The power of partnerships

Creating a memorable city is our collective responsibility, says the new Chief Executive of the National Capital Authority, Malcolm Snow.

Canberra is a planned city, and Canberrans are a city of planners. Snow has attended no less than 43 community consultations since his appointment in January – something he welcomes with open arms.

“The ability to have a frank, equal and inclusive discussion about the future urban condition is the true mark of cities committed to a transformational agenda,” Snow told the audience at a Property Council lunch on Thursday 3 July.

With more than four decades of experience in city development, place making and management, and having worked in the private and public sectors in eight very different cities, Snow has returned to Canberra after a 32 year absence. “To say I’ve noticed a big change in how Canberra looks and works as a city would be an understatement,” he said.

The “psychological shift” has been most pronounced and the ‘city without a soul’ gibe levelled at Canberra in the 70s and 80s has been replaced by “a stronger sense of identity and self-confidence.”

Absence sharpens your focus. Snow says that while Canberra is not in crisis, “tough times and wicked problems demand new paradigms and fresh partnerships.

“We live in uncertain times – but when has this ever not been the case for Canberra given the city’s unique economic dependency on government?”

Snow believes there is still what he calls “place prejudice” about Canberra and its role as the capital of Australia, but it is the NCA’s job as the trustee of the national capital to serve the interests of not just Canberrans but of all Australians.

There can be no doubt that the City to the Lake project has “captured the public imagination”, and Snow says it makes sense to connect the city to Canberra's best natural asset.

"Waterfront redevelopment is an important urban catalyst” and Canberra should look to other cities, such has Brisbane and Melbourne, where it has created new public amenity, employment and economic uplift.

Snow, who spent six years in Brisbane as South Bank Corporation’s Chief Executive Officer, says the creation of Brisbane’s iconic precinct was no accident. Instead, it was the result of “the cultural epiphany that Brisbanites didn't need to go to sleep when the sun went down.”

A key factor in the realisation of the South Bank vision was “delivering a design dividend” to the community. “We recognised that we were in the community wealth generation business,” he said.

A $250 million public infrastructure investment in the 40 hectare precinct leveraged more than $3 billion in private sector investment. That’s an investment ratio of 1:12, a figure that Snow said “very few locations in Australia and even internationally can boast of having achieved.”

Today, Brisbane's big backyard attracts 13 million people each year and contributes, according to KPMG analysis, in excess of $250 million annually to the GDP of Brisbane. South Bank is Brisbane’s real estate hotspot and, according to Snow, “a public demonstration of the power of partnerships.”

Snow also pointed to the partnership established between the City of Melbourne and the Victorian State Government in the late 70s and early 80s when “urgent corrective action” was needed to stem the economic haemorrhaging and cultural decline of central Melbourne. Snow, who was the City of Melbourne’s Head of Urban Design for a decade, says that there was a palpable sense across every sector that they were “all in it together”, and it spawned apolitical leadership groups such as the Committee for Melbourne.

The power of partnerships is best exemplified in the ‘Postcode 3000’ strategy, which kicked off in 1992. The goal was to have 3,000 people living in the central city postcode within a decade. Fast forward to 2014 and the CBD is now home to around 30,000 residents. For Snow, this ‘can do’ attitude turned Melbourne from a ‘rust belt’ into one of the world's most liveable cities – but it required collective action and a massive investment in amenity.

Snow also pointed to American cities, such as Detroit, that are currently suffering from significant structural challenges. “The common DNA in the cities that have achieved turnaround is not a powerful Lord Mayor but collaborative leadership.”

The private sector has a “pivotal role to play in advancing Canberra” and projects like City to the Lake need to demonstrate a compelling proposition to the private sector. Snow told the audience that the first stage of the City of the Lake project must “change perceptions about the place” through investment in high quality public infrastructure.

Interaction with the private sector needs to be oriented to listening and inviting a true exchange of views, Snow said.

“We need to remember that cities are largely built by the private sector. Roads, parks and other public infrastructure are important but it is the built form of a city – the activities and people buildings support and accommodate – that ultimately determine a city’s progress.”

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