Central Conceit

Penny Moyes - August 10, 2019

The article by Tom Greenwell, ‘A City in Search of a Centre’ (Canberra Times 3/8/19), uses a journalistic conceit that Griffin’s planned central area, within his National Triangle was not completely realised, is ‘empty’ and needs filling.  He notes that the commercial and business functions were placed outside this area and it was instead filled with parks and car parks. Greenwell sees this lack of fulfilment of the Griffin vision as a failure, creating an empty, rarefied centre, devoid of city life. He welcomes the City to the Lake idea with the new developments and proposals, respectively, for around City Hill and at West Basin, although mostly outside the Griffin’s Triangle, as satisfying what Griffin had intended.
However, despite the CRA-proposed ‘mixed use’ for West Basin, it does appear to be primarily, a private,lakeside, expensive apartment estate with a public waterfront promenade.
This will not fulfill what Greenwell imagines to have been Griffin’s promise of enlivening the ‘centre’ through an extension of the everyday city life to the Lake.  It will only privatise views and a valuable, lakeside public park adjacent to Civic and Griffin did want a parkland all round the lake anyway.
This development will be of financial benefit to private developers, the ACT Government and the few wealthy investors who can afford the water views at great financial cost (many hundreds of millions) to ACT residents if Parkes Way is to be crossed to provide the necessary link to Civic.  On the other side of the equation is the significant loss of an important park near the city providing the community, as we densify other inner areas with high rise apartments, with critical access to green space including its health and climate moderating benefits, and it’s contribution to the heritage values of the Lake.
The article also does not give sufficient credit to the NCDC’s valuable planning and executed contribution which overlays Griffin’s planning and brings it forward where it was considered appropriate.
It also promotes the CRA’s pejorative dismissal of West Basin as a park dominated by car parking. This is unfair in two respects.  Firstly, most of West Basin is parkland not car park and, in any case, the car parks (both formally landscaped and others) include about two hundred trees – not insignificant when compared to a building estate with a grid pattern of streets.  Secondly, without arguing necessarily for their retention, this function has been fundamental to the success of Commonwealth Park public events, such as Floriade, for many years.  It is difficult to see an alternative location for this function without jeopardising the success of these events.
The article’s central conceit is just that – it creates an artificial problem to solve.  We have gone beyond Griffin’s original plan, beyond his planned for population of 75,000 (reached in the early 1960s), so it is natural that there would be planning changes increase over the years to accommodate the considerable demands of the population since and now.  The issue ‘identified’ in the article is now irrelevant to Canberra planning.  The issue now is sustainable planning that allows for measured, balanced development that still retains what we feel is important in our environment for the future.
In conclusion, the article’s fundamental flaw is that West Basin apartment development is never going to be the revitalised centre of anything, let alone Canberra.  It’s just a journalistic conceit for a snappy but poorly targeted and misinformed piece of writing.

Penny Moyes