Over the next two decades, Canberra will need to build 100,000 new homes — approximately 12 per day — to accommodate the city’s booming population.
The ACT is expected to welcome an additional 170,000 people in just over 10 years. But where and how those people are housed will shape the look and feel of the “bush capital” for generations to come.
It is an extraordinary challenge for the ACT Government, trying to balance the needs and desires of an ever-more diverse population.
For the older generation of Canberrans, who fell in love with a small, relaxed, affordable and planned city, there is a fear Canberra could lose what makes it so pleasant.
And there are newer generations with often different priorities: younger people who want to be in the thick of it in inner-city neighbourhoods, or families who want the opportunity for space and a large yard, like the generations who came before.
Growing the city means building both up and out — increasing density in many suburbs, and building new suburbs on the city’s fringes.
The question for urban planners is how much weight is placed on either approach, and whether Canberra is getting it right.
Is ‘new’ Canberra living up to the expectations?
When Navila Hossain and Mahbubur Rahman moved to Canberra a few years ago from Sydney, they settled in the Molonglo Valley — and fell in love with it.
Navila said the new suburbs of Molonglo were really only just emerging, and she wanted her family to be a part of making a new community.
“I really liked the area, all the people were new, the community was new,” she said.
“The vibe was different, it was a new vibe. I really liked it.”
They bought a townhouse amidst the massive construction zone, as new homes were built around them.
Mahbubur said the shape of the suburb that emerged over the years took them by surprise — particularly the number of apartment blocks, and higher-density neighbourhoods.
“Some of the apartment blocks are more in contrast to my thinking,” he said.
“I didn’t imagine that kind of picture.
“It seems a bit more dense than I thought.”
Navila and Mahbubur still like the area — they recently bought a block of land in Denman Prospect, and are building a new stand-alone house. They just think it could be improved.
The couple want a local supermarket, and more community facilities like playing fields.
Mahbubur said he just wanted town planners to listen to the communities they served, when making decisions that affected those making their life in the city.
“Definitely, it can always be improved,” he said.
“I think there is a need for consultation between the people living in the suburb and the urban planners.
“Continuous feedback is important.”
If population growth is the problem, right now density is the answer
Canberra has seen a very obvious boom in new apartments over the past decade, and even longer.
More subtly, the number of townhouses and dual-occupancy blocks has grown too.
None of this has happened by accident. There is a clear and deliberate strategy to increase density in many of Canberra’s urban areas as the city’s population swells.
Where Canberrans will live in 2022
The ACT’s most recent planning strategy, released in 2018, puts a heavy reliance on “urban infill” — that is, finding ways to accommodate more people within existing suburbs.
It forecast that 100,000 new homes would need to be built by 2041 to house a projected population of 589,000.
Of those new homes, 70,000 would be built within the existing suburbs of Canberra and 30,000 would be in new suburbs, to be built on the city’s northern and western outskirts.
So there is a clear direction — in looking for space to build new homes, the ACT Government has been looking inward, rather than outward.
Canberra architect Melinda Dodson, a former president of the Australian Institute of Architects, said it was broadly the right approach for the city to be taking.
Ms Dodson said the city could not simply grow forever outward.
“There are traps for Canberra in just growing further and further on the edges of the city,” she said.
“In terms of the pressure it puts on households from a travel perspective and potentially being dislocated from services.
“So if we continue to pursue a mix of urban consolidation and new developments, I think Canberra will continue to be a wonderful city.”
Ms Dodson champions “medium density” solutions, like well-designed townhouses, as the sweet spot for adding density to Canberra’s existing suburbs.
But she is unsure about the look and feel of some of the newer suburbs on the city fringes.
“We are two cities at the moment,” she said.
“We have newer suburbs, greenfield suburbs on the edge of town that are taking on a different character.
“They’re more ‘roofscape’ than landscape.”
Fears a new generation may miss out on the Canberra of old
Peter and Margaret Callan moved to Canberra from Paris in 1981.
Margaret said while the French “city of love” had its charms, Canberra was exactly what they had been searching for.
“[Peter] thought Canberra was like a big holiday camp, we could walk to swimming pools and tennis courts, and it was very neighbourly,” she said.
“We’d been used to living in a small apartment in a big city, so it was a very different feeling — and we loved it, immediately.”
The couple have moved back-and-forth overseas over the four decades since for work, but have largely called Dickson, in Canberra’s north, home.
Dickson is an old neighbourhood in a young city. While some houses and grown and changed over the years, the character of the area remains much the same.
But Margaret said she feared the area was not as accessible to those looking for that life now, as it was back then.
“At the time we bought, Dickson had the lowest socio-economic status of any suburb in Canberra,” she said.
“It was relatively inexpensive to buy in.
“We certainly feel for the people who move here these days, the cost for them is phenomenal.
“We were very lucky to move when we did.”
They too are unsure about some of Canberra’s newer suburbs, but have some optimism for their future.
And Mr Callan warn those steering Canberra’s growth to keep in mind the things that make living in the city desirable.
“Don’t be too ambitious for this city,” he said.
“Keep things in proportion. Yes, it’ll grow, but don’t let it grow in an unplanned and chaotic way.
“Be a bit cluey about it, be a bit careful about what you allow to happen here.”
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