Canberra: the mood has changed

Charles Landry / 29 Apr 2020

I am an outsider looking in and intensely interested in how places make the most of their potential. I have just visited Canberra again after a five-year period and I noticed a buzz in the atmosphere. It feels as if there is more self-assurance and people are less willing to accept outsiders saying that ‘Canberra lacks energy'.

I’ve always felt that Canberra stands at the cusp of a rare opportunity to make the city more liveable, more competitive and to create more presence on the world stage. More importantly it has the right pre-conditions to project itself as a pioneer, a model and a testing ground to tackle the big issues that really matter that others can emulate. Canberra has the knowledge hubs - the universities, CSIRO and two tech parks, but has it got the ambition to connect the dots and to turn ideas and inventions into reality.

Aerial shot of New Acton at sunsetMid-size cities like Canberra have increased potential as secondary cities are on the rise as larger places become more dysfunctional. Remember how some important cities and leaders in liveability are of a similar size to Canberra. Zurich has around 400,000 inhabitants as does Bristol or Bologna.

Canberra has an unusual combination it is big and known enough to be taken seriously and in principle small enough to make it happen. It should be easier in Canberra to connect across disciplines, silos and sectors provided it reminds itself to be cosmopolitan and open and does not fall into the parochial trap.

There is the ability to be more agile, to more easily mobilise a coalition of the willing particularly in the surrounding regional context, and to respond more decisively to new opportunities if and when they are found. The urgency for Canberra to act stems from the imminent lack of available greenfield public land for new development as a tradeable commodity and funding source. So, Canberra needs to think on its feet.

My visit focused on whether Canberra is a city of ambition or whether the good lifestyle perceived by many dulls its potential as people become complacent.

My sense is that Canberra should create a new narrative about itself as a city of ambition and this cannot be achieved by a business-as-usual approach.

Opportunity One: It is now recognized that we are the midst of systemic crisis. All major global agendas spell this out. It cannot be denied (some deniers exist). Earth Overshoot Day, the date on which humanity's resource consumption for the year exceeds the Earth's capacity to regenerate those resources that year was the 29th July in 2019. In 2000 it was the 23rd September. There are opportunities in the crisis and Canberra can be a testing ground for others to emulate in solving issues or creating new benchmark standards, for instance, related to green issues. Its sophisticated research and knowledge base provides the platform.

This systemic challenge focuses on three interconnected questions that cluster in cities. They are the risk nexus, the combination of escalating problems interacting with each other and agglomerating our problems into one: the inability of the current economic order, which is ‘materially expansive, socially divisive and environmentally hostile’, to provide the equality and stability citizens increasingly demand. To avoid crisis turning into collapse, a fundamental rethink of the structure and operation of the current economic system is necessary. This will affect lifestyles. Another pattern of growth is required that ensures we operate within planetary boundaries and provides the ability to create wealth and innovations. Guiding a digitising age and the technologies associated with it is vital to guarantee that the evolving fourth industrial revolution is progressed in a human-centred way. Digitisation, designed and used well, can help create a fourth industrial revolution that is lean, clean and green. Yet threats of algorithmic control remain.

Canberra is already an Australian green leader. It can simultaneously address energy and resource efficiency, climate change and pollution, connected urban mobility, water, waste, sustainable food systems and cultural diversity as well as establish an emotionally sustaining, physically attractive and aesthetically gratifying environment built on strong cultural identities.

To make this happen requires an integrated approach as it by necessity brings together different disciplines and so helps break down thinking, planning and acting in silos.

Part of this process is to rethink the definition and criteria for success that is beyond GDP.

Another opportunity is to be seen as ‘a city of welcome’. The accelerated global connectivity enabled by the transformative and tectonic shift that is digitisation has changed our ideas about space, place and time. The sheer volume, velocity and variety of big data has created the anytime anywhere anyplace phenomenon. This changes how we interact, work and have leisure. When everything is on the move and potentially fragmenting the issue becomes ‘where do I belong’ and ‘where is my identity’. Then place matters as never before and especially the human scale and the cultural activities fostered and, in particular, those involving direct participation rather than merely consuming. The ‘here and there’ world is characteristic of this age. As a government city Canberra has experience of transience.

Seeing itself as a ‘city of welcome’ implies creating physical settings that act as gathering places at differing scales and providing opportunities to people and organizations to meet and interact across disciplines, cultures and worldviews. This means thinking of the City Renewal Area as the hub for Canberra’s innovative eco-system.

Given so many Canberra assets and potentially inspiring people and projects are hidden behind walls or isolated settings creating gathering places and public events or activity programmes rises dramatically in importance – otherwise we do not know they actually exist. Making the invisible visible is the mantra.

It highlights the importance of planning for the third place logic. Third places become more important - neither at home or an office – to work on the move, to gather and meet and to combine local space and cyberspace. Integrated placemaking then becomes key so as to provide both anchorage, yet with possibilities, the connections and even inspiration that developments like New Acton to some extent provide.

Creating this ambiance of welcome is more about doing 100 small things well rather than creating one grand, iconic statement. It about weaving the city together, establishing seamless connectivity, such as the tram, or walkability. It is here that urban design takes on an even more important role.

Canberra should aim to project itself as a ‘can do’ place that exudes style, verve and imagination. Avoiding hype is key - there is a fine balance between letting the ambition pull the reality and the realities actually exemplifying the ambition. This ambition is the task of the whole of ACT and its partners.  

This notion to some extent flips Canberra’s ideal to reflect a city of conviviality and potential chance encounter. It is an ambition that emphasises softer infrastructures, such as creating atmospheres (and this requires a strong urban design input), wide-ranging opportunities to connect people and organizations across the city and wider world as well as vigorous cultural programming. 

Charles Landry

Charles Landry

Charles Landry is an international authority on the use of imagination and creativity in urban change. He was recently a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, and invented the concept of the Creative City in the late 1980s. His latest books are 'The Civic City in a Nomadic World' and 'The Creative Bureaucracy' with Margie Caust.

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