Nation’s capital city or a big suburb?

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Urban Planner Greg Mews writes:

Last weekend I returned from my holiday break and caught myself staring at a lonely but nicely spray painted graffiti on the walkway that left me thinking all the way home. How would I define the place I live in to my friends from overseas? And I must confess it did seem rather complicated and confusing to answer.

On the one hand Canberra is the nation’s “bush capital”, home to many sites of national significance. Over half of the ACT is classified as national park or nature reserve and Ebenezer Howard once classified the city’s layout as a “garden city” due to the emphasis on landscape as a source of inspiration in the original plan. Unlike Howard who intended to connect garden cities via rail Canberra’s settlement areas have been connected by highways. This design makes it easy for many Canberrans with access to motor vehicles to get around, but what about those people who do not have a car?

On the other hand, when people ask me where I currently live I refer to a suburb. So what is Canberra? A collection of suburbs with an historical car-friendly design with a unique village-feel uncharacteristic of most cities or is it a capital city with national significance?

In order to understand this issue an explanation can be found within the definition of urban and suburban. The terminology can be explained by the  “urb” for urban/ city and “sub- urb” which is in most languages disqualified by reductive adjectives (ban-lieu with ban for forbidden, faux- bourg with faux for false, Vorstadt with vor for outside and sub for less).

If Canberra wants to shine internationally as the capital city of Australia, the built environment needs to appear more compact within its activity centres and have good aesthetics that provide a natural point of orientation as well as support navigation. Navigation is easy in an urban context where architecture can guide people through its network.

Quality architecture and public spaces that consider healthy planning design principles is key to enabling a city-feel for all people.

Post occupancy evaluations of some of Canberra’s most successful and unsuccessful public spaces are a way to determine how visual amenity can impact and inform the design of future spaces, which can be applied in other suburbs.

Mono-functional overexpansion causes historically critical imbalances between the centres and peripheries.
Good urban design through policies that support mixed land use and greater housing choice can lead to a landscape that provides many opportunities to revitalise suburbs to enable the greater benefits of livability and equity for all Canberrans.  For example the city of Vancouver, Canada, is developing an Ecodensity policy that increases infill development along transit corridors.

Lets be optimistic hoping 2011 will be an exciting year in Canberra with many worlds best practise innovations being implemented.

In the interim I will imagine a city feeling by staring at the lonely graffiti on the walkway and dream of one day seeing a real Banksy piece in a vital and urban Canberra.

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