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

Scenario for a sustainable city

Submitted by Karin Geiselhart, February 2011

Here is a little scenario which I wrote as part of a submission to the national urban planning strategy document on behalf of another community group.

It is based on the policy goals of the document: productivity, sustainability, liveability, and good governance. I have drawn freely on my understanding of SC and my hopes for a future city that ticks all those boxes. Hope you enjoy it!

Sustainable Scenario 1: New Acton, Canberra

This scenario is offered as one of many possibilities for Australian cities. It is hypothetical, but based on an existing medium to high density development in the ACT and existing community groups. It is intended to illustrate how the four policy aims in the discussion paper could be combined in a transition strategy for a low carbon but very desirable urban lifestyle.

During the first decade of the 21st century, an area on the outskirts of Canberra’s CBD developed as a set of medium rise apartment buildings. The area borders on Lake Burley Griffin, and the ANU Precinct. It also offers easy access to cultural and entertainment facilities. By 2011 the buildings were populated with students, young professionals and older couples seeking a less car and garden oriented lifestyle.

Under pressure from the community to address climate change and peak oil, the ACT government decided in 2012 to use New Acton as a model for urban sustainability. A number of legal requirements and incentives were put in place, with community based monitoring of key indicators. This was framed as an experiment that could be modified, and there was ample planning for both the metrics for measurement and the transparency of their tracking. The community group SEE-Change was commissioned to establish and maintain the database of progress on New Acton’s move towards sustainability. This ensured lively and ongoing community involvement in the project.

Firstly, all new building was required to meet 8 star energy ratings, and excellence in environmental design was a key feature that attracted more people to live in the buildings. Due to the high density population, a car share enterprise became quite successful, and later spread to other urban centres in Canberra. This meant that a key metric – car use- soon became the lowest in the ACT. Bike use, another key metric, increased almost exponentially as the streets became quieter and safer.

The excellence of design meant that energy use overall for the residences was quite low, and this enhanced their affordability, which in turn assured a balanced demographic. As a distinct feeling of community grew, residents came to share more information for convenience. Gradually, the SEE-Change group found itself developing fairly localised databases, on skills, jobs, and business offerings. These were extensions of existing green pages, such as The Climate X-change.

Food production had been highlighted by the community as a highly desirable feature for urban sustainability. Initially, few of the apartment buildings had much open space, but a new requirement for 20% open space (the same as in the city of London) led to land availability for gardens. Additionally, vertical gardens on the outside of the buildings became highly productive. These were managed by gardeners from around Canberra, not just residents. They were paid in produce, and over time the sales of excess crops allowed a number of paid part time staff to administer the gardens.

Over a period of just 5 years the New Acton area became 80% self sufficient in fruit and vegetables, with 15 direct employees. The gardening activity in the area also attracted a number of mini-market gardeners. The foyers and terraces of the buildings became small scale stalls and sources of processed food from other Canberra and district gardeners. This was a handy way for bottled plums in season, or home made pesto, or more exotic items to be sold.

Buying, selling, eating and socialising within the community was of course an integration with other communities within Canberra, as a virtuous circle of social development emerged. This was fed by new business models, such as community brokerage via the databases. Nationally, there was also a vast expansion in the cooperative and non-profit sectors, run along varying degrees of industrial democracy. It was part of the rise of social networking sites as governance tools.

Design requirements for grey water and waste helped to provide the nutrients for the vertical gardens, and after a few years it was measured that residents of the area had somewhat better intake of fresh fruit and vegetables than elsewhere in Canberra. They were also more physically active, although it was not clear whether this resulted from living close to the bike and walking paths around the lake.

The involvement of residents in locally based action committees was instrumental in further developments. A number of projects were initiated by adventurous committees, including baby sitting clubs, skill sharing and bartering, and re-use clubs that kept unwanted goods and appliances rotating within the complexes. Eventually this led to small scale business ventures that kept somewhat recalcitrant appliances operative, thereby cutting down on both waste materials and over-consumption.

The Food Co-op, which had its premises close by, realised that deliveries to the complex were a business opportunity, and soon became well resourced enough to extend both its opening hours and its offerings. People learned that they could avoid plastic packaging and get a bargain for basics like beans and flour, as well as shampoo and laundry detergent, by providing their own containers. Garbage collection in New Action dropped by 60%, showing that the government goal of Zero Waste would in fact be achievable.

Other indicators of sustainability came as a surprise. For example, crime rates dropped to almost nil, partly due to the liveliness of the streets at almost all hours. Disputes over unit governance became nearly unknown, and trash in the streets was negligible. As word spread, tourism from interstate to Canberra increased, and contractors involved with the project became sought after worldwide as consultants.

Based on transparent measures of carbon use, the precinct soon became available for Community Carbon Credits, an initiative designed to encourage community self-management and build trust. Research had established that these, along with liveability based on leafiness and ease of movement, were the key ingredients for building community resilience.

Based on the success of the project, and the savings in many areas to the ACT government, the New Acton experiment became the standard for all future urban development in the ACT, and one of several transition models being implemented in other cities in Australia and around the world.

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