Monday, October 24, 2011

Canberra: the Sustainable Garden City

Simon Corbell MLA, Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, talked on "Creating a Sustainable Garden City at the University of Canberra, this evening. The Minister made a good case, arguing for a 21st century version of the English Garden City: urban more than suburban.

The Minister proposed accommodating more people at the existing Canberra town centers. He estimated that 65,000 extra households would be needed by 2030. This is an approach I agree with, having suggested at the planning process, that the population of Canberra be tripled to 1 Million, by building up the density around the existing city and town centers.

The Minister was on less firm ground claiming that this new vision for Canberra would be in line with the thinking of Canberra's original planners: Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. They did envision trams along the main street of Canberra (Northborne Avenue), but they were not asked to plan a city on the scale Canberra is, let alone what it is now envisioned.

The Minister pointed out that increasing fuel cost had disproportionate effects the poor, if they do not have access to public transport. He gave the example of planning bus stops, where the target was at least one within 500 m of each home. This was measured using the direct distance, not the distance a person would have to walk, which could be much further. It occurs to me that it would not be difficult to use Google Maps to estimate the current average actual walking distance from home to bus stop.

The Minister pointed out that open space in Canberra is of environmental benefit, reducing the temperature fluctuations and providing for water purification, at locations such as the David Street Wetlands.

The Minister pointed out that the city should reserve space for a Very Fast Train (VFT) station. He seemed to suggest this should be retained near the current Canberra station. He also mentioned food security, which did not seem very relevant to Canberra, as this is mostly located in an area which did not traditionally grow food and will become less viable due to global warming.

At question time the Minister was asked if the increase of density of population around Civic and Kingston was contributing to the economic viability of these retail centres. The Minister replied that the decline in retailing was due to global economic factors, rather than land planning. He pointed to City West, next to ANU, as a planning success. The latest building will hold 600 students and has a bus interchange built into it. He pointed this was one of the busiest public transport route in Australia.

The next question was about options for investing in the greenness of infrastructure. The Minister pointed out that the Government's energy policy included trigeneration of power at a precinct level. One place nominated for this is the Canberra Hospital. He also pointed out that the public housing on Northborne Avenue needs redevelopment and this could include energy generation.

Asked about how the treasury would see planning changes, the Minister pointed out that planning is a political issue. He pointed out that a proposal for a bus-way from Civic to Belconnen did not receive wide public support, whereas a rail line did, even though the bus-way was technically superior. My suggestion to the minister would be to adopt Sydney's successful strategy of branding its high capacity bus service as if it was rail: "metrobus".

I asked the Minister if the sustainable garden city could cope with changes brought to the way people work, shop and learn, brought about by the Internet, given we may have only a few years advanced notice, or no notice at all. He responded that more liveable higher density centres will cope better as people will still want to get together for social reasons, even if they do not need to go to the office to work. He also pointed out that Canberra's suburban centres had adapted uses over the years, with hairdressers and butcher's shops being replaced with other functions. That was a good answer, but it is not clear how the city will respond if most retail business moves to the Internet in the next few years. There are some easy adaptations possible, such as shopping centres becoming distribution centres.

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