Bland and boring no more

When Canberra was crowned Australia’s most liveable city this week, the rest of the nation reacted with incredulity. What? Surely the city supposedly most famous for politicians, porn shops and roundabouts couldn’t be the nation’s most liveable?

Everyone has been talking about the latest ‘My City’ survey, conducted by Auspoll on behalf of the Property Council of Australia, which measured the liveability of Australia’s capital cities from the perspective of the people who live in them.

The Auspoll survey has confirmed what Canberrans already know: our city is an amazing place to live – and it just keeps getting better.

Canberrans have always valued our city’s fresh air, connections with nature and recreational opportunities, its minimal traffic congestion, good schools and hospitals, and excellent employment and economic opportunities. It’s a city where politicians and the public mingle at farmers’ markets, where the galleries are free, and the coffee is good. We’re two hours from the waves or the ski slopes and under half an hour to almost everything in the city.

But Canberra is also a city of secrets – and it is those secret places and spaces that also make it liveable. The riches of Canberra are found not only on the walls of the National Gallery of Australia, on the shelves of the National Library or in the Great Hall of Parliament House, but in the laneway cafes, public art installations and boutiques popping up all over the city.

NewActon has been transformed from a forgotten corner of the city into a destination, with corporate types, cinema goers and cyclists rubbing shoulders in groovy cafes or spilling out of the newest kid on the block, Hotel Hotel.

The übercool cafes along Lonsdale Street in Braddon have created a hipster heaven, with car yards and warehouses lending the precinct the stamp of edgy, industrial authenticity.

And down at the Kingston Foreshore, new bars, cafes and restaurants are opening their doors every day – with more than 60 hospitality and retail outlets expected once the development is complete.

In all these precincts, ‘bland and boring’ have no place. Imaginative and inspiring design has been woven seamlessly into the Canberra social fabric as we have well and truly begun to create our own ‘capital’ style.

Our city is one of great potential – but there are still missed opportunities. Vacant shops in Civic, faded signage and ‘for lease’ signs along City Walk are visible proof that we must invest more in our city centres. Civic should be teeming with activity including vibrant commercial spaces, pop up galleries, public art installations, child-friendly play spaces and urban greenery. We can do better.

Similar to what has been achieved by Renew Newcastle, the tired spaces in Civic could be quickly and easily reinvigorated, through short-term leases of empty shops as they wait for new tenants, and in those pending redevelopment. Our region has a rich community of artisans, craftspeople and growers who could temporarily occupy these spaces for their creative enterprises and help us breathe new life and purpose into our older and valuable city buildings.

Housing affordability must also be addressed. Canberra cannot be liveable if no one can afford to live here. Our leadership in the liveability stakes is not secure unless we address the growing need for better located, efficient and affordable housing with easy access to public transport, employment and places to ‘play’.

There must be a range housing choices so that people can decide whether their preferred lifestyle is one of barbecues and backyard cricket in the suburbs, or the buzz of busy inner-city living. Introducing innovative housing options will ensure that everyone from downsizers to first-unit buyers, young parents to corporate high-flyers can enjoy the amenity of urban life. We must reject “the capital’s most acute tall-poppy syndrome – hostility to tall buildings” aptly described by Aleseva Consulting’s Pierre Huetter in his recent Canberra Times article.

Our suburbs should not be forgotten. Many of the places that were once the hubs of our local communities – schools and shops – now lie empty. We must seize the opportunity to regenerate our open spaces and to repurpose older buildings into parks, play spaces and community gardens, childcare centres, community halls, accommodation for older Canberrans or places to temporarily support people in need. Disused schools could become affordable and alternative housing, art precincts, next-wave retail outlets, markets or any combination of local uses. Redevelopment of these sites provides opportunity not only for buildings to house community spaces but also for quality public places and new amenities. We can find ways to respect the past uses of these buildings while also creating new memorable neighbourhoods.

The property industry has a central role in creating a city that is vibrant, sophisticated, diverse and liveable. But it’s also time for Canberrans to stand up for their city – and to work together with industry to create a great place now, for tomorrow and in fifty years’ time. Canberrans are a smart and sophisticated bunch, let’s also be brave and bold. The title of ‘most liveable city’ is something of which we can all be proud. We now have the option to enhance this status, to embrace our potential and to become a truly world-class liveable city.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia