The evolution of the cool capital

In the last year or so, we’ve enjoyed a renaissance in Canberra’s reputation as a place people want to be. Australians from around the country are less likely to roll their eyes on mention of the nation’s capital, and more likely to agree that Canberra’s new precincts are “cool”.

So, is Canberra poised to become the “cool capital”?  Maybe – but we need to learn from the successes and mistakes of our past. We need to ensure the ideas behind new precincts such as NewActon, the Kingston Foreshore and Lonsdale Street in Braddon – the very places that people are calling cool – aren’t just ‘one offs’.

Two of the ‘cool factors’ in Canberra’s revival can be found in one place: higher-density, mixed-use developments. The word ‘density’ is often met with distain in Canberra, but it doesn’t have to mean poorer quality development or diminished lifestyle. It can also mean walking distance to cafés and cultural institutions, vibrant shopping strips and dining options, transport connections, jobs and opportunities. When done right, we can ‘grow up’ with the same quality results we have achieved in ‘growing out’.

Mixed-use developments – such as the Nishi building in NewActon, which features a cinema, hotel, apartments, offices and retail all in the one tower – work because they attract a dynamic mix of people. Everyone from public servants and business travellers to cinema-goers and café hoppers can be seen frequenting the one building. People instinctively like being in places that hum with vibrancy and vitality – so we shouldn’t be afraid to increase our urban density with mixed-use development in the right areas. 

But the ‘evolution of cool Canberra’ is not without its challenges. Canberra does not have the population to create vibrant, active streets on every corner. We must initially concentrate our efforts into areas where there are already existing buds of life, energy and activity – such locations in and around Civic, our town centres and major group centres,  and eventually the lake.

We still have some issues to iron out as we get used to more people living closer together. While people are attracted to the buzz of inner city life, they are less impressed when that buzz is ringing in their ears at 3am. There are a range of solutions to the issue of noise, such as reviewing the way offensive noise is defined, reassessing our noise curfews and establishing mediation processes to find compromises. But we also need to educate people who move into lively inner-city precincts to expect more late night noise than they would in the sleepy outer suburbs.

We also need planning processes that aren’t restrictive – and that instead create opportunities for people to build the city they want. Our challenge is to balance the old and the new to create places with charm and character, and that drive economic growth and opportunity.  We are poised to create memorable, magical places that secure Canberra’s reputation as a spectacular place for people.