Evidence should lead planning in Canberra

It’s getting harder to believe, but Canberra’s forefathers wanted to create “a garden town, with simple, pleasing, but unpretentious buildings”.

For most of its life, that’s how Canberra has been. Except that recently there has been an emphasis on towers that threaten to block views and plunge streets into shade. It’s not something any of us remember voting for.

We are often told that packing people in more densely is good for the environment. It is said to mean less water and energy use per person.

Except that it doesn’t, according to fascinating but little-known research commissioned by the ACT Environment and Planning Directorate and conducted by Patrick Troy, Mishka Talent and Stephen Dovers at the ANU. It found no significant difference in water and electricity use between residents of apartments and houses.

While people with gardens used more water in summer, they were more careful in what they used at other times, acting as stewards of their environment. Apartment dwellers, usually not individually metered, cared less.

And apartments were hotter in summer, partly because they were less likely to be surrounded by trees and large shrubs. As a result they either used more air conditioning or relied on building-wide evaporative coolers that guzzled water.

Troy found that apartment dwellers had fewer possessions, which meant they used their washing machines and dishwashers more often, even when they weren’t full. Their buildings contained more embodied energy in the form of concrete, glass and steel, and they used more energy for building-wide cooling, security lighting and lifts.

Labor commissioned the study but appears to have been largely ignored it.

When I asked why he thought his research had been sidelined, Troy said that real estate agents and politicians seemed determined to look for simple solutions even when they weren’t there.

The one field in which Troy believes greater urban density could actually cut energy use is transport, although he suspects the tentative finding, in a Western Australian study, has been overstated and “twisted for the ambitions of real estate developers”.

Letter writers frequently condemn the ACT government for not having a vision for Canberra, or for not making the thinking behind its vision clear. While it has recently made greater efforts to consult (at least by asking residents to tick boxes in surveys), it is often doing it after the really important decisions have been made.

Light rail is one of them. Tony Powell, head of the National Capital Development Commission until 1985, says it’s a not particularly well thought out solution to a problem the planning authorities themselves created.

He helped develop the ‘Y Plan’ in which every town centres in each leg of the Y (Belconnen, Gungahlin and Tuggeranong at the extremities, and Woden, Weston Creek and Civic in the middle) would contain as many jobs as it did people. While many commuters would travel between towns (in both directions) many would not. By concentrating jobs and offices in Civic and the Parliamentary Triangle and forcing people to travel in, the planners created the demand for transport they want to use light rail to meet.

Pushed to one side in the rush for higher rise Canberra, many fear, are views and access to open and green space, whether back yards or mountains, parks, bush or forests. Nature scenery and access is good for our mental health. It helps reduce stress.

Canberra-based landscape architect Ken Taylor increasingly spends his time in China and South East Asia with cultural heritage management projects. The ANU Professor says some overseas cities have inventories of views.

Before developments are approved planning authorities have to make sure they are not blocking important vistas. It’s an obvious and simple idea that the ACT Planning Directorate could take up.

In his submission to the ACT parliament’s current Nature In Our City inquiry Taylor says that “at this stage in the city’s history what is needed is for the landscape ethos of the city to be re-imagined and applied, rather than ignored.”

He says this is particularly so in new medium and high density developments, “where regrettably we have had an approach driven solely by land economics”.

We need to put people first if we’re to save and respect what we’ve got. An energised electorate would make all the difference.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 13, 2018. Image:envirolawgroup.com

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