thought-out design which has stood the city well. However, more recent research and development in, and popular acceptance of, sustainable urban city planning principles on the global front, offers Canberra an expanded future vision in much the same way the McMillan plan of 1901 reinvigorated L'Enfant's plan of Washington of 110 years earlier.
Accordingly, the concurrent CapiThetical design competition is already seeking innovative and futuristic design ideas for the capital, and the Centenary of Canberra needs to envisage and promote large-scale visionary projects that show it is making progress on the sustainable planning front.
While it is important to retain and satisfy the Griffin Plan, it is imperative that Canberra grows to meet its potential as a vibrant, liveable and sustainable city.
A population projection provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that the population of the Australian Capital Territory is predicted to increase by 50per cent between June 30 2007 and 2056, thus reaching 509,300 people. In a city that was never designed to be very large, careful thought and consideration needs to be given as to how best compensate this growth while still trying to uphold the Griffins' ideals.
In 2011 the ACT Government released the Draft ACT Planning Strategy designed to provide a foundation for the development of Canberra over the next 20 years. In essence, this document guides Canberra towards a higher density future with an objective of containing sprawl. The proposal indicates mass development of transport corridors along which shops, cafes and apartment buildings as high as eight storeys will be situated. Many Canberrans are opposed to this development, as eight-storey buildings along transport corridors are considered to be too high and undermine the National Capital Plan, which recommends buildings stay in line with tree canopies. This concentration of development will help, however, improve the affordability of housing through multi-storey apartment complexes. Having office areas spread along transport corridors will help relieve congestion in Civic.
The long-term greatest benefit from development along the transport corridors is the potential to fast-track the implementation of a rail system to interconnect Canberra's satellite regions. This will reduce the community's reliance on motor vehicles - an essential objective as oil supplies dwindle in coming decades.
A rapid transit system would be ideal for Canberra as a fast connection for residents between the town centres is essential - a metro system is a perfect model. Residents of Canberra may not believe a Canberra Metro would change their current transportation patterns, but the Washington Metro has proven that even after 170 years a city can adjust.
To date, many have proposed a light rail (above ground) transport network for Canberra, but it is also worth considering a metro (underground) network. It may not be realised until well into the future - 170 years after the establishment of our city, as in the case of Washington, places its completion in Canberra in about 2080!
The Canberra Metro could consist of several lines crossing and circling the city connecting the residential areas with town centres, destinations of employment like Russell, Parliament, and with major sporting and tourist attractions. The network would also connect at an airport transport hub with an interstate fast rail line connecting through to Sydney and to Melbourne - a proposal already on someone's drawing board.
A rapid transit system would be even more effective if implemented as part of an integrated suburban transport network. Canberra's suburbs are too spread out and unless residents have quick, easy access to the metro stations, convenience would be a problem. A solution to this would be to provide multi-storey park-and-ride facilities within short proximity of the suburbs with bus shuttles running every few minutes. In this way car use would be minimal and contained within individual suburbs.
Some will say this concept is too far-fetched, too costly to consider and too far into the future to worry about - but let's let the discussion be had. Despite the cynical and not entirely unjustified perceptions that many Australians have of their capital city, Australians do know there is certainly more to Canberra than roundabouts and flowerbeds.
Canberra, like other cities, has a history of its own and a story to tell - a history of importance, as it is a narrative of the growth and evolution of social and planning ideals in both Australia and overseas. Additionally, the story of Canberra is significant and unique, as it is the story of a city that still holds within it the remnants of an exceptional creative vision, despite the enduring misfortune and neglect that has deleteriously affected it for much of its existence.
Yes, let 2013 be a year of much celebration and excitement for the last 100 years, but moreover, let it be an opportunity to engage in some truly visionary exploration of what the city might be in another 100 years.