Enabling change in our Society, Environment and Economy (SEE)

Canberra’s urban design

Why is Canberra a trailing city in urban design?

by Karin Geiselhart, May 2010

Travel broadens the mind is one of those phrases that is trite but true. In my case, perhaps unfortunately, it just intensifies my dismay at the disgraceful activities being undertaken in Canberra with my tax money in the name of ‘development’.

Paris is reconsidering its planning in the light of the future, rather than perpetuating the planning of the past, as Canberra is doing with the GDEE, or Gungahlin Drive Extension Extension.Like a bad stutter, this road is making travel through Belconnen a reiteration of all the mistakes that have been made to carve up Sydney into a noisy, polluted, confusing and unpleasant environment in many areas.

Paris is going the other way, and has cut down the number of daily car trips by 450,000 between 2001 and 2008. They know what the ACT government hasn’t woken up to yet: peak oil has come and gone, and the effects, like any bad habit, will follow soon enough.

The pedestrianisation of the banks of the Seine started with a monthly experiment banning cars. They are developing 15 hectares of riverside with cafes, sporting facilities, and even floating islands. Years ago they put an artificial beach in, and more recently instituted a city wide system of cheap rental bikes that you can drop off at kiosks. It works, and similar initiatives could work in Canberra.

Where is the leadership that would at least tell us what could be, that would provide the direction for a better way that moves beyond just building more houses and more roads?

The Paris planners know that people want a more relaxed, less traffic clogged city, but that they need policies that will create real behavioural change, backed up by support in the form of public transport. They have deliberatedly lowered speed limits, taken away parking spaces to make wider footpaths, and implemented better bike paths and bike lanes.

Every time I go to Woden Plaza, I mourn the removal of the water feature, which could become a oasis of cool, and green and open air cafes. Put it this way: no visitor to Woden would ever write home about it, or desire to return.

But I’m not in Paris, I’m in northern New Jersey, which often seems like a network of shopping malls connected by freeways. Public transport is there, but seems mostly for the poorer people who don’t have cars. There are so many big utility vehicles, driven and parked by so many really large people carrying big pizza boxes. Heading for a walk in any direction, my options run out in about 10 minutes because I always hit a major highway.

But in New York, just a 20 minute bus ride away, I visited the Highline with my son. This is an elevated trainline that has been converted into a pedestrian park. It is generously planted with flowers and trees, mesh for vines to grow on, and wooden benches for reclining in the sun. Friends and couples sit and other peck at computers, since wi-fi is probably available. Others use it as a walkway to get to another part of lower Manhattan, a break from the street noice and traffic below. It works, and they are putting in a water feature, with an illustration of kids spashing. Much too scary for Canberra, it would be too nice.

The Europeans are awake, cities like Bilbao and Lyon are instituting change to make their urban spaces more relaxed and less traffic intense. But Canberra plots relentlessly to the past, creating a mini-Los Angeles through our bush areas. Has Aranda become more pleasant as a result?

Our best hope is to get those who hold the balance of power to flex their muscle, and for all of us to ensure that a 40% target for greenhouse gas reductions becomes L-A-W. Then perhaps our imaginations will be set free, and we can start to see a Canberra that has something more than extra parking spaces to look forward to.

With thanks to our


  • ACT Government Environment and Planning
  • The Association of Independent Schools of the ACT (AISACT)
  • Catholic Education Office (Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn)
  • Education and Training Directorate
  • ACT Government