At the first meeting of the Molonglo Valley Community Forum, the politicians there were not yet particularly influential, but they were at least interested. Most politicians have little knowledge of what is planned for new estates, so it was fortunate that mandarins turned up, too.
Two men in grey suits. Like the hobbits from the Lord of the Rings, it is the characters that seem least important, almost harmless, that determine our destiny.
There are two little know organisation’s in Canberra responsible for estate development. They are instrumental to the future of Canberra, as they are building it.
One is Simon Tennent from the ACT Suburban Land Agency. He is the Development Director for the Molonglo Valley. Due to the special relationship that the Suburban Land Agency has with ACT Government, he was able to provide valuable insights.
The second mandarin was Nick McDonald Crowley, Director of Project Delivery, Capital Estate Developments. Capital Estate Developments is a subsidiary of The Capital Airport Group, which belongs to the Snow Family. The Snow Family are very wealthy and have placed their guiding hand over Denman Prospect. What stands or falls in Denman Prospect, depends on the money of the Snow Family. Nick McDonald Crowley regards his work as a great honour to serve royalty.
Both Simon Tennent and Nick McDonald Crowley know their role. They are unassuming as they know they are easily replaced. They are in their roles because of their great competence. Furthermore, they have the unthankful job of presenting unpleasant messages to an unruly crowd, who are likely to want their heads. However, their authority is limited, as the decisions are made above and they are the humble servants that are expected to make it happen. History is filled with such forgotten fellows that are more likely to get a sewerage bridge name after them (Butters Bridge) than a suburb (Whitlam). Their legacy is in what they build, which will stand as a silent testament (bridges for example have a life span of 70-80 years).
Molonglo Valley Town Centre
If you do not know what is happening with the Molonglo Valley Town Centre, do not be too upset, as it seems Simon Tennent does not know either. Sure the planning for the Molonglo Valley started in 2004, and Coombs and Wright have “been finished 10 over years ago” now, but that is the problem. Many residents of Coombs and Wright would complain that Coombs and Wright are definitely unfinished. Coombs shops are a case in point.
The ACT Government has got its fingers burned. The mega shopping centre à la Frank Lowy has proved to be another planning disaster from the 1970s and 1980s. First, there is the urban planning consideration of an inward-facing, big shoebox. This design sucks the life out of the town centre around it. People rush to and from the box, but there is little to no life in the town centre around it. Business tends to stagnate in the boxes mighty shadow. This is partly due to its dominance over the area, but also due to the self-preservation instinct of big business. Anything that could threaten it and the high commercial rents of the centre will be killed off by an army of well paid legal representatives. The ACT Government has noticed this and, like a Siamese twin, can only remove itself at the price of its own demise. Any urban planning changes in Belconnen will get the attention of Westfield. Big business is big because of the power they exercise in the democratic process. The influence is not overt, and most people are unaware of it, but the government is weary and does not wish to get them offside. (As a side note, try and ride your bike to the front door of Belconnen Westfield. You will notice that the new bike path does not continue to the shops and that you’re a complete alien in the parking area!)
The ACT Government has pursued new experiments with town planning. One example is Gungahlin where the main street of the town centre was broken into blocks and auctioned for retail purposes. The result is competition, but the investors have reacted to the competition by building inward-facing big boxes. Rather than one big box (Belconnen Westfield was marketed as the biggest mall in the Southern Hemisphere at the time of its opening), we got instead many small boxes. Better, perhaps but still worth a good head scratch.
The next attempt was Coombs. Areas were set aside for all the regular retail and community services. The minimum requirements were specified. For example, one development had the requirement of a minimum of 130 square metres, which is now a child care centre. Arguably this is insufficient considering the size of the suburb. Another block allocated for services was developed inward facing with parking in the middle. From the outside, the castle walls do not look all that appealing and without a car, you are hardly likely to want to go there. Still, there are many businesses and medical services offered there.
Urban planners recommend open and permeable commercial centres with a mix of business and retail and surrounded by medium density residential developments, so that there is nightlife with clubs, bars and restaurants. It should not be necessary to drive to Civic to go out. However, in Coombs, there is little evidence that this has been achieved.
The Molonglo Valley Group Centre, in the suburb of Molonglo, creates many challenges. First, the ACT Government cannot afford to get it wrong. Expect a long consultation period on all critical parts of the development to ensure community support and mitigate the risk of discontent. This does not, however, guarantee commercial success.
Much can be learnt from Denman Prospect local shops. These shops are popular but are often not commercially viable. As Denman Prospect grows it will hopefully gain sufficient scale to have commercial success. The Molonglo Town Centre could be a threat when finished as it is only a kilometre away. Local shops can survive – and even thrive! A good example is Florey, only twenty minutes walking distance from Belconnen Westfield. Florey’s shops are typically overrun after work and before dinner, as families in the surrounding suburbs have many mouths to feed.
The Canberra Liberals are interested in practical things, such as where you can park your car, ACT Labour where they can build their light rail, and the ACT Greens are interested in whether it is fair. It’s a matter of principle. The Molonglo Town Centre has to pass the fairness test: social and environmental justice, safe for women and environmentally friendly. On top of this, it is supposed to provide the services required by the new suburb to be commercially viable – in short, it has to be a success.
From an urban planning perspective, there is no reason that a town centre cannot be all these things, but it is not easy to find a design that is all things to all people. The process is going to be a long and tedious one. We know the problems of what we have previously attempted and do not desire to repeat the same mistakes. There are many examples of urban planning around the world where these goals have been achieved. We need to go beyond what we know from Canberra. We cannot build differently without changing our mindset.
This can be scary as it may mean we have to change our habits, too. The dominance of the car in Canberra is only one example. If the city is optimised for a metal on wheels, people will use cars, as it is the easiest way to get around. Cars are labelled “fast” as they can cover large distances quickly – in principle. However, this results in sprawl with services located centrally, rather than locally. We have seen the death of local shops and some services disappear from town centres (many services in Canberra are only found in Fyshwick). The strength of local has always been you can send your kids to the shops or on an errand with you and the car staying at home. Nowadays that is luxury!