Opinion / People, planning and the deaf ears of government

More than 450 concerned Canberrans gathered in Albert Hall this month to discuss the impact of planning decisions on Canberra’s heritage values and urban form. Campbell Community Association president LUISA CAPEZIO spoke…

CAMPBELL is one of Canberra’s oldest suburbs and yet its planning, developments and design were well ahead of its time.

Planning in the 1950s worked to provide a diverse community with equitable access to services such as schools, shops, green parkland and recreational open space.  

Luisa Capezio

Harry Seidler, a prominent Australian architect of the late 20th century, built what has since been recognised as one of the most effectively laid out, medium-residential projects of its time, the Campbell Group Housing. The suburb planned for housing choices well before urban densification became a local government priority.  

Today, Campbell looks very different. Its characteristic green infrastructure has given way to extensive development, including about 1000 new apartments built along Constitution Avenue. In inner-Campbell, RZ2 zones have resulted in single-dwelling homes being rapidly replaced with multi-dwellings. Medium-to-high density housing now dominates our suburb.  

It wasn’t always this way. When the ACT government introduced residential zoning, it was with the aim of regulating land use and to control development. For established areas, like Campbell, zoning was put in place to manage redevelopment and protect the character of the suburb, (I quote) “by enabling a limited extent of change with regard to the original pattern of subdivision and the density of dwellings, to make a positive contribution to the neighbourhood and landscape character”.  

The RZ2 zoning category worked well until 2015 because redevelopments did not exceed two dwellings per residential site. This encouraged sustainable design using natural light, preservation of Campbell’s green infrastructure, and was in keeping with the character of this historic suburb. This combination of low-, medium- and high-density housing served the residents of Campbell well.

However, since 2015, relaxation of development limits permitting multiple dwellings has caused permanent damage to the environment, resulted in unsustainable development and has changed the intended streetscape and character of Campbell forever.

Developers have been able to bypass zoning codes via applications for land lease variations and merit tracks. Applications appear to have gone unchecked by relevant government authorities and, most disturbingly, the local authorities have not listened to concerns and recommendations repeatedly expressed by residents and community associations.  

In short, over the last three years, applications have been swiftly approved allowing residential blocks to be denuded of all vegetation, void of any permeable space and to be replaced with concrete surfaces and multi-dwelling buildings.

This is far from the original intention of zoning designed to preserve the character of suburbs like Campbell.  

As a community, we are very concerned about the future of Campbell. So much so, that a quarter of the total written submissions responding to the current Housing Choices discussion paper came from Campbell residents.  

In their responses, residents called for the Minister for Planning, Mick Gentleman, to undertake an immediate review of development applications within Campbell and for RZ2 developments to be capped at two dwellings (as it was before 2015). Sadly, these requests appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Of course, it’s not just our local authorities who aren’t listening. Frankly, so-called community engagement by developers is often farcical, a fact which I know is not unique to Campbell. As well as bypassing local re-zoning codes, developers also minimise and otherwise avoid engaging in any meaningful community consultation.  

For example, a community engagement meeting was recently organised by a group of architects on behalf of the developers. The land in question was zoned for commercial use, with a maximum allowable build height of two storeys. On the day, I and others were approached by an architect who said (and I quote): “Hi, thanks for coming. We have two plans to share with you. You have a choice of a six-storey apartment block or four-storey apartments with three shops on the bottom”. And that was it. THAT was the sole extent of their community engagement. In a similar experience with the Hindmarsh group, residents were simply informed that the building would be exceeding the permitted build height. Other developers go directly to the DA process in lieu of any attempt at community engagement.  

Again, these examples are not unique to Campbell. It is a common trend developing in Canberra, which is impacting on the natural environment of our region and the intended character of our established suburbs.  

That’s why meetings such as this one are so important.

At a time when we are faced with accommodating more people in less space while trying to reduce the drain on our limited resources, a strategic and wholistic approach to planning is crucial. And who better to inform such plans than the local residents and community associations that live there?

I just hope that by working together we can find a way to ensure we are listened to more effectively, before the damage done is truly irreversible.  


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