Work on a new canvas

16 November 2016

Planners and developers were long constrained by a conservative palette, but new ideas are brightening the city

Visitors to Canberra don’t need a keen eye for urban development to notice that Australia’s capital is changing. They’ll see the multi-faceted geometric shapes of Hotel Hotel looming over the NewActon precinct by Lake Burley Griffin; they’ll see multimillion-dollar apartments springing up on the Kingston Foreshore; and they’ll see the once industrial suburb of Braddon newly populated with hip street-food restaurants and new developments.

Canberra has come a long way from the monolithic concrete public-service buildings that so many people associate with the city. And even those buildings are changing. In Woden, south-west of the city centre, the 11-storey 1970s Juliana House, former home to several government departments, has been converted into a fashionable hotel.

Urban planner Hamish Sinclair has seen a dramatic change in the city in the 14 years he’s been in Canberra. “When I first got here, working in the planning authority, we used to joke amongst ourselves that the colour palette was beige, mushroom, camel, light brown and any colour in between in that spectrum,” says Sinclair, now a research fellow in capital city strategic planning at the University of Canberra. “Now, it’s bright orange and bright reds and lime greens and graffiti art.”

Sinclair says the city has shrugged off the conservatism that comes with being a public service town and the city is “radically reinventing itself”.

One of the big changes is in housing density. Canberra is typically associated with freestanding single-storey houses on well-manicured streets and cul-de-sacs. But ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr is planning to increase the urban density of the city. He wants half the population growth over the coming years to occur within 7.5km of the CBD, through a mixture of new development and redevelopment of existing suburban areas.

“In the last 15 years, that’s been the most dramatic change in Canberra – more diversity in housing forms. If ‘densifying’ is a word, Canberra would be the fastest densifying city in Australia, but it comes off the lowest base,” says Barr. “There are more townhouses, units and apartments being built than there are new houses; that’s been the case for some time now and that’s driven largely by changes in consumer preferences – people wanting to live closer to the CBD or major employment nodes.”

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