Sprawling Canberra!

There’s some harsh criticism of Walter Burley Griffin’s design for Canberra in this opinion piece, Happy birthday to a vision turned sterile, by former political speechwriter, Martin McKenzie-Murray.

A hundred years ago this year Canberra was, he says, “a clean canvas upon which American architect Walter Burley Griffin – and his wife – would later impose their diabolically impaired vision.”

Their vision of a “humanised city”, says Mr McKenzie-Murray, yielded some of the lowest density living among our capital cities.

Griffin had designed a city that pre-empted the primacy of the car, which was both prophetic and pathetic. Instead of a tightly knit centre, six (now seven) small districts emerged, separated by vast space and ill-connected by public transport. Between these centres lies mandated green space, which is pretty for tourists but pushes locals apart, limits land availability and drives up property prices….. Griffin applied to his canvas a vision that sought splendour in empty roads and monuments, rather than in the people that would inhabit it.

Pretty damning! I’ve never lived in Canberra but I’ve visited it often enough over the years to know what underlies Mr McKenzie-Murray’s distaste (or is it contempt?).

Given it’s Canberra’s centennial year, I’m inclined to be more charitable. Of course the national capital has its failings, but it also has many positives.

Here are some I’ve gleaned from the archives of The Urbanist.

Canberra has two of the entrants – Canberra City and Braddon – on Urbis’s list of the ‘21 Hippest Suburbs in Australia‘. That’s the same number as Brisbane and Perth each have.

These two suburbs have the highest proportions of tertiary educated and singles of any of the “hippest” suburbs in Australia, suggesting they’re highly unlikely to be dull places to live.

Moreover, they’re in the top decile for population density in this group. Doubters who think Canberra is all quarter acre blocks should take a tour of Canberra City and adjacent Braddon via Google Maps.

One commenter on Mr McKenzie-Murray’s article (there are plenty of dark mutterings from others about political advisers blowing in on short-term contracts) reckons he’s got it completely wrong:

Urban infill is happening now at a rapid pace and bringing with it the exact organic vibrancy, vitality, and range of professions, personalities and nationalities you seem to think it lacks. Need proof? Google these: You Are Here festival, Rat Patrol Oz, Make Hack Void, Art Not Apart, Corinbank, Canberra Diaspora, Cashews Local Gold Guerilla Gigs, Canberra Full Circle, Canberra Musicians Club… I could go on. All these folk make the most of the way this City’s been designed.

Canberra is also Australia’s undisputed cycling capital. The bicycle has by far the highest mode share for the journey to work in Canberra of any mainland capital city.

It was 2.7% in 2011 compared to 1.5% in Melbourne (0.9% in Sydney). This is not a new phenomenon either – Canberra has been well clear of the pack since 1981.

But where Canberra really outstrips the rest is in the vitally important area of social capital.

According to Dr Andrew Leigh, author of Disconnected, Canberrans are more likely to give time and money, engage in the political process, and participate in local sports than residents of Australia’s other major cities.

On virtually every social capital measure, Canberra is at or near the top. Canberra has the highest share of charitable donors and the highest volunteering rate. In a given year, 85 percent of Canberrans give money to other causes, compared with 73 percent of those in NSW. When it comes to giving time, 38 percent of Canberrans volunteer in a given year, compared with 33 percent of Victorians.

Dr Leigh says Canberra’s lead holds even after allowing for differences between cities in factors like income and education.

He says it’s primarily due to short commutes and a conducive physical environment – all those parks, cycleways and neighbourhood shopping centres. I think Canberra’s small population size and high level of car use are another part of the explanation.

Canberra also does better on a number of other measures than popular perceptions of outsiders suggest.

Its metropolitan population density is indeed lower than other mainland Australian capitals but the difference is small.

Its population-weighted density is 20.8 persons/Ha, not that much less than Adelaide’s 22.3 and Perth’s 22.7. Canberra isn’t Melbourne (33.1) or Sydney (52.1), but it’s not Atlanta either.

Public transport’s mode share for commuting is also low in Canberra at around 5% of all motorised passenger kms, but again the differences relative to other cities aren’t great. In Adelaide it’s around 6% and in Perth 7%.

Given its small population size (367,000), that’s a respectable performance in the context of Australia’s high level of car-orientation (Adelaide is 1.3 million and Brisbane’s 2.1 million).

Like all Australian cities, Canberra performs well on Mercer’s quality of living survey. In the 2010 survey, Sydney ranked highest on 106 points and Brisbane lowest on 102 points.

Canberra came in ahead of both Adelaide and Brisbane (and New York!). The lowest ranking of 227 cities, Baghdad, scored 14.7 points.

The centre of Canberra isn’t urban in the traditional sense, but as I’ve noted before, it’s nevertheless eminently walkable for visitors (adding a footbridge across to the new National Museum of Australia would make it even better):

You can easily stroll between Parliament House, the National Gallery, the National Library, old Parliament House, the Museum of Australian Democracy, the High Court, the National Science and Technology Centre, the National Rose Garden and the Park Hyatt (the wonderful old Hotel Canberra).

I think Mr McKenzie-Murray’s criticisms of Griffin are a bit rich. The form of Canberra was conceived in an era very different from today.

It’s easy for him to identify the forces Griffin failed to anticipate, but he’s writing with the benefit of 100 years of hindsight. Does he know for sure what 2113 will be like?

Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light gives a sense of the values and aspirations of the pioneers of Canberra. The novel’s set in the early 1950s, but the city didn’t take off until Menzies fired it up after the war.

The main character, Edith Campbell Berry, who’s just returned to Australia from war-torn Europe, works for a time for the body charged with planning Canberra. She values:

the relationship to nature – The Garden City – to see a tree when you awoke and to see trees during your working day. To work among trees. Of the value of this she had no doubt. It must be a Garden City to serve clean air and health…..

She saw that Griffin’s geometric design would identify Canberra as a distinctive place – that the streets and roads that broke away from the old grid pattern were themselves a work of some art and reminded people that they were in a special place……

There were some cul de sacs and looped streets. She liked culs-de-sac – they were safe compounds offering security. She would have liked more……

Perhaps there was no need for ‘a centre’ – rather, many small centres in neighbourhoods. The idea of the city centre was an idea from older times.