Plonk and run – urban renewal, Canberra style 

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Upgrades in Woolley Street, Dickson… the jury is out. Photo: Paul Costigan

“Along comes the new City Renewal Authority with its experiments, pop-ups and temporary stuff, and loads of publicity on how wonderful a job they are doing spending money,” bemoans “Canberra Matters” columnist PAUL COSTIGAN

THE many books available on good urban design seem not to have been delivered to ACT agencies involved with urban renewal. 

Paul Costigan.

In the last few years there’s been a consistency in approach to upgrading urban places – and it is not about long-term thinking. There’s now a continual reference to making places more vibrant (whatever that means) through pop-ups, activation and urban experiments.

Urban design, placemaking and landscape architecture are well established professions that come with generations of practice with lessons learnt and well documented outcomes – including those that worked, those not so successful and those best forgotten. 

Fundamental to any urban design is to ensure that local communities are central to the decisions. Otherwise it can be hit and miss with people grateful for anything being done while remaining frustrated and silent about the missed opportunities – and misuse of public funds.

Tuggeranong’s Anketell Street upgrade… latte and bus fumes. Photo: Paul Costigan

Which brings us to the video “Mark Parton – The Big Speed Hump”. Google those words. Anketell Street in front of the Tuggeranong Town Centre has been revamped. 

The local community looked forward to this street being revitalised as a user-friendly public space with the constant stream of buses being diverted on to a nearby street. The latter did not happen and so pedestrians and those having coffee still get to share the noise of the buses and their wonderful fumes. 

Liberal MLA Mark Parton’s call that the design work is underwhelming is justified. The evidence is that Tuggeranong should be happy with an okay design solution and that people must accept that the government transport department’s decisions always trump the community’s sensible aspiration for good urban spaces.

Outside Cooleman Court there sits a little park, Trenerry Square, with hard-edge, bright-yellow furniture and lots of concrete. This could be okay for another location, but the community was very clear about requesting a place for play and for sitting under trees for shade. Being perched on a metal thingy in the sun was not the good urban design sought.

Then there is the vibrant-making stuff happening within the inner north. Pop-ups and colourful stuff galore. Most of it being temporary but expensive experiments. It seems no-one knows how to deliver long-term urban design solutions anymore. Locals know the truth is that someone has made the call that the pesky inner-north residents need to be distracted from the reality that the ACT government has been remiss in looking after the urban infrastructure.

The revamp of Haig Park in Braddon was welcomed and those bits changed were fairly good. The consultations a couple of years ago were well received. The reality is that the changes were overdue by many years and are what should be expected from a city urban unit delivering a program of upgrades. 

Then along came the new City Renewal Authority with its experiments, pop-ups and temporary stuff and loads of publicity on how wonderful a job they are doing spending money. 

More recently we have the Woolley Street (China Town) upgrades in Dickson by the same authority. This was sprung on locals. But, hey, people can be flexible. 

So far the general consensus is that the jury is out. It has been decades since any serious urban design has been delivered on this popular street, so people are welcoming anything at last. But serious reservations remain given the money being spent on so much elaborate temporary stuff. A positive note is that the paint job on the light poles with the dangling decorations looks good.

Outside the Dickson pool, work commenced on providing an upgrade to the forecourt with more colourful temporary stuff to follow. Apparently, this was a priority identified during the years of consultations for the neighbouring parklands site. People remember what they said were the priorities – but that’s another story. 

Whatever happened to good urban design and great urban spaces? Has good design ACT government-style become simply plonk and run?


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  1. Paul, you complain when community is involved, and then you complain when government does temporary installations to get people involved.

  2. The Woolley Street “upgrade” is largely a frame covered in cheap synthetic fabric (already torn)- illegally close to a pedestrian crossing – that is requiring huge concrete blocks and metal weights (not covered in fabric) to keep it upright. Not only is it an eyesore, it is a traffic hazard: drivers cannot see pedestrians heading for the crossing.

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