Places for people

A picture in the National Library’s collection, snapped in the 1950s, shows Garema Place buzzing with life.  Shoppers stop to chat, school children skip, and bakeries, grocery stores and chemists do a cracking trade.


Today, City Walk is bereft of life and liveliness. It’s a place of empty shopfronts and faded ‘for lease’ signs.  No one would choose to spend more time there than absolutely necessary.

So, how do we reclaim this as a place for people?

Last week, internationally-acclaimed Danish architect and urban planner, Jan Gehl, visited Canberra to share his thoughts on creating liveable cities.

Gehl argues that two dominant paradigms shaped the world’s cities last century: modernism and motorism.  The result was isolated boxes plonked down without thought for the people who would use them. Edvard Munch’s The Scream embodies how this dream became everyone else’s nightmare.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  In Canberra, we often hear arguments about why we can’t create a better city centre: that our population is too small; the weather is too variable; or that we are geographically dispersed.  But Gehl says all cities have their challenges.

In Copenhagen, where Professor Gehl lives, an official policy was developed to get people out of their houses and onto the streets.  At the time, people argued that al fresco café culture was impossible – due to the climate and “because we are not Italian.” But after closing down the main street and introducing café seating, “it was surprising how easily Danes can be like Italians”. Today, more than 10,000 outdoor chairs line the city streets – and Gehl says they are out “almost twelve months a year.”

Closer to home, Melbourne gets cold in winter, but urban furniture, beautiful trees, wide footpaths and bluestone paving have made walking an attractive proposition and increased the number of outdoor cafes by nearly 300 per cent over a decade.

We have a city of great suburban amenity – but now it’s time for us to turn our attention to creating more urban amenity. Gehl’s inspiring message is that “it can be done, and it is being done all over the world.”

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