“TO be, or not to be? That is the question”. With apologies to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the question for Canberra is: To be like every other ugly, modern city, or not to be?
Canberra is unique as the carefully planned national capital. The great joy of Canberra is that it is not Melbourne nor Sydney nor any other city. It has its own distinct character.
Unfortunately, the current government seems hell bent on losing this character and turning Canberra into a mini-Melbourne. Or a mini-any-other-city. No, thanks. Towering office blocks and blocks of flats encroaching on our footpaths is simply unacceptable. The term “zero lot line” describes these apartment and office buildings that front narrow footpaths.
The cities of great beauty in the world are not found in the glass-fronted canyons and narrow, sunless streets of developer-influenced metropolises. They are characterised by room to breathe, to enjoy the sunlight and to celebrate difference. Even in Perth, where development pressure is strong, the sense of space has been retained. With developer pressure the question remains – for how long?
The development of Campbell 5 is a case in point. The development brilliantly commenced with a wide, well-maintained park ready for the residents who would arrive later. The first set of buildings had wide footpaths and access to the park. The recent example of the building on Constitution Avenue and Creswell Street with its close to zero lot line and domination over the Pedlar Restaurant provides an inexcusable example of a lack of planning control.
Another appalling example is on Vernon Circle. The new law courts’ construction has been developed close to the zero lot line. Not so long ago a commuter driving around City Hill could feel the sense of space before dropping on to Northbourne Avenue. No longer!
These are just two examples. There are plenty more. How could this happen? Who approved them? Is the minister asleep? Are developer donations to political parties having an influence? Why is the Opposition not screaming? Is this just developers pushing the envelope to screw every last square metre out of the government? Is this really the sort of a city Canberrans want?
It is not good enough to blame developers who have a role to maximise their profits while maintaining their reputation for quality construction. The real responsibility lies with the planning department within the ACT government and with the Planning Minister Mick Gentleman and his predecessors. None have provided a real vision of building on the strengths of our city.
The concept of a “zero lot line” is really confronting. The original buildings down Northbourne Avenue through Dickson and Braddon were well set back from the street. Now the term “grand entrance” justifies turning the street into an ugly canyon. Replacing the trees will only work if there is appropriate setback.
Canberra has a “grand avenue”. Look down Anzac Parade towards Lake Burley Griffin and enjoy the wide expanse, the avenue of trees and the sense of space makes this memorial avenue one of the great streets internationally. Granted, the entrance to the city is not ceremonial, however the original Northbourne Avenue design had extrapolated from the features of Anzac Parade. Addressing the spatial appeal, the trees and the setbacks are now even more critical as the development of the light rail and this city entrance proceeds.
Across Australia there is now a surfeit of apartments. The enthusiasm of some planners and their singular focus on this type of accommodation has resulted in a significant over supply. It might improve the rates income of the government – but is hardly good planning. Additionally, stuffing families into apartments just because they do not have the same wherewithal as others is an anathema to the “Australian Dream”.
“A curse on both your houses”, with an apology to Shakespeare’s Tybalt. Until the government can get planning systems under control and the Opposition plays a vigorous part to rein in the gross affront to the beauty of our city, the unique character of Canberra will be lost.
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006