Canberra – Cultural Controversies and Urban Change in a Capital City Region

Fischer, Karl F. and Weirick, James (2020) Canberra – Cultural Controversies and Urban Change in a Capital City Region. SHAPING URBAN CHANGE – Livable City Regions for the 21st Century. Proceedings of REAL CORP 2020, 25th International Conference on Urban Development, Regional Planning and Information Society. pp. 133-146. ISSN 2521-3938

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Making international headline news, the uncontrollable forest fires that have devastated much of Australia in the summer of 2019/2020 have added a dramatic sense of urgency to the focus of this paper on cultural controversies in Canberra – controversies that relate to key themes of the REALCORP 2020 conference: the links between climate change and immanent natural disasters; the problematic co-ordination of urban development among urban and regional authorities; the conflict-ridden connections between public planning and real estate interests; and the role of civil society in the urban transformation process. The Australian Federal Capital has come a long way from its conception as a physical expression of parliamentary democracy designed in 1911 for a new, progressive nation, hailed at the time in Germany as ‘The Social Continent.’ Cultural controversies on ideals and issues such as urban vs. suburban ideal concepts, leasehold vs. freehold land, and welfare state politics vs. market-led development were reflected in the growth and change of the capital during the 20th century. By 1988, urban development under conditions of high planning control on leasehold land had led to the production of a city that could be summarized as ‘a perfectionist garden city metropolis.’ This paper focuses on transformations that have eroded this ideal in recent years through a combination of dysfunctional inter-governmental relations, neoliberal policies, power plays among public and private actors, and superficial populism. In 1988, withdrawal of the Federal Government from most of its responsibilities for Canberra plunged the city into a fundamental crisis in term of its role and identity, its administration and its finance throwing up questions such as: Do we need a national capital at all? If so, which functions should the capital cater for? Should certain government departments be relocated to regional districts (preferably at the seat of the Federal politicians lobbying for such a strategy)? Does it make sense to maintain the ambitions the founders of Canberra had for creating a model city, ‘The Pride of Time’ or should Canberra pursue a path of ‘normalization’ by following the ‘business as usual’ pattern that characterizes urbandevelopment in most other Australian cities? Isn’t public planning an expression of ‘nanny state’ ideologies anyway? And above all, how should the burden of national and local expenses for the capital be divided? At the administrative level, Canberra was subjected to years of turbulent change, with negative consequences at many levels including poorly devolved responsibility for forest management. This contributed to theconditions for a devastating bush fire in 2003, a harbinger of the fires of 2019/2020, played out in a political climate of climate change denial. Establishment of new suburbs on the burnt-out western flank of the city, exposed to the same threat of wildfire as in 2003 are an ominous sign of a development ethos that has put real estate interests above sound planning principles. In another instance, independent review by the Auditor General of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) exposed a serious “lack of transparency and accountability” in the way in which the ACT government mingled public and private real estate interests – an issue of continuing concern, particularly given the ACT’s recent agreement to cross-border development on rural lands long-held by land owners in the state of New South Wales. A core issue is that Federal Government divestment of all responsibilities beyond core national capital functions has meant that a substantial part of Canberra’s local government revenue has been financed through the sale of greenfield land. Since this approach is unsustainable given the limited extent of developable land in the ACT, strategies have been adopted which have culminated in densification through high-rise luxury apartment blocks. The upshot has been an intense cultural controversy driven by a remarkably crude and aggressive campaign by local politicians in unison with one of the biggest local developers ridiculing the planning approaches of the past and literally smashing the long-established image of Canberra as ‘The Bush Capital, ’ a city oriented on the Australian landscape. Even the way in which the introduction of light rail is linked into this process does not come as the desired triumph of sustainability. One of the many issues there is that it is partly financed through the relocation of public housing to bushfire prone areas at the edge of the city. In the context of these cultural controversies, Canberra’s civil society is beginning to raise its voice, but is still struggling to do so in a way that ensures more than sporadic victories.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: Co-Ordinating Planning across Borders and Institutions, Climate Change and Natural Disasters, Planning and Real Estate Development, Transforming City Regions, Planned Capitals
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Depositing User: REAL CORP Administrator
Date Deposited: 02 Feb 2021 10:28
Last Modified: 02 Feb 2021 10:28

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