City Hill… a concept for the future was a pithy, glossy document produced by ACT Planning and Land Authority. Lyrical in its discussion of the importance of symbolism in city planning, and nigh on being as radical as the National Museum of Australia by suggesting a new, curving ‘municipal’ axis, the document raised the level of discussion, both volume and tenor, by all sectors in the community on the future of City, Canberra’s central business and commercial district.
This is not to suggest the planners hadn’t recognised the melancholy condition of City (aka Civic). Indeed in the Canberra Plan, and in particular the Canberra Spatial Plan of 2004, it was identified that City warranted some cardiac treatment to create a dynamic heart. The therapy prescribed was the Canberra Central Program.
This is a ‘holistic’ treatment. Urban designers know you can’t just apply a band aid, it is also necessary to deal with the ‘hip-pocket’ nerve, the ambulatory/motor system, the cultural synapses, and the administrative muscle to provide good restorative care. Hence the list of comprehensive remedial policies, works and actions includes the proposal for an area benefit levy, a public realm design manual, improvements to pubic transport, the coordination of an events and public art program, consolidation of the relevant planning policies into a ‘ready reckoner’ and a review of the maintenance regimes for City’s public spaces.
This list of ‘remedies’ was prioritised at a workshop of the key government and private agency stakeholders, who also identified the requirement for a ‘taskforce’ to ensure the following objectives were being achieved:
- Develop a central area that is vibrant, of exemplary urban quality, imbued with local and national symbolism and is the focus of the Territory and Region’s administrative, business, social and cultural activity;
- Establish a shared approach with the Australian Government, ACT Government and key stakeholders to the actions and priorities for the development of the central area; and
- Create a system of governance for the planning and development of the central area that is clear, accountable and will foster excellence in design, creativity, economic prosperity and cultural vitality.
Clearly the mechanisms were in place and the ‘heart’ was beating. The trouble was many thought it was not beating fast enough, others were concerned about its colour and shape, and still others identified the need to do a bit of a risk assessment as to how and who should be applying the cardiac paddles. This is when City Hill…a concept for the future was released, to rev up the debate. Following this, a prominent developer and his consultant team contributed their ideas with the release of The Living City scheme. Given that the philosophical context had been set by the earlier release of the Commonwealth Government’s Griffin Legacy, a document intended to guide the development of the Central National Area (including our dynamic heart), it is little wonder that the conversation at every Canberra dinner party would eventually turn to the question of ‘just how comatose is City?”
Call in consulting physicians
Clearly it was time to call in the consulting physicians. The Canberra Central Taskforce, which comprised the chief executives of the key ACT Government agencies and the National Capital Authority, was expanded to include eminent citizens who could bring their professional, business and social planning expertise to bear on the diagnoses.
The terms of reference for this interim Taskforce were quite specific, and while mindful of the City context, their effort was to be concentrated on how the City Hill precinct should be developed – what should the heart look like and who should apply the paddles! The Taskforce was expeditious in their deliberations and emerged from the debating theatre with a nine-point ‘medicare’ plan:
- Vitalise City, with the City Hill Precinct as its heart
- Recognise that vitalisation will make City an attractive centre in which people will live, work, play and stay.
- The City Hill Precinct must be accessible, contain a variety of uses, have a high residential density in order to create activity.
- Development of the Precinct must reflect the highest standards of urban design, sustainability, architecture and social inclusion.
- New development in the Precinct must complement and integrate with the existing structure of the rest of City.
- The planning of the Precinct must be directed to those most likely to be attracted to city living – the purpose being to maximise population and diversity of activity.
- The ‘Griffin Legacy’ is to guide the planning of the City Hill Precinct.
- Development of the Precinct must produce an asset for the community, not a burden for taxpayers – it must be economically viable.
- Accommodating future social and technological change must be a basic tenet in the planning.
In November 2005 the Taskforce elaborated on this nine-point plan, recommending a health scheme that relies on the major stakeholders – the ACT and Commonwealth Governments and the private sector – to continue to work cooperatively and innovatively. The Taskforce has reinforced the holistic approach taken; outlining objectives for a ‘cure’ to through traffic and car parking clogging the arteries; for a mixed-use activity tonic and for retaining City Hill as clean, green ‘core’. As an adrenalin shot (the Taskforce recommended the need for significant public/private building projects to be injected into the City – this may be particularly important given that City will really need to be ‘pumping’ for Canberra’s 100 year birthday celebrations in 2013.