Inside Story

Canberra: what sort of city?

Twenty-five years on, we’re still asking the same question, writes Margo Saunders

Margo Saunders 9 November 2012 2719 words

How much has changed since MPs, academics, administrators and community representatives discussed the city’s future twenty-five years ago?
Photo of a sign near Griffith shops by Dave Sag/ Flickr

WHAT sort of city is Canberra? This is the question at the heart of current debates about urban growth, sustainability and planning in Australia’s capital. It was also the focus of a major conference held twenty-five years ago.

On 29 October 1987, under the auspices of the Australian National University’s Urban Research Unit – recognised in its time as the foremost urban research body in Australia and one of the leading such centres in the world – over one hundred local politicians, academics, administrators and community representatives gathered at the “Canberra, What Sort of City?” conference to consider the challenges of Canberra’s growth and planning.

Conference speakers and attendees came largely from the ranks of the public sector, politics, universities, journalism and the community sector. The private sector was, quite deliberately, not in evidence, as the organisers believed that an “articulate, highly visible and well-endowed private sector” was already sufficiently influential and having no trouble being heard. The forum was designed for the “scattered and under-resourced” interests that had no direct financial interest in Canberra’s planning and development.

If the issue of private sector versus community sector seems to resonate in today’s planning debates, it is not the only issue from 1987 that may sound familiar. The themes that emerged at the conference included concerns about a much larger Canberra population; the need for more employment in the town centres; the importance of transport links; the need for governments and planning bodies to give greater weight to residents’ views and social impacts; the view that Canberra should not copy the errors of other cities but should play to its strengths; and opportunities for increased regional development in areas such as Goulburn.

In his opening address to the conference, John Langmore MP, federal member for the Canberra electorate of Fraser at the time (and now a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne), also raised a familiar theme when he argued that Canberra was suffering “an administrative and policy crisis” around planning and land administration. Langmore believed that only ACT self-government would provide “countervailing forces” to deal with the problem of unbalanced access to policy-makers, particularly by property developers. (In 1987 the ACT was still administered by the federal government.) Langmore was critical of the “unplanned explosion” of office-building in Civic (Canberra’s CBD) and reaffirmed the value of the leasehold system in encouraging orderly and well-planned development.

Providing one of the conference’s key presentations was Jack Waterford, then assistant editor of the Canberra Times. According to Waterford, when it came to land administration in the ACT, “the due process of fair and efficient administration appears to have gone out the window.” He criticised lease variation clauses (part of “a bastardised leasehold system”) and also the National Capital Development Commission’s support for development in parts of inner Canberra – one result, he claimed, of the NCDC’s having been “browbeaten and bamboozled by the development lobby.”

Waterford also believed that the ACT administration had made a “mess” of Civic, Braddon and Kingston and had failed to give due weight to residents’ interests. The “hideous monstrosities that line Barry Drive and Torrens Street” were, he suggested, “surely the ugliest set of buildings ever constructed in Australia.” Waterford was concerned about the social aspects of planning and was critical of what he saw as the NCDC’s failure to consider the social impact of some of its decisions: the NCDC had become “a pushover for property interests.” He suggested that the seat of the ACT’s new government might more appropriately be situated in Tuggeranong (one of Canberra’s satellite town centres) instead of Civic, given that Civic was, in his view, “quickly being huckstered out to anyone who says he might spend a bob.”

The late Professor Peter Self, who arrived at the ANU in 1982 following his UK career as a journalist, planning policy-maker, government adviser and academic, presented his analysis of Canberra’s problems and a prescription for the future. In his view, Canberra’s basic problem was that “it will grow too fast and become too big to sustain those qualities which still make it an attractive city to most of its residents and a place well worth visiting. The prospects before Canberra require planning to sustain and enhance its genuine qualities, not gimmicks to produce developments which could more rationally and equitably be located elsewhere.”

Self believed that there was value in looking towards greater regional development in areas such as Goulburn. He disagreed with those who claimed that Canberra needed economic diversification, arguing instead that Canberra, like Ottawa and Washington, should play to its strengths as a “government city” and maximise its role as a cultural centre with the added benefits of proximity to mountains, wilderness and national parks.

At a time when the city’s population was about 250,000, he did not consider that “indefinite growth” was in the best interests of Canberra residents or workers and believed that “Australia would be a better place with more cities the present size of Canberra, from one to four hundred thousand.” He also questioned the attempt to make Canberra more “metropolitan” by extensive development in the city centre and the redevelopment of inner Canberra to higher densities. Canberra’s basic problem, he believed, was that it might be unable to sustain its qualities as a “garden city” and as a national focus for visitors.

No doubt influenced by the population decline in central Canberra between 1967 and 1985, Self did not expect that there would ever be “a larger population living close to Civic who will bolster up the demands for retailing and services in Civic.” In fact, he told the 1987 conference, “There are not any precedents for population growth in the inner areas of modern Western cities.”

Jill Lang, associate commissioner of the NCDC, told the conference that calls to “normalise” the growth of Canberra in line with other Australian cities were shortsighted and failed to recognise Canberra’s unique role as the national capital. She also argued for equity and diversity in residential areas, acknowledged the special needs of older people and the increased need for public transport, and proposed that the ACT should have a social justice strategy. Lang believed that new development in Tuggeranong and Gungahlin, together with “redevelopment and consolidation within the existing urban area” would mean that the Y-Plan (based on the towns of Belconnen, Woden/Weston Creek, Tuggeranong and Gungahlin, separated from central Canberra and each other by landscape corridors) would sustain a population of up to half a million.

John Tomlinson of the ACT Council of Social Services shared Waterford’s concerns about the seeming disregard for the social aspects of planning and the detachment of planning from community requirements. He argued for a national Welfare Research Council charged with the development of a national social audit. According to Tomlinson, “Until we have a reliable, cheap planning appeal structure, accessible to all citizens which allows them to oppose whatever plans social planners and developers have for their neck of the woods, then we cannot by definition, have an equitable social planning process. We cannot be sure we are creating a city which ensures that the interest of all citizens is protected.”

“Each individual development project,” Tomlinson suggested, “would require a social impact statement, proper consultation with the people affected and an improved, cheap appeals system before approval for any development would be allowed to go ahead.” In one of the best lines of the conference, he observed that, “while people overseas are prepared to throw themselves in front of tanks in the struggle for freedom, justice and a better life, in Australia it is virtually impossible to get people to throw themselves in front of a typewriter to do an article on social justice.”

Two senior members of the ACT administration also offered their views. Robert Cheshire, director of economic policy, presented an optimistic view of the prospects for the continued diversification of the ACT economy. John Gilchrist, senior officer with the Department of Administrative Services, presented a personal view about planning and questioned whether there was, in fact, any planning at all in Canberra.

In the years since self-government began in 1989, a number of critics have echoed Gilchrist’s concerns, including urban policy expert Patrick Troy, who was with the Urban Research Unit but not in Canberra at the time of the 1987 conference. Troy has recently drawn attention to the importance of a skilled, professional, appropriately resourced planning body. Writing in the Canberra Times earlier this year, Troy argued that the ACT desperately needs “a competent planning authority that bases its policies on sound research into the needs of its citizens rather than the short-term aspirations of developers.”

Another critic of planning in the ACT, ex-NCDC commissioner Tony Powell, has noted that in the years since self-government Canberra has suffered in numerous ways from “parochialism on the part of Territory governments and irresponsibility on the part of Federal governments.” Contrary to Langmore’s firm belief in the value of self-government for the ACT, Powell sees no evidence that the ACT government has, or will acquire, the sort of cohesive and skilled organisation necessary to ensure high-quality design. Powell observes that in the first twenty years of self-government there has been “no imagination, no flair and no innovation that any Territory government can legitimately lay claim to, nor is there any demonstrated awareness of what constitutes a desirable and achievable level of municipal excellence.” In a scathing indictment of Canberra’s major commercial centres, Powell observes, “No country town of any importance would settle for the drabness and untidiness of Civic, Woden, Tuggeranong and Belconnen town centres.”

WHAT the conference attendees could not have anticipated in 1987, of course, was that the ACT’s reliance on land sales as a major source of budget revenue would turn out to be – again in the words of Tony Powell – a “total disaster.” Nor could they have foreseen that the division of planning powers between the national and ACT governments was going to be “a thoroughly botched job,” in the words of James Weirick, Griffin scholar and Professor of Urban Development and Design at the University of New South Wales.

In Powell’s analysis, Langmore’s dream of ACT self-government turned into more of a nightmare. In Powell’s view, self-government has not matched the original expectations of either the Commonwealth or the inhabitants of the Territory. Powell argues that Canberra residents have reaped few if any benefits from self-government while witnessing the decline of the city’s national capital role and the progressive destruction of its garden city townscape. Many would agree with Powell’s assertion that a major problem, which perhaps Langmore did not foresee but which is clear in hindsight, is that the self-government legislation allowed the Commonwealth to avoid accepting a reasonable share of the Territory’s fiscal responsibility. With the terms of self-government resulting in the ACT government being heavily reliant on land sales as its source of income, there is an undue emphasis on satisfying the requirements of the property industry.

In many ways, 1987 seems a long time ago: the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare was first established, John Farnham’s Whispering Jack was at the top of the album chart, Pat Cash won the Wimbledon men’s singles final, Australia’s first mobile phone call was made, petrol was 54.3 cents a litre, and nobody talked about an “obesity epidemic.” It is no wonder, then, that issues that seem to underpin today’s dominant Australian planning ideologies received little mention in 1987. Other than Jill Lang’s prediction that Canberra would need to become a “more consolidated city” for reasons of environmental protection and “a more rational use of scarce resources,” the presentations contained little to suggest that the emerging realities of environmental sustainability had begun to influence urban planning. Public transport was usually mentioned as a way to avoid the traffic congestion that plagued larger cities.

As for the concerns in 1987 about the power of property interests, some would claim that little has changed. Writing in 1998, Canberra journalist Crispin Hull observed that developers continue to propose plans that put their financial interests at odds with the interests of the local community and that, “after numerous inquiries into ACT land and planning and numerous recommendations, governments do not seem to learn.” Hull put the case that residents “should be able to expect governments to look after their interests in a balanced way and should not have to be eternally on the watch.” Three years later, he described the system as still stacked in favour of developers and against residents, and as an “unholy alliance” between the Property Council and “brown-nosing” ACT politicians.

The late Professor Max Neutze, head of the Urban Research Unit, provided the closing remarks at the 1987 conference. He noted that the conference was “part of the political process in which many people will be attempting to change planning and development policies.” That political process has continued more or less unabated, but with increasing frustration on the part of those “scattered and under-resourced” groups. There is a popular view, supported by many in the planning profession, that the ACT planning system has become increasingly dysfunctional and is delivering outcomes that tend to discount or incorrectly interpret the importance of communities and community well-being.

We seem to have come full circle from the territory’s very different circumstances of twenty-five years ago, to have again reached a pivotal point where planning and development policies are under intense scrutiny. There are, of course, some new issues – we are learning more, for example, about the complex inter-relationships between residential density, health, sustainability and social capital, and there are new tools to help governments harness citizens’ knowledge, values and aspirations to help solve complex problems. But many of the concerns that were an important focus in 1987 have emerged in different forms or have re-emerged because they have never been satisfactorily addressed.

The question of what sort of city Canberra should, and will, become has never really disappeared; it seems, rather, to be regenerating with even greater vigour as the choices become more significant and imperfect processes continue to deliver disappointing results. In the years since the 1987 conference, individuals and groups have tried to influence the planning process, but to little avail. “What sort of city” issues were effectively shut out of the recent ACT election campaign, despite widespread community concerns and calls by residents’ groups and high-profile planning experts (such as Powell, Weirick and Dr Jenny Stewart) for a major review of the planning system. Proposals by the ACT Greens, who hold the balance of power in the new ACT Legislative Assembly, include community engagement initiatives but fall short of serious systemic reforms. Meanwhile, as the seventeen newly elected members of the ACT Legislative Assembly take their seats, and as they and 357,220 other Canberrans prepare to mark the centenary of the nation’s capital in 2013, the Australian Heritage Council is deciding whether to recognise, by National Heritage listing, the importance of the city as an example of twentieth-century town planning.

The next generation of planners, community leaders, politicians, academics and decision-makers in the ACT might ponder Jack Waterford’s question – and answer – to those gathered at the ANU on 29 October 1987. “Who would have thought,” he asked, “that the next generation of Australian citizens would find Canberra a worse-off place, as a result of the actions of this generation, than when this generation found it? That, I fear, may prove to be the case.”