Questions of community and connection as Canberra goes high density

With a fraction of the population of truly global cities Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra is suddenly aiming for the sky. International flights to Singapore and Wellington are just part of it.

Every edition of The Canberra Times seems to report a new development that tests expectations of what the city is or should be. The latest controversy is a six-storey apartment block planned to replace the single-storey shops at Curtin, shading the community square.

We're told high-density living is needed if we are to sustainably grow. Besides, it was in Walter Burley Griffin's plan. But the Griffin legacy, as with the vision of Charles Weston (who pioneered the greening of Canberra), means different things to different people.

Let's look at the residential complex that takes its name from the island that houses New York. Manhattan on the Park shadows Civic's Glebe Park. It and other buildings like it in Woden and Belconnen are being sold as designer luxury living "close to everything". But they're not all they seem.

"No one talks to each other," says Jemma (not her real name), a new resident of Manhattan on the Park, who I bumped into on an aimless walk through Civic.

Jemma moved to the inner city for convenience. Her move from Canberra's fringe didn't come cheap. "A two-bedroom apartment was $630,000. While the living spaces are quite generous, there's not a lot for your money."

And she warns others to beware the veneer of luxury. "The apartments have top-of-the line finishes and appliances. They look amazing but they are not practical."

The sink in her kitchen is really deep with a tap that's really high. "When the water comes down, it just splashes everywhere. It's just ridiculous."

Noise is a problem too, especially if the apartment is near street level. "We also have neighbours below that make a lot of noise, and we find that frustrating. The walls aren't concrete. The apartment is not very soundproof."

Cities, hungry beasts that they are, are always changing, and there's no reason the quarter-acre block should remain the rule forever, but the pace of change might be stripping Canberra of its inclusive garden-city character.

Developers might be subject to too little oversight. The higher their blocks, the greater their returns. Even in further-flung suburbs, there are plenty of examples of badly planned and hastily built blocks whose neighbours see arcs of concrete and glass through their living room windows.

Jemma (not her real name) is also worried about noise. A near neighbour in the Glebe Park Apartments asks relatives in the quieter suburbs to tell her when they go away, so she can house-sit and get some sleep.

Jemma is part of a couple but says there are a surprising number of families in her complex, which also has a gym and outdoor pool. "A few monopolise the pool and barbecue area. It makes others feel unwelcome," she says. Then there's the impact of smokers.

Jemma misses her "proper laundry" and makes do with a laundry in a cupboard. She adds, "We're not meant to hang our washing on a clothes horse on the balcony but people do it … there have been issues, when it's windy, clothes fall onto cars."

The closer people get to each other, the less they can like being with each other. Prophetic urban sociologist Richard Sennett says dense cities become overly orchestrated spaces, reflecting a fear of social contact and the threat of "exposure". The image of the good life becomes "fenced, gated, guarded", where it is hard to have contact with people who are different. Canberra, famed for its friendliness, risks becoming like everywhere else.

The best cities are those that offer random and fresh possibilities of exchange: spontaneous and positive encounters with strangers. Those experiences make us more conscious of "the other", celebrate the commons and the common good. To create them we need more public space, not less, and more shared and green spaces.

The ACT government is conscious of the need for pedestrian and cycle streetscapes and spaces where people can congregate. It uses public art to activate city life, although on a diminished budget. It is trying to make us less car-dependent. Apartment dwellers are at the forefront. They are expected to wean themselves off private vehicles.

Manhattan on the Park experience, by no means all negative, is a window on where we might be heading. The Northbourne Avenue corridor, flanking light rail, is ripe for all the right and wrong kind of urban living it promises. At its best it offers greater community connections beyond those found using Wi-Fi. At its worst it offers isolation, surrounded by neighbours.

First published in The Canberra Times, February 2, 2017

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