A Demonstration Suburb

Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Giants are not to run from but lived up to. Walter and Marion Burley Griffin are our own giants and they still loom large in Canberra’s rear-view mirror. The city’s origins lie in a thought experiment, a competition held a mere few generations ago producing one of the major set pieces in the history of urban design.

With any whistle-stop tour through the new greenfield suburbs one is left with the impression that a thorn has been grafted onto the rose left by the Griffins. The suggestion is that the current cohort is not doffing its cap sufficiently to the past and leaving a grubby legacy. This is exemplified by reference to a meeting I had four years ago with potential clients who were seeking advice to buy a parcel of land in one of the new suburbs. I thought this would be a piece of cake; just scan the subdivision layout, look for a lot that had a rectangular shape and with the long side facing north. This is probably lesson 101 taught to students of residential design. Well, blow me down, there were virtually none! On enquiry in high places I was advised that due to the then relatively new ‘solar fence’ legislation it was very difficult to orientate blocks facing north as they needed to be wider to meet the new rules and wouldn’t provide yields the government or developer required. I wrote a piece for this column titled ‘the law of unintended consequences’ which triggered a front-page ‘shock horror’ news piece; “new suburbs left in the dark. The aerial image of a typical suburban layout that is attached illustrates the point with a large percentage of the blocks facing the wrong direction, with little solar optimised private open space and certainly no room for the trees that have been the historic hallmark of the bush capital.

The law of unintended consequences relates to outcomes that are unforeseen and sometimes opposite to a purposeful action. In common parlance this is called a ‘backfire’. A good example is during the Great Plague of London there was a decree to kill all dogs and cats. These animals could have helped keep in check the rat population carrying the fleas which transmitted the disease; instead their demise exacerbated the problem. I believe the government in its Housing Choices initiative has recognised that all is not well in the new suburbs or the even the old ones. There is a dawning realisation that current outcomes are not meeting the aspirations of its citizens. The Planning Authority have been seeking ways to slim down the rather obese Territory Plan and they have introduced the notion of building ‘demonstration’ projects to be sprinkled throughout the suburbs. The intention being that any successful outcomes would move the design goalposts and filter through into a comprehensive re-jigging of the current planning regime. Given the boldness of the origins of Canberra and the legacy of Walter and Marion I would suggest that a bigger roundhouse blow at the Territory Plan might be contemplated. Rather than a demonstration project I float the idea of a ‘demonstration suburb’. The first Garden City, Letchworth, began life in 1903. I spent many a weekend at Letchworth when my loyalties lay in the Old Dart. The city was the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard who wrote a book titled ‘Cities of Tomorrow: a peaceful path to real reform’. I think Canberrans are probably up for a spot of real reform, a return to the notion of contemporary place making and an escape from an addiction to land sales income being the bully of ideology. In 1912 Walter Burley Griffin wrote of his plan that it be “A city like no other”. I would like to propose that an upcoming suburb be exposed to a wide-ranging international competition to pay homage to the past. We should seek to escape from the stranglehold that a vanishingly small group of urban designers have on the HB pencil. I would like to think our government and senior planners have the stomach to grab the baton of history and run with it. Just a few telephone calls have revealed some ‘benign advocates’ of design reform who hold land and would be keen to partner in a baton exchange.  Why not have a new fresh starting point with a shiny new demonstration suburb…’like no other’?

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