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Urban infill on a human scale, that’s the future

A 2021 Google Earth photo of Charnwood.

“The style and design of towers in Canberra suit developers, but the majority don’t deliver a high enough quality of life. Nor are they designed to effectively deal with the coming climate crisis,” says “Canberra Matters” columnist PAUL COSTIGAN.

IN response to my September 8 column on how the ACT Greens have turned their backs on biodiversity, a question popped up asking: “You’re a consistent opponent of higher-density development. Do you not think that urban sprawl is bad for the climate?” 

Paul Costigan.

The question is an example of a straw-man fallacy. The original issues are universalised, distorted and exaggerated and replaced with this fallacy argument that is then refuted by those who wish to avoid debating the real issues. Advocates for better urban environments have to constantly deal with straw-man fallacies.

Most residents accept that there will be intensification of Canberra’s established suburbs. The contentious point is how this could happen. What is being questioned is the laissez faire approach to planning and development by the ACT Greens and Labor. As it has been a long time since there has been an ACT Liberal government, residents have little awareness what difference they would make.

More than a decade ago, a researcher at Griffith University, Queensland, published a study on the disappearance of the Australian backyard that included a special mention of how things had changed in Canberra’s planning and development. Points were made using an aerial view of Charnwood. 

On one side was the earlier more established planned suburb with an abundance of shrubbery and houses with ample private open spaces – gardens etcetera. 

Whereas the other side illustrated the change. The houses are on smaller blocks, less room for front and backyard activities, and little chance of there ever being lush greenery and shade. 

Pictured is a 2021 version of the same and shows how, after 20-plus years, the limited shrubbery to the left has matured as much as possible. The comparison with more established inner-Canberra suburbs is stark.

In the most recent Gungahlin suburbs, houses are usually larger again and are crammed together even more. They are heat islands waiting to happen. 

What is not addressed in the Griffith research is that in the last decades the ACT Greens and Labor have enabled an explosion of apartment towers. The argument being that to avoid urban sprawl, 70 per cent of new homes must be in the current city footprint and somehow the logic is that these must be apartment towers.

There is plenty of evidence that the current number, style and design of towers in Canberra suit developers, but the majority do not deliver a high enough standard of quality of life. Nor are they designed to effectively deal with the coming climate crisis. Intensification is not about jamming bland and badly designed apartment towers into the town centres and along main avenues. 

Survey after survey state that suburban blocks with stand-alone houses or small groups of townhouses or medium-size apartment blocks remain the preferred mode of living and they do not need to be crammed together with no chance of greenery and shade trees. 

If the ACT Greens were interested in dealing with the climate emergency, then all the elements and complexities of good urban design would be a top priority. Instead, they have cherry-picked a couple of the issues and have largely gone missing when it comes to insisting that planning requirements deliver liveable suburbs that are going to efficiently mitigate the dramatic climate effects over the next decades. 

Any house built recently should have already been designed to be passive and should have ample greenery and generous shade cover. While the newer Charnwood houses may one day be partly retro-fitted as the climate dramatically changes, those of the newer Gungahlin suburbs stand little chance of being retro-fitted.

Residents optimistically aspire to have a government that works with them to bring about intensification that meets future requirements as well as delivers amenities at least equivalent to what used to be provided. 

The Canberra of the 1970s is gone but many of the former benefits remain. Suburbs should be upgraded and maintained as the city infills with well-designed, climate-ready, human-scale housing and adaptable landscapes with increased biodiversity. 

Paul Costigan is an independent commentator and consultant on the visual arts, photography, urban design, environmental issues and everyday matters.

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5 Responses to Urban infill on a human scale, that’s the future

David says: October 20, 2021 at 9:43 am


Thank you for this detailed response to my question.

It is good to hear that, in principle, you support the intensification of established suburbs, and the construction of medium density housing (townhouses or small apartment blocks) so long as it is set amid sufficient space and greenery.

I agree with you that it’s vital to “debate the real issues” and to move beyond generalities. Given the above general principles, am I right to assume that you would support the Manor House development in Griffith and others like it? Developments of this kind would see medium density housing built on the same block size and amid the same level of greenery and open space that surrounds a traditional detached Canberra house. This seems wholly consistent with the principles you espouse in this article.

Like you, I think it’s desirable to avoid “straw man” debates – what do you actually stand for in practice?

Palmerston's Masked Lament says: October 20, 2021 at 2:18 pm

Well that took no time at all to Google. What Paul says in his article is laissez faire approach to planning needs to be called out for what it is and hopefully the challenge will be enough to force change for good.

Now according to a micro-second of Google time, the owners of the proposed Manor House development want to bulldoze their single residence and replace it with a two-storey, four-unit complex with nine car parks on an 1166m2 block. The current house is 186m2 and the rest is garden. The plan on the Internet seems to flip that ratio and changes green for concrete.

As reported elsewhere, there is nothing wrong with exploring different housing models – especially what’s called the ‘missing middle’ of low-rise, medium-density – but they need to be in the right place, with the right zoning and not chip away at what is left of the planning system’s integrity.

Canberra planning was once “hoc” but now it is “ad hoc”, and when a perfectly good sheep paddock is turned into a windswept and sunblasted concrete wonderland where neighbours can shake hands from their side windows and the drone of drone deliveries echoes along the man-made canyons (I’m looking at you Crace) you have to wonder why we have gone so far wrong.

So yes, “straw man” debates need to be avoided.

S. Draw K Cabs says: October 22, 2021 at 3:29 pm

Paul on point as usual, but for…

Can we really only vote for Lib/Lab/Green? This mob three, will only pick up their game when we don’t. vote. for. any. of. them. (yes, it’s taking the local Libs longer than you might expect).

For the brain washed; seriously, there are alternatives, independents and parties that can’t be worse and at the least want to be better.

Citynews; please start by giving some of these alternatives free kicks.

David says: October 23, 2021 at 7:52 am

“ As reported elsewhere, there is nothing wrong with exploring different housing models – especially what’s called the ‘missing middle’ of low-rise, medium-density – but they need to be in the right place, with the right zoning and not chip away at what is left of the planning system’s integrity.”

ie, Not In My Backyard.

It would at least be more honest if the anti-development crowd would just come out and say “we are very comfortable in our established suburbs and don’t want new people moving here”.

Palmerston's Masket Lament says: October 26, 2021 at 7:54 am

I note what you did there, by twisting reporting taken from other sources on this project you have sought to twist my argument into a NIMBYist position, and in doing so, attempted to redirect away from the lack of detailed options and supporting argument you seek to put forward.

Sadly, this is not the case and representing my comments as NIMBY are completely fallacious.

So let me respond with this snapshot of modern housing from Crace because it is current.

There is a house for sale in Crace at the moment, it is a big house with commanding views and many bedrooms and presents an aspiration for many home owners I would suggest. However it does not have a backyard. It does not have a courtyard. Its sole claim to personal greenspace is labelled a “court”.

Explain to me how this represents effective town planning when there is no space for a child to play?


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