Ring fencing Molonglo 3

Below Scrivener Dam, Aerial photo of Molonglo River, Canberra - 07121955 L. ACT Archives, Flickr.com (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Molonglo 3 East is in an early stage of planning and the significance easily missed driving by. In the Planning Design Framework the ACT Government outlines what it does and does not want, however, the intention is to leave plenty of space for good urban planning. 

ACT urban planning documents

The Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework is the ACT Government’s attempt to outline the third stage of the Molonglo Valley development, north of Molonglo River. 

The document is quite short. It does not need to be long. Over the decades the ACT has accumulated an enormous number of planning documents that can be very specific about what can and cannot be done. The Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework only needs to refer back to these.

The first urban planning document type are those documents that are legally binding. These are often written into the Territory Plan. To add something to, change, or remove something from the Territory Plan, it is necessary to pass it through the Legislative Assembly. Examples of this include the alteration of the Territory Plan to include the notion of active travel (Variation of the Territory Plan No 348: Incorporating Active Living Principles into the Territory Plan, 27 October 2017). Another one is the spatial planning of the ACT itself. The ACT is broken down into areas that have a specific purpose, such as the reserves of the Canberra Nature Park or the Molonglo River Reserve. These are lines on a digital map.

Recommendations are another type, the most common of which are strategy, framework and guideline documents. They are important documents as they serve to guide our thinking and express intent. Here is an example of each:

  1. ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25 (ACT Government, 2019)
  2. Building an Integrated Transport Network: Active Travel (ACT Government, May 2015) (aka. Active Travel Framework)
  3. Planning for Active Travel in the ACT: Active Travel Infrastructure Interim Planning Guideline (ACT Government, January 2019)

Standards are the third type of planning documents. The Municipal Infrastructure Standards cover all the elements from which our urban environment is built. They are mostly lists of materials, dimensions and options. There are standard solutions for most elements of our city. A signalised intersection is an example of this, another is a pedestrian crossing or parking signs. The design is shown in the Standard Drawings, referred to in the Municipal Infrastructure Standards, but greatly more numerous. Standard Drawings cover every possible facet of urban design.

No matter where we go in Canberra, it looks familiar, because of a standardised way of doing things.  

Banana bars vehicle restriction DS13-02 18 June 2007
Banana bars vehicle restriction DS13-02 18 June 2007

Stepping on toes in Molonglo 3

Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework (February 2019) will be discussed here. As a framework, it is a non-statutory document, but all statutory requirements will still apply. Statutory documents are very effective, as they apply whether they are specifically mentioned or not. The framework will generally specifically list the relevant documents. 

With so many documents to consider, any planning exercise is liable to discover contradictions or inconsistencies, hence, this standard advice:

If there are inconsistencies between provisions or details within these documents, the order of precedence is – NES Plan, Environmental Impact Statement Exemption Considerations Report, PDF, Reserve Management Plan and Territory Plan. 

Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework (February 2019), page 6

The ring fencing provides planning boundaries that vary from hard to rather soft. The following categorisation indicates what the planning practitioner has to work with. 

Must 

“Must” clauses are where the framework has a mandatory requirement and usually indicate that one has hit the edge of statutory documentation. The message at this point is there is no room for negotiation. Here is an example. 

Such changes in boundaries must also be consistent with the objectives of the Molonglo River Reserve Management Plan, and must not compromise the capacity to protect threatened species and communities.

Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework (February 2019), page 25

Conditional approval

Conditional approvals are often granted as the result of environmental impact studies (EIS) and result in offset areas or other measures to be included in the design. The environmental approval is in the form “yes, but…” Here is the example of the buffer to the Kama Nature Reserve. The buffer is not inside the reserve, but outside on the edge of the suburban area (Whitlam). In the buffer, there are restrictions on what can be done with the land. The buffer is non-commercial land as it can never be developed and sold, thereby decreasing the yield of the estate development. 

Consistent with the NES Plan, a buffer is required to be provided outside Kama Nature Reserve to protect the reserve from urban edge effects from adjacent urban development. Further, consistent with the conditions of the EIS exemption, the buffer and its treatment must be consistent with the recommendations of the Kama Interface Management Strategy Report (Capital Ecology, 2016).  

Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework (February 2019), page 24

Indicative designs

The framework, put to tender will produce another document, the Molonglo Stage 3, Planning and Infrastructure Study, which will identify and analyse planning and infrastructure options. This is only the first stage, with the second stage generating preliminary engineering designs. 

That something can get lost in this multi-step planning process can be a source of anxiety. The framework, therefore, requires in specific areas “indicative designs”. These indicative designs require approval by one or more of the directorates (Environment, Education or Transport).

Indicative design plans have been specified where there is a need for a greater level of design consideration to be prepared to ensure that the intended approach to resolve the matter is appropriate and is consistent with the overarching intent of the PDF (Planing Design Framework). Indicative design plans are to be conceptual and be undertaken early in the subsequent detailed planning stage. To ensure that the design approach is appropriate, indicative design plans are required to be referred to the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (the Authority) for endorsement prior to the proponent progressing fully to detail design or subdivision planning. 

Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework (February 2019), page 5

Explore opportunities

This is the weakest form of a directive. The purpose is to provide impetus and steer the project in a certain direction. “Explore opportunities” may form a wish list and are unlikely to be achieved in a consistent or useful way without further guidance. Integrated design of new urban areas is fraught with compromise and explored options may become an afterthought. The language foreshadows actions.

Analysis of restrictions

The vast majority of the restrictions are a result of statutory documents, including the Estate Development Code and Municipal Infrastructure Standards. For Molonglo 3 most of the other restrictions are environmental, derived Federal and ACT environmental law. The NES 2011 and Molonglo River Reserve Plan 2019 are foremost of these. Then comes conditional approvals such as the Kama buffer but also those that will shape Coppins Creek corridor. 

Indicative designs are common and required for the following areas:

  • the group scale centre precinct
  • each of the four school sites 
  • district planning fields
  • the Intertown Public Transport Corridor (IPT)
  • the buffer to the Kama Nature Reserve
  • the interface with Molonglo River Reserve
  • interface between Suburb 2 and Patch GG and N
  • interface to the National Arboretum
  • the Deep Creek Corridor
  • the Coppins Creek Corridor
  • the Molonglo River Reserve to Dairy Farmer’s Hill corridor

Unfortunately, indicative designs are not required for Principle and Main Community Route corridors. We could call this Intertown Cycle Transport, should we use the IPT analogy. At canberra.bike we usually refer to these as cycle highways.

Active Travel Network

The Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework is a 30 page document and in those 30 pages the word “explore” comes up 6 times, and of those 4 are in the section for the Active Travel Network. The paragraphs will be quoted here.

Opportunities for a further pedestrian bridge or crossing of the Molonglo River between Molonglo Stage 3 and the suburb of Molonglo is to be explored.

Opportunities are to be explored to bring the Centenary Trail from the National Arboretum through Suburb 3 from its current short term alignment to the south of the Molonglo River, to Stromlo Forest Park. This would provide for a further crossing of the Molonglo River. Opportunities should also be explored to upgrade the Trail through Suburb 3

Opportunities for active travel networks through and around Suburb 2 and Suburb 3 that link the National Arboretum Canberra with the Molonglo River are to be explored

Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework (February 2019), page 23

As discussed above, it is unlikely that a great deal will come from this and more difficult to integrate cycle highways in later engineering designs if good cycling corridors are reserve upfront. 

“Opportunities” and “explore” do not mandate good active travel infrastructure. In urban planning and culture change language matters. Further, the second and third paragraphs refer to recreational trails that fall under active travel but are unlikely to help anybody commute quickly and safely to work on the bicycle.

If we want people to leave their car at home and ride to work instead, we will require Principle and Main Community Routes (PCR/MCR) that make cycling attractive. This is discussed across canberra.bike but start reading here.

In Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework, active travel does not appear to be a priority. 

Transit boulevard, Molonglo 3 Stage 2 Proof of Concept report by Roberts Day (March 2019)
Transit boulevard, Molonglo 3 Stage 2 Proof of Concept report by Roberts Day (March 2019)

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