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Community voices lost as the capital declines 

A postcard image of Canberra in the late ’60s.

“The ACT government is, by default, assuming responsibility for the evolving national capital character of Canberra, while the Commonwealth government continues to relinquish, by intent and neglect, its responsibilities,” writes BRETT ODGERS. 

THE ACT government’s City Precinct and West Basin programs are dramatically changing the shape of central Canberra. 

Author Brett Odgers.

Witness the cranes on the south west slopes of City Hill and the chunk of Lake Burley Griffin West Basin infill. The prospective outcomes are dubious.

Given Canberra’s national capital purpose, what roles have national and local communities, the Commonwealth and the National Capital Authority (NCA) played in these programs? The answer is hardly any part at all.

The experience of the Walter Burley Griffin Society, the Lake Burley Griffin Guardians and a legion of Canberra organisations and citizens is that participation has been in vain. 

The City Renewal Authority (CRA) is inviting stakeholders to participate in the design of a new park on the Acton Waterfront devoid of context: no information about demographic projections, street layout, building plots and heights, dwellings/apartments or accessibility by residents, users and visitors, or even the planned open spaces. 

There is no mention of the NCA’s Acton Peninsula Precinct Draft Structure Plan (2017) or the ANU’s Master Plan (2019), which are contiguous with the Acton Waterfront, or with Griffin’s vision for the Central National Area and Water Axis geometry and natural vistas. 

Such dissembling of major project plans by the NCA compromised the recent public consultation procedures for the Australian War Memorial Extensions and their works approval for the lake infill and boardwalk. The CRA is applying the same staged slicing method to Development and Land Release Plans for the City Hill south-west slopes. 

Metro Light Rail Stage 2A is planned to have significant impacts on the south-west sector of City Hill precinct, with the raising of London Circuit and landmark towers, nothing like Griffin’s visionary criteria, and planned to accelerate West Basin development. 

Changes should be made to Canberra’s divided and crumbling planning system. For example, the board of the NCA should include an elected representative of the ACT House of Assembly. Their bi-monthly meetings are closed to the public, the community is not invited to appear or contribute to the agenda and the minutes of meetings posted on their website provide no elucidation.

A joint National Capital Design Review Panel assesses development proposals, according to design principles of the National Capital Plan, but its membership, work and influence are unknown.

Implementation of the National Capital Plan requires expert resources, corporate memory and vision. There are too many examples of the NCP not being implemented at all, especially by the NCA (think the unsympathetic siting of the ASIO Building, the Australian War Memorial Extensions and West Basin).

Canberra’s role as the national capital in terms of its symbolic layout, monuments, statues, museums and nomenclature is governed by the Canberra National Memorials Committee (CNMC), effectively run by the NCA. In 2011, federal parliament and in 2019 the government directed the Minister for Territories to reconstitute the CNMC, appoint two ACT residents to the committee and incorporate procedures for expert historical advice, public participation, transparency, memorial selection and site allocation. No such progress has yet been made.

The principal Commonwealth parliamentary guardian of the nation’s capital and overseer of the NCA is the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories. Of the ACT’s five MPs and senators, only David Smith, MP for Bean, is among the 11 committee members. Inquiries and references have dried up, except for bi-annual reviews or briefings by the NCA. This previously strong committee has become supine and ineffectual.

The ACT government is, by default, assuming responsibility for the evolving national capital character of Canberra, while the Commonwealth government, both executive and parliament, continue to relinquish, by intent and neglect, their responsibilities. The institutions for planning and enhancing the national capital have been allowed to atrophy. Capital champions of the likes of Prime Ministers Bruce and Menzies and Senator Bob Brown are no more. Regular applications for Canberra to be placed on National or UNESCO Heritage Lists are routinely stalled.

City Hill and West Basin are presently at grave risk of degradation. The scope and prospects for ongoing community consultations are severely limited by poor procedures, dysfunctional planning and Commonwealth neglect of the national capital idea. 

American urban planner Edmund Bacon wrote in 1966: “Griffin’s Plan is one of the greatest creations of man. The great issue is that you don’t wreck it.” Marion Halligan has written: “Canberra could have been the most beautiful city in history.”

Brett Odgers is a former chair and member of the Walter Burley Griffin Society Inc.

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2 Responses to Community voices lost as the capital declines 

Colin Smeal says: December 4, 2021 at 7:37 pm

I despair every time I drive into Civic at the way its environment has been destroyed ugly unit development impinging on what should be our focus of a ideal city. Even the new court buildings have turned City Hill into a joke and we can expect more with the latest developments. I came to Canberra in 1963 and revelled in it wonderful planned and careful development. I worked on the construction ton of the National Library and was so proud of it when finished. As for the farce of “consultation” on the AWM redevelopment I was suppose I really didn’t expect anything better. You have to wonder why theses organisations even bother to pretend that the communities concerns will due consideration.. What makes me mad is I just can’t understand how anyone can think this rampant development is in any way beautiful of respectful of the wonderful legacy that Walter Burley Griffin bequeathed to us.

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