Is Canberra still the bush capital, and should we be?

Of late, it has been impossible to miss the new additions to Canberra’s skylines—towering cranes and the buildings they’re creating. With all this growth, much of it skyward, it begs the questions: is Canberra still the bush capital, and should it be?

Here at Perspective, Canberra’s distant horizons, expanses of open space and abundant trees are near and dear to our hearts. They’re one of the many things we love about this city and we don’t think that should be changing.

Even major roads and thoroughfares are bordered by groves of natives trees and exotic ones, changing colours from autumn reds to spring wattle yellows and leafy summer greens. This abundance of foliage, the numerous winding lakes and the occasional sight of kangaroos by the road are striking to those who’ve lived for years in a big city, like Perspective colleague, Samara.

“Some of the wealthier suburbs of Melbourne have gorgeous, tree-lined streets, but just as often it’s concrete and pavement with little nature to combat it. I’ve been in Canberra for a year now, and every afternoon when I drive home, I’m still struck by its beauty.”

Canberra is unique in Australia, planned around belts of native bushland providing welcome respite from urban sprawl. Those spaces share their identity as elements of Canberra Nature Park, a many splendoured, many tendrilled thing that crops up in the most unexpected places. For it’s not one park but many … consider that Black Mountain and pretty well all the other hills that dot Canberra, along with open urban forest and bushland areas, wildlife reserves, wetlands – all 30 plus of them – are part of the same park.

There aren’t many places in the ‘burbs more than a quick walk away from the park in any of its guises. With that come opportunities for social interaction, proximity to nature, to rare and endangered species, to a quality of life all too often abandoned in the big smokes.

But the current state of Northbourne Avenue, with its trees cut down and jail-like fencing in preparation for the light rail network, makes one wonder how long this natural beauty will last as the city expands.

We spoke to urban planner and CEO of Purdon Planning, Kristi Jørgensen for her perspective.

kristiThe bush capital is part of Canberra’s fabric. Do you think it’s still applicable?

I think the bush capital remains relevant, but the realities of the 21st Century mean that we need a new approach if we want to preserve it.

What do we need to do to go about modernising, yet still keeping the city’s character?

We need to celebrate creative urban infill, to enjoy modern architecture and to value the innovative approach of modern designers.

Higher density living in the city and town centres, and to a certain scale, group centres, should be part of that new millennium approach. By developing in the right locations a balance between urban and rural environments can be maintained.

Canberra is growing. If we don’t embrace high density living, we risk pushing our communities further and further away from the services, jobs and amenities they need. Not only this, but we will increase infrastructure costs and pressure to deliver those.

How do we go about it?

We need to look at multi storey developments differently. Height restrictions tend to limit potential, with squat buildings doing nothing for a modern city skyline.

But what of those far horizons so beloved by Canberrans?

They won’t suffer as modern Canberra embraces urban infill with its mix of building styles. People have always enjoyed the vantage points the city offers and the visual landscape will be all the more interesting as a result of modern development.

Our hills and mountains in Canberra will continue to provide great vantage points to view our growing city. As urban planners and city designers, we strive to see that landscape dotted with attractive and interesting architecture, the green spaces will still prevail – if we allow density in the right infill locations.

A slender multi-storey building contributes more to the visual landscape of an area suitable for more dense development, and its smaller footprint has less impact at ground level – as well as providing more space for interaction.

There’s a bit of apprehension from some, that high density growth means swapping our beautiful city for an impersonal concrete jungle. What will prevent that?

Design at street level is one of the most critical aspects of medium- and high-density development, but isn’t often given the focus needed to deliver great places and spaces. Delivery of a glass façade at ground level does little to encourage interaction with passers-by just because it’s transparent.

New developments are being designed with intriguing open spaces encouraging passers by to stop, enter and experience innovative ground level design.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon, a noteable change in the way people feel about their city. In the past three to five years, there’s been a groundswell in the pride developers and industry leaders display in their work. It’s always been there, but not as prolifically as we see now.

Our buyers have more sway now. Better informed, they are forcing designers and developers to up the ante in terms of cutting edge design, of quality and choice.

How does the Burley Griffin plan factor in?

While many elements of Walter Burley Griffin’s plan are at the heart of an evolving city, the past 100 years have given birth to issues he couldn’t have countenanced at the time – not the least the reliance on cars and population growth.

The proposal to introduce light rail into Canberra is a catalyst for our city, in time hopefully delivering a complete, connected public transport network that supports a community that wants more opportunities for how they travel. The government’s commitment to a second stage of the light rail project is commendable.

What is undeniable is that change is happening to our town—and fast. There’s no point bemoaning what is lost. We’re Australia’s capital. It makes sense that we’re a metropolitan centre. But Canberra’s strength has always been its exceptional planning. Even those who live in our built-up town centres are only a short drive from natural space. The journey from one town centre to another is usually through open space dotted with trees.

But the bush is not just an aesthetic attribute of our city. It’s part of our lifestyle. Rowing on the lake, riding around it, hiking up Mount Taylor, building mud forts in the reserve down the road from our houses. This is not going to change. The challenge will be to modernise while still maintaining the heart of what we are—a community deeply connected to the land it lives on.




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