The Australian Capital Territory is striving for greater sustainability and is highly praised for its good intentions but it still has a long way to go. The Fifth Estate spoke to ACT commissioner for sustainability and environment, Kate Auty, sustainability architect Tone Wheeler of Environa Studio, ACT’s government architect Catherine Townsend, Joel Dignam from Better Renting and Gregor Mews of Urban Synergies Group for their assessments and ideas of how to improve outcomes.

The ACT Parliament recently became the first jurisdiction state or territory to declare a state of climate emergency and is on track to become the first jurisdiction to be run on renewable energy by 2019. Last year it announced it would bring forward its net zero emissions target from 2050 to 2045, and in 2018 it also proposed draft amendments to its Territory Plan to allow for a trial of gas-free suburbs

On development and planning, ACT has some forward-thinking policies such as mandatory energy efficiency rating disclosure at the point of sale for residential buildings. The city is considered by many as liveable, or at least on the surface, with plenty of green space, bike paths and a brand new light rail system that’s apparently getting a lot of use already.

But the bush capital still has a way to go to become a sustainable city. Like most cities in Australia, it’s struggling to keep its sprawl under control, the state of its residential building stock is woeful, and people remain heavily dependent on cars to get around.

Canberra has unsustainable bones 

It doesn’t help that the city doesn’t have very sustainable foundations to work with. 

In an article penned by a leading sustainable architect Environa Studio director Tone Wheeler 30 years ago, he wrote that “it is suburban almost in its entirety, which makes it the quintessential Australian city, though not for the reasons that the city fathers would claim for it.”

Rather than functioning as one city, by the late 80s Canberra had effectively become multiple “satellite towns” that were “cut and swathed by expressways and freeways”.

The focus on the road pattern resulted in car-dependency, with the bus system not an effective means of transport because density was so low.

“If you travel in Los Angeles with its huge freeways, you will recognise some of these things in Canberra – the kind of dislocation between the means of travel and where people live,” he wrote.

The sense of isolation and distance was exacerbated by the prevalence of detached bungalows set on large blocks of land, which was common everywhere in Australia at the time.

The homes themselves were also not appropriate for the climate. He wrote that they were designed and built on the myth that Canberra is cold – which it is, but it also swelters through excessive dry summer heat.

Fast forward to today, and he says nothing much has changed.

“It’s still planned out as a suburban paradise.”

He told The Fifth Estate the only real differences between now and then are the names of the new suburbs the city is sprawling into, with Gungahlin the newest hot spot.

A large number of homes are still extremely energy inefficient. According to data gathered by tenant advocacy organisation Better Renting between July 2018 to March 2019, over 40 per cent of the residential rental properties in the ACT that disclosed energy efficiency ratings got zero stars on the NatHERS scale. 

“Canberra renters are being left to suffer in the worst properties on the market,” the organisation’s director, Joel Dignam, told The Fifth Estate last year.

He said many renters are living in  “glorified tents” that “do virtually nothing to keep inhabitants safe and comfortable through summer and winter. This means higher power bills, worse health and avoidable climate pollution.”

But it wasn’t all bad. According to Dignam there was also a 21 per cent disclosure of 6 star ratings in the same period.

But non-disclosure was still higher than he expected (56 per cent), because although it’s mandatory to disclose when seeking tenants if the property has a rating, obtaining one is not mandatory – meaning disclosure is still effectively optional for residential dwellings under current rules.

We need minimum standards, not just disclosure

As Wheeler pointed out, mandatory disclosure only tells you how bad the problem is, and minimum energy efficiency standards is key to improving the performance of buildings.

On top of that, many of the performance problems with homes are hard or impossible to fix, such as the lack of wall insulation.

He also believes some of the attractive things about Canberra that “made it feel like a bush capital” have not been maintained, with development now starting on the lake and creeping up the ridgelines.

And he says the first stage of the light rail, with the line from the city to Gungahlin going live in April, ignored the fact that most of the development in Canberra is not in the north. It is “all about selling land” in this region and will only encourage further sprawl.

There’s evidence that Canberra’s built environment is on the road to improvement

According to Catherine Townsend, ACT’s second government architect, Canberra is wrestling with many of the same issues as the other cities, such as poor design and construction quality and urban sprawl.

But there are subtle differences in planning and development in each jurisdiction that open up unique challenges and opportunities.

For instance, the ACT is a territory, which means it has the advantage of fewer layers of government.

This simpler structure of government means it is easier to roll out legislative tweaks and modifications.

One such tweak was the recent introduction of mandatory disclosure of energy efficiency ratings held by residential properties at the point of sale or lease.

It could be described as a “coarse tool”, she says, but one benefit of its introduction has been that it’s “brought the community along for the ride and skilled people up on energy ratings.” 

She says now, after the country sweltered though its hottest summers on record this year, it’s time to introduce the next layer.

Her recommendation is some kind of random auditing system to see if the ratings specified are actually “achieving what they said they would achieve”. 

“This would provide some sort of feedback that’s of use to the occupant and the building industry.”

She also says minimum performance standards need to be ramped up.

How to improve quality in buildings

Like the rest of Australia, the ACT has a problem with design and construction quality.

Townsend says the government has been looking at ways of improving and strengthening builder responsibilities and supervision.

“What we want is a strong and seamless net of supervision that applies to a building site and isn’t left to 100 different subcontractors.”

It’s also problematic that most subcontractors self-certify under existing regulatory controls, and that there’s no ability to take responsibility back to the developer.

Townsend says these are the sorts of mechanisms that are currently under review, partly in response to the Shergold+Weir report but she says most activity predates the report.  

The first action has been to review the process of getting a builder’s licence.

“Now, appropriate education experience and capability needs to be demonstrated. They have to sit an exam.” 

The territory also wants to introduce minimum construction documentation, with a focus on  “those areas of real issue” for occupants, such as condensation, waterproofing, acoustic management and fire separation.

“In a roundabout manner, this will affect sustainability because it is not just about thermal performance… if we build buildings that can’t manage condensation, they will be riddled with mould.”

As a practising architect (the government architect position is only part time) she’s wary of overregulation and says “legislation has to be the lightest possible touch”.

“We’re coming from a position of under regulation, but we want to go about it in a sensitive way.”

Canberra needs more buildings with “well-rounded personalities”

Another systemic issue standing in the way of high quality and long-lasting buildings in Canberra, in Townsend’s opinion, are the planning tools that have been in use for the last 25 years that try to reduce preferred design characteristics, such as height or setback, into statistics and figures.

Let’s get rid of building psychopaths that say “me, me, me” in favour of those with “well-rounded personalities”

This is a barrier to the design of buildings with “well-rounded personalities”. Instead of “nuanced quality buildings”, these planning tools have delivered the “equivalent of building psychopaths” that are all about “me, me, me”.

“It’s about more than just the setback, it’s about how is this building going to be the best for citizens for the next 50 years and part of the infrastructure and the future.

“It hasn’t been until the last few years until the issues of energy and density have forced these existential issues upon us and our buildings have to satisfy more than just their immediate owners, but also future owners and communities as well.”

She says that it’s a hugely complex problem and that there’s “no easy quick-fix answers.”

One part of solution is a design review panel, which the ACT now has. 

“From a government architect point of view, it means there’s a more appropriate amount of time spent on the design process.”

Making Canberra more compact

Catherine Townsend believes Canberra’s status as the bush capital isn’t likely to go anywhere.

The city is in a basin surrounded by a ring of hills, and the status quo is that the hills and ridges should be preserved and not built on.

“And I don’t anticipate that will ever change.”

But the city is growing and there needs to be more homes for people to live in.

She says that opens up a conversation about height. 

“We are an extraordinarily low density city but we must look at a range of ways to live and be housed – we must have some cognisance about where we sit in the environment and how we occupy this space.”

She also said there aren’t “a lot of options to ooze over the border” due to mountains and the water catchments in the south and west.

The ACT commissioner for sustainability and environment, Kate Auty, is also an advocate for a “compact” Canberra and stopping sprawl into what’s usually box gum bushland or grassy paddocks.

Her office is responsible for conducting strategic assessments – in depth environmental audits – on the sites that are being eyed off for new development to house the growing population, among other responsibilities.

“I’ll say this about Canberra, it’s a young city in a very old landscape.

“There’s a lot of sprawl, and there’s questions about offsets, then you have to think about going up rather than out.”

She also says increased density makes economic sense.

“The interesting thing about the sprawl is we know that the people who live in old leafy Canberra, they are going to have to deal with a cost impost.

“What we all end up paying for is the extra sewerage systems, the roads, the libraries… Old leafy Canberra needs to realise they will pay for this.”

At Molongolo Valley there is more density but less green space

The office has recently completed its strategic assessment of Molonglo Valley, a new neighbourhood between Weston Creek and Belconnen. She says the plans assessed show a marked increase in density compared to most developments in Canberra but a notable decrease (as much as a third) in the amount of green and recreational space per resident.

This suggests there will be pressure to provide people with access to green space so that liveability does not come at the expense of a compact city. 

Younger people are aware of the benefits of sustainability and density

She says the demographic in Canberra is shifting and there’s a growing cohort of younger people who understand the benefits of a more sustainable, denser, less car-dependant city. 

“But there are still people who are worried about getting a carpark.”

Both Kate Auty and Catherine Townsend say the light rail system is a step in the right direction for Canberra’s public transport, and already getting good use. Auty also says more needs to be done to make the bus system function better.

It helps that sustainability is a priority in the ACT

When Auty arrived in Canberra after serving in the equivalent Victorian role, she was pleased to be in a jurisdiction that took climate change seriously. 

The ACT and Victoria remain the only jurisdictions with an independent statutory position responsible for state of the environment reports. In other states and territories, this work is done by government departments which “somewhat constrains what you can say”.

A real vision for Canberra’s future

Founder of the Urban Synergies Group, Gregor Mews, has some big ideas about Canberra’s future.

According to the founder of the independent “think and do tank”, which is dedicated to improving urban conditions through evidence-based and human-centred design around the world, Canberra portrays itself a progressive city and it does nail some key liveability aspects, such as the quantity of green space and cycling infrastructure.

But Mews and his colleagues believe that health and wellbeing is about more than just physical infrastructure such as bike lanes.

“We need to nurture the human soul as well.”

Liveability is more than dashboards and set of physical indicators, it’s about the lived human experience

He says liveability measurements tend to distil cities down into dashboards and a set of physical indicators, which largely overlooks the lived human experience in a place. 

Many modern cities, including Canberra, are suffering from health problems and high rates of mental illness, and Mews believes that a human centred design approach to planning has the potential to vastly improve the health and wellbeing of urban dwellers.

He says cities should be aiming for “loveability” in the urban environment. That means designing cities from the bottom up to ensure all inhabitants, not just the well-off, can live healthy lives and experience interconnection with others.

The idea is to make the built environment more meaningful and fun, such as a set of swings where you wouldn’t expect them.

“If everyday life is a bit more joyful it sparks connectivity towards others and positivity.”

He says in the west we usually accomplish it in fragments, where there are libraries, parks, good mobility hubs.

But the paradigm needs to shift for human centred design in planning to take hold. In Canberra, for example, the main revenue is land sales so sprawl is effectively incentivised.

“They are set up for failure.” 

Late last year, the group teamed up with The Green Institute and SEE-Change to co-design a charter for human-centred urban development in Canberra to make sure it’s planned for local communities and a healthy environment as it grows.

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  1. This article overstates the ACT’s sustainability credentials.
    First, the ACT has a target for 100% renewable ELECTRICITY by 2020. We will continue to use non-renewable fuels for transport, cooking, water heating and space heating.
    Second, the so-called “zero net emissions” target ignores emissions that occur outside the ACT border, from things such as transport and production of the food and building materials that are used in the ACT. I estimate those emissions at 10 tonnes per person per year, which is 40% greater than the current world average for total emissions.
    Also, despite committing to 10.5% of work trips by public transport by 2016 the ACT Government achieved only 8.3%. It did achieve the ACT’s highest-ever rate of driver-only car commuting!

  2. The ACT government is considering subsidising petrol to make it easier and cheaper to use cars rather than public transport. The percentage of trips made by public transport is already decreasing. Many streets have no footpaths. The Light Rail has almost sent the ACT bankrupt so Stage Two has been put off for at least 5 years. The bus system had to divert buses from schools to provide services to the new suburbs because of an apparent ceiling on the total number, set to what we had in 1989.

  3. I concur with the other comments above. Today, housing is no longer habitat and shelter but a driver of national economics, status booster and a vehicle for speculation and growing of wealth. While that remains the case, allocation of resources to housing (national and personal) will remain distorted and unsustainable at the housing as well as urban scale.

  4. The fundamental disconnect that is today’s planning, it’s about how to accommodate cars, not people.
    Metro rail transport is the only transport option that should be considered the space requirements of cars are just too vast, every car that’s travelling at 60kph requires 57 meters of the roadway.

    Health problems and high rates of mental illness are caused by poor lifestyle decisions, spending years of their lives in sitting in cars going nowhere. People are now separate from their neighbours and society, buy living in oversized homes on oversized blocks of land at such low densities that years of lives travelling in cars are a necessity.

    Suburbia is the greatest misallocation of resources that humanity has ever indulged in, it’s the development industry with is large propaganda arms inflicts a phoney “rural” lifestyle that separates work, education, commerce, residential into separate areas we have to travel to.
    It’s clear that a sustainable world needs to be denser, the 1/4 acre block abolished and terrace housing model adopted with house sizes reduced to what the were at the early 20th century, 80sqm on a 120sqm block.
    Shopping within walking distance, children required to go to local schools and travelling to distant venues stopped.
    No new housing built with any car access or road infrastructure all transit undertaken on foot or by Metro Rail.

  5. Designing buildings and homes for longevity and flexibility will keep them out of landfills and, instead, living and adapting to the lives of their inhabitants and changing politics over time. I’m a strong proponent of universal design. If all players in the building game worked as a team to seamlessly integrate sustainable interior and exterior environments that are welcoming to all, their clients will stay and embellish these habitats with the “well-rounded character” that passes to generations.

  6. Cities are a mirror of a culture and politics (as well as economics). Despite our prosperity over decades, our society is ailing. An ailing society produces ailing cities. While the way we put cities together does affect mental health and has an important place in overall wellbeing of residents, we also need to address so many other factors that are driving our ever expanding mental health concerns.

    And while we are being harangued that life is all about A Strong Economy, we will be talking about the same issues and concerns expressed in this article 50 years hence.