10 April 2012 – This year could be a turning point for Canberra.  Just a year away from the national capital’s big party to celebrate 100 years as a planned city, the ACT Government is launching a renewed planning strategy with an integrated transport plan.

The work is prompted by the community and government’s strong push to improve the city’s carbon footprint, while sustainably housing 80,000 more people. An estimated 55,000 additional homes are needed by the year 2030.

The two new strategic plans for transport and land use are intended to work together to improve liveability, housing choice, environmental   sustainability and to make it easier for people to get around the city.

Canberra is predicted to grow from its 2011 estimate of 365,000 to 457,300 by 2030 and the total population of the six local government areas that make up the Canberra region is projected to increase by 148,700 by 2030.

The renewed planning strategy says:  “This population projection of 606,000 people in our region by 2030 may be desirable for the economic resilience of Canberra and our neighbours, but it does mean we have to address issues around our environmental sustainability, including our use of land, water, management of waste and protecting biodiversity.”

Canberra is a city in a stunningly beautiful setting and it has an opportunity to grow and yet maintain the “garden city” with its vistas to the mountains, while adding the energy of urban villages that are lively, interesting and easy to move between. The plan is for a less suburban and more urban character while keeping the grand country town capital in the bush feel.

Over the past two years my colleagues and I at Elton Consulting have designed and delivered two city wide engagement programs in Canberra. The first, Time to Talk Canberra 2030, in 2010, was a broad conversation about policy change.

My work in 2009 designing and reporting on the engagement for Sustainable Sydney 2030 had shown me the dramatic policy change needed to reduce carbon emissions can only happen with public education and behavioural change to low energy lifestyles.

In the Canberra community conversations, the community stated their priorities clearly. Their wish list includes maintaining Canberra’s reputation as the capital in the bush; lowering Canberra’s carbon emissions; creating a more compact city; greater housing choice and affordability; making Canberra a less car dependent city and ensuring there are future employment opportunities to make Canberra a sustainable long term economy, not only as a national capital but also as a regional hub.

Elton Consulting delivered these messages from the community to the ACT Government in an Outcomes Report in late 2010. Early in 2012 the long term ACT Chief Minister John Stanhope retired as leader, making way for generational and gender change with the arrival of Chief Minister Katy Gallagher.

In her first major statement to the ACT Assembly in 2011, Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher strongly endorsed the messages from the community delivered by Time to Talk and flagged an ongoing consultative approach. She announced the delivery of a renewed planning strategy by early 2012, to re-calibrate the city’s future planning to be more in line with community needs.

The draft planning strategy written by the recently formed  Department of Environment and Sustainable Development (merging transport , planning and environment) was also influenced by consultation, research and analysis undertaken as part of the Sustainable Future Program in the recent years.

Canberra’s draft planning strategy has been written in the context of a framework of significant planning documents that have been set over time for the national capital, recognising that it remains Australia’s first and pre-eminent planned major city.

The foreword to the strategy by the planning minister, Simon Corbell  says:” The ACT Planning Strategy builds on a century of planning, respecting the structure inherited from Walter Burley Griffin and the planners who followed him.”

Planning in Canberra has more layers than a Sara- Lee strudel cake. The new planning strategy has been written as a document to guide managed change.

It has needed to conform to The Canberra Plan , the government’s unifying vision ; COAG’s nine criteria for cities, the National Capital Authority Plan and the Burley Griffin Legacy.

As well, a Memorandum of Understanding for Regional Collaboration was drawn up in December 2011 between the NSW and ACT Governments, to work together to address growth challenges affecting the region. With this web of influencing policies the renewed plan has required skilful word-smithing.

This strategy actually has no statutory effect in itself, but will be used to amend the Territory Plan’s Statement of Strategic Directions. It is a strategy to manage change.

To implement the strategy technical amendments or variations to the Territory Plan and perhaps amendments or variations to the National Capital Plan may be required.

The draft strategy as well as having regard to the community aspirations from Time to Talk Canberra 2030 is framed to meet The Canberra Plan: Towards Our Second Century (2000), which provides the unifying vision and objectives for all government policy plans.

The new Transport for Canberra plan and Weathering the Change are key companion policies to the renewed Planning Strategy. It will take all three policy  sets  to work together to bring about the changes hoped for by Canberra’s generally well informed and well educated community.

Last year Elton Consulting was engaged to design and deliver a broad engagement program on the draft ACT Planning Strategy and the integrated transport policy draft Transport for Canberra.  Community feedback on the drafts provided in two comprehensive outcomes reports have influenced and changed the final plan. Community support was qualified.

It centred on concern to protect the vistas and views to the open spaces and mountains beyond that are recognised as intrinsic to the Burley Griffin Plan for Canberra and to Canberra’s bush character.

Jane Jose

As they had done in earlier consultations , deep concern was expressed about  the quality of building design and construction standards and the provision of high quality public spaces.

Young people expressed concern about ensuring that new higher density areas can be woven into existing surrounding neighbourhoods.

The revised plan and future master planning will address these comments.  It is what we hope will happen when communities are engaged effectively in consultation – that the wisdom of the crowd causes a shift in response.

Consultation on the plan was undertaken in a range of ways, from online comment, to face to face comments provided at meet the planner sessions held across Canberra, and through written submissions.

A key part of the consultation was a telephone survey of 1,050 people conducted to establish the type of locations people considered suitable and desirable for urban intensification.

The results showed these locations were, in order of preference: the town centres, avenues and rapid transit ways and group centres. These will now set the priorities for a master plan program in the coming years.

The final planning strategy and the outcomes report is expected to be released in May 2012.

Jane Jose is an Associate at Elton Consulting, a writer and urban strategist who designs and delivers engagement for public policy change.  She designed and delivered the community engagement program for the ACT Planning Strategy and Transport for Canberra, with support from the EC engagement team and in partnership with the team at the ACT Government’s Environment and Sustainable Development Department, led by Gay Williamson.