Urban renewal starts with imagination

Urban renewal is not about replacement so much as to reconceive a space for future use. We have a remarkable ability to copy past old designs to new suburbs. This shows a lack of imagination for what could be done with a green field. With the renewal of urban space, we must look past what is there to what it could be – harder still. New urban designs should promote health, wellbeing, sustainability, and stronger communities. Cycling for transport achieves this goal but for it to work, we have to build the infrastructure for it. Getting the cars off our streets is not easy.

The topic here is the urban renewal of the public space. Urban renewal is forward looking. The same also applies to Whitlam and other new suburbs. Do we wish to build for the future or stay in the stale comfort zone of what we know?

No two cities are the same but the problems are often similar: we lack space for the growing population and we cannot expand outward. Space has become more precious. We must therefore renew the city as we know it. For that, we need a vision of what Canberra should look like in 2050. The Planning Act and Territory Plan is not in a form (text) that allows us to imagine that. We are better off drawing pictures of the city that we aspire to build. From the perspective of the ACT Government, this applies to the public realm of the whole city.

Paris, St Germain, VisualUtopia, accessed 5 April 2022.

New Space For Living – Quality Of Public Space is a document that tries to do this. The idea is to consider the typical forms of the public space which were created at different times for different circumstances and imagine what that space should become. New Space For Living – Quality Of Public Space looks at the urban forms found in The Netherlands and considers what could be done with this public space. The urban forms look different to that in Canberra. The pictures we draw of Canberra are therefore likely to be different too. What I like about this document is the idea that we should work back to the Territory Plan from visual representations of the end we have in mind – how the street landscape should look. 

Place where the quality of public space comes first, before and after, New Space For Living – Quality Of Public Space, 50-51.

I have been reading the first public documents the ACT Planning Reform. The documents all relate to the draft ACT Planning Bill 2022. The Territory Plan comes later this year and the new Territory Plan Authority later still. ACT Planning has released documents designed to help understand the intent of the new bill. The documents are largely impenetrable. We will spare you quotes from the documents. The bill is about regulation and processes – at a high level at that. Perhaps it is not surprising that most people will never look at it. The discussion with Canberra’s population must be at a level where they can easily engage. 

Our public spaces are clinical, mechanistic and car-centric. That is what we see now. We know it does not work for people walking and people riding. Older people and children are particularly neglected in these environments, as are the disabled and those who cannot afford are car, or do not want one. Our streetscapes make up the majority of the public realm but are not people friendly. That needs to change. 

How little of the public realm is available for pedestrians. Illustration by Karl Jilg

Here is an example of rethinking the public space to make space for the city of Barcelona in Spain. Barcelona is bigger than Canberra. If you think that Canberra is too small, consider Groningen in The Netherlands with a population of just 230,000 people, where 60% of the daily trips are with a bike and one bike path carriers 25,000 cyclists per day.

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