Garden-design city sounds like a plan for the future

Garden-design city sounds like a plan for the future

Chief architect Alastair Swayn welcomes public suggestions on a new Canberra

The City Plan and City to the Lake project, which ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher unveiled for public consultation on March 26, provide the opportunity for Canberrans to express their ambitions for our city centre to 2030 and beyond.

My particular interest is in the City Plan consultation, which comes at an important time in our history. We are entering Canberra's second century and, as the Chief Minister noted just after the ACT election last year, after 25 years of self-government, Canberra has grown up.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher announces The City Plan to transform the city centre.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher announces The City Plan to transform the city centre.

Photo: Colleen Petch

As an architect, I see this maturity in all sorts of places. In particular, I see a new generation of young entrepreneurs setting up businesses in Braddon and elsewhere. There is a confidence and energy among them which bodes well for the vitality and development of the whole city centre.

Perhaps ''growing up'' is a consequence of Canberra reaching a population of 375,000, which can now sustain a diversity of businesses and creativity beyond our traditional government base. With Canberra's population projected to grow to 500,000 by 2043 - and the region's to more than 600,000 - what facilities will our city centre need to support that population?

Any decisions on the future of the city must be guided by the community. This consultation began in 2010 with Time to Talk Canberra 2030, which gave Canberrans the opportunity to have their say on the development of the whole of Canberra. It continued with the ACT Planning Strategy, which is also very relevant to any future city development.


The City Plan will build on previous consultation but also wants Canberrans to have their say on the city centre in particular. To make it easy, the ACT government has an online survey and discussion board on

The discussion on the City Plan is arranged around five themes: the role of the city centre; growth in the city; transport and movement in and through the city; design of public spaces and buildings; and implementing change.

The City Plan also provides the context for other projects the ACT government is currently considering, such as City to the Lake and Capital Metro.

So how do we envisage our city of the future? What public facilities do we think we will need? And how do we want it to look and feel?

Much of our current public infrastructure was designed and built in the 1970s, when Canberra had a population of 150,000, and much of it is struggling to cope with current demands.

Much of the city's commercial property is the product of the property boom of the early 1980s, when office buildings were erected quickly and cheaply without great consideration of quality or their relationship to the street.

When I raised these issues with NCDC's chief architect at the time, the answer was ''the quality was all right because these buildings were the 'first round' and it would get better the second time around''. Well, it's now time for that second round as some of these buildings become ripe for redevelopment. Let's make the most of it.

Public facilities like the Supreme Court and the Canberra Theatre are creaking at the seams and need redesigning to suit our growing population. The Canberra Stadium at Bruce is in a similar situation, and we must ask whether a new stadium should be constructed in the city centre.

One of the curiosities of the city is the number of plans that have been developed for parts of it, yet until now, none has taken a holistic view of the city centre's function and design since the early 1980s.

Even the National Capital Authority's Griffin Legacy of 2004 only deals the national components of the city centre, not the whole.

The outcome I would like to achieve from the City Plan is a clear narrative that describes the role and urban design quality of the city centre, so that it is an equal partner with the Central National Area in terms of design quality and attractiveness.

The vitality of the city centre will derive from a range of interesting and quality businesses, not just a single mall of shopping.

Already, we are seeing the diversity of businesses in Braddon and New Acton providing energy and choice in shopping and social activity.

Can we do this for our iconic Garema Place, too?

Vitality also comes with more facilities. We need to consider what cultural and sporting facilities will attract more visitors - even to the same extent as some of the national institutions.

New public facilities should give us high-quality public architecture that will be landmarks of innovation and quality. As a mind picture, I think of the impact that a Bilbao-style Guggenheim Museum or a Federation Square would have on the dynamism of the city centre. I certainly think both of those complexes are examples of the cultural opportunities for which we should be striving.

But designing new architectural attractions is only part of the outcome. We experience cities at street level. Our visual and spatial experience is often limited to the underside of the tree canopy or the first two or three storeys. Therefore, how our public places look and feel at street level is critical to the way people use them. Part of the City Plan will look critically at all the design and hierarchy of streets and public spaces.

I would like to see a clarity and hierarchy in the way we experience our streets and public places.

In my view, when we walk around the city centre it should be clear that we live in a ''garden city'' and a ''designed city'', which should be expressed in the quality of the soft and hard elements of landscape of our streets and in the quality of our gathering places. In their own ways Garema Place and Civic Square have a bleakness due to being too large for the buildings that enclose them. So in some ways, better spaces might be smaller and more intimate places.

I have raised only a few issues that the City Plan hopes to address, but I encourage everyone with an interest in Civic and the city centre to take the discussion further.

Professor Swayn is the ACT Government Architect. You can comment on the City Plan and the City to the Lake proposal through or the City to the Lake displays. More information:

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