A City IN the Lake

Should we reclaim Lake Burley Griffin for development?

This was the absurd but thought-provoking idea put to the participants of the Canberra Marketing Forum’s Pitch Perfect conference this week, causing much hilarity and animated discussion.

Advertising teams from Gray and Zoo were asked to create a campaign to convince Canberrans that a bold new initiative to reclaim Lake Burley Griffin for development is a good idea. Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr was asked to judge the campaigns, and was joined by an advisory panel which included Terry Shaw, Chief Executive Officer of Englobo Group, controversial arts personality Jorian Gardner and me.

While Lake Burley Griffin is considered the ‘crowning glory’ of our city, could it be holding us back?

The proposal to drain the lake and reclaim the land would meet our urban infill priorities. A masterplan would connect the CBD with the Parliamentary Triangle, and hundreds of parcels of land would be subdivided and auctioned for development. The result would be a financial boon for a government highly-dependent on revenue generated from the property industry, with year after year of ‘mega surpluses’ for the territory coffers and more housing options for Canberrans than ever before.

Advertising agency Zoo reminded us that the decision to award the National Capital Design Competition to entry 9, the Burley Griffin design, was not a unanimous one. Many members of the judging panel preferred entry 18 by runner-up, renowned Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen.

Saarinen described his vision of Canberra as a “stunning city of canals and waterways, linking north and south into a vibrant metropolis”. Zoo proposed to link Griffin’s vision of the ‘ideal city’ with Saarinen’s vision of the ‘beautiful city’. By repurposing the lake, we could create vibrant canalside living with spectacular ‘billion dollar’ views of Parliament House, the Australian War Memorial and the National Library. Pedestrians could stroll along an intricate network of waterways lined with boutiques and moored boats, and soak up an atmosphere reminiscent of Amsterdam or Venice. In this vision, Canberra would become a “mecca for national and international visitors” and would deliver a “city for the next hundred years”.

Gray urged us to “lose the lake for Canberra’s sake”, suggesting that selling off the reclaimed land would be the catalyst for a ‘golden age’ for our city. We were told that one duck produces 40 kilograms of poo a year – reason enough for the ‘H2O to go’. Gray’s strategy centred on the celebrity power of Hugh Jackman to convince Canberrans to converge on the lake armed with buckets, wheel barrows and backhoes for “Fill in the Lake Day”.

While this was great fun, the discussion also has the potential to spark a new dialogue about our city. How do we want to live in ten, twenty or fifty years? What legacy do we want to leave future generations? What is OUR vision for our city?

Canberra’s population will reach 445,000 people by 2036. How we manage this growth is up to us. Whether we are brave enough to embrace big ideas is also up to us.

Canberrans know that our city is an expensive place to live – and it’s a particularly expensive place to buy a home. Canberra’s median house prices are well above the national average. Rental rates are among the highest in the country. We suffer from a lack of housing options – and it’s also hard to get around without a car. We need a range of housing types and more dwellings closer to employment, services and transport.

We have a highly-trained, highly-skilled and highly-educated work force, and the highest proportion of university graduates of all Australian cities. To make the most of this competitive advantage, we must offer a lifestyle that attracts talented people and encourages them to stay in Canberra for the long-term.

We need to create vibrant, connected and liveable communities with diverse employment opportunities – so that people can spend more time with family and friends and less time in traffic. And we need a strategy to ensure our growth is sustainable.

Canberra is a planned city, and Canberrans are a city of planners. But sometimes planning can get in the way of personality. It’s time for the people of Canberra to speak up and help define our city’s personality.

As one of the participants at Pitch Perfect somewhat controversially observed: “Walter Burley Griffin is dead. It is time for this generation of Canberrans to claim our city for ourselves.”

To see a copy of the City IN the Lake brief and the entries click here: http://vimeo.com/72629999

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