IN CANBERRA, THE FUTURE IS GREEN(ER)
Roland G. Simbulan
(This article was originally published in the University of the Philippines’ U.P. FORUM, January 28, 2003. Since the 1960s, the author has visited Canberra several times. The latest was in October 2002 when he was invited to lecture at the Australian National University on international issues. He was Vice Chancellor for Planning and Development at U.P. Manila )
Canberra brings nostalgic feelings and good memories for me. Probably because it was my second home. Almost 40 years ago, my family and I were the only Filipino residents there when Australia still had its unwritten “White Australia Policy” for immigrants. When my father studied for his Ph.D. in Canberra and brought along the family, my brothers and I spent three years of our primary school in Australia’s beautiful capital which is regarded as one of the most well-planned cities in the world.
It is said that when Australia was deciding which city to have as its capital, Sydney and Melbourne were the top choices. But neither city wanted to give way to the other and so the national government had to settle for an alternative — Canberra. Built between Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra became the site of the Federal Government and the country’s premier university, the Australian National University(ANU). The ANU is to Australia what the University of the Philippines is to our country.
Today, more than 50% of Canberra’s work force is in public services (or government sector), employed by the Federal Government of Australia which includes the Australian Parliament. Foreign embassies and diplomatic missions from more than 70 countries are also found in the city. Except for some information technology and wine companies that have started to move in, there are almost no private enterprises in the city. The Canberra Wine District, just seven kilometers away from the city center, has begun to flourish. There, visitors can tour the vineyards, taste wine and buy wines at cheaper prices.
From its population of 50,000 in 1960, the city’s residents have gone up to 370,000 in 2002. Despite this, Canberra’s environment is greener than ever, a model for ecological management and green urban planning and development. Carved into the city is Lake Burley Griffin, surrounded by federal buildings and the ANU campus. Forty years ago, this man-made lake was just a medium-sized pond where my brother and I used to pull miniature sailboats with strings. Today, it is wider beyond what the eyes can see.
City with a view
Canberra is a carefully planned city. Well laid out, the road system of concentric circles and circuits surrounds the commercial area and Capital Hill. Canberra has one of the most comprehensive cycling networks of any Australian city: 140 kms. of lanes are designed specifically for bicycles, and most of the city’s roads have parallel cycling lanes. But if one prefers to walk, one can go to any of several parks or follow the paths along the lake while enjoying the view of the natural reserves that surround Canberra’s suburbs.
Almost every morning, one can see colorful hot air balloons in the Canberra sky. The Telstra Tower, located on Black Mountain behind the sprawling ANU campus, offers probably the best mountaintop view. With a revolving restaurant, the tower is actually a telecommunications structure servicing television, radio and mobile phone transmissions, with two open levels for public use.
The city offers architectural and landscaping delights to any urban planner who visits the New Parliament House, the High Court of Australia ( the equivalent of our Supreme Court), the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery and the National Museum. The Old Parliament House, facing Lake burley Griffin and the New Parliament House, is now the site of four national cultural institutions: the National Museum, the Australian Archives, the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Portrait Gallery. For those who appreciate the performing arts, there is the Canberra Theatre Center where dance and stage shows of local and foreign artists are held.
The city started from a visionary plan of Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin that brought together excellence in urban design and environmental sensitivity. The “Y-Plan,” which has largely guided Canberra’s development since the 1960s, focuses on decentralized development of separate towns and the preservation of bush land between the towns.
Modernity, however, has exacted its price: private cars being the main means of transportation have resulted not only in low-density urban development and extensive road systems but also in increased air and noise pollution as well as higher energy consumption. Valuable land has been sacrificed to concrete. The demand for more medium and high-density housing near the city’s centers is also putting pressure on ecological resources.
Because of these, a new approach to urban planning has been introduced, one that is based on ecological and social sustainability. Older parts of the city, such as local shopping centers that are now in decline, are up for development. The long-term plan for Canberra is to enhance the decentralized town structure by creating a network of village-style neighborhoods built around existing commercial centers. These centers, in turn, are to be linked by a high-quality public transport system and integrated with the existing parks and bush land.
Kerrie Tucker, a member of the Green Party and representative of the Molonglo district of the ACT Legislative Assembly, told me that green planning and development in Canberra is a combination of “social justice, ecological sustainability, participatory decision-making and grassroots democracy.” Australian Green Party initiatives have had increasing influence on urban planning. Although politicians have not been quick to adopt these, such initiatives have succeeded in stopping some environmentally damaging urban policies.
Equity in Environment
A new framework for green planning and development has been introduced: social change with equity for all members of the community are as important as saving the environment.
A new strategic plan to guide Canberra’s development over the next decades is being prepared to take into account demographic changes and increase the city’s ecological, social and economic sustainability. ACT is the only state in Australia with an Office of Sustainability, which regularly monitors and reports on the progress of green urban planning using sustainability criteria and performance indicators.
Development pressures, such as the construction of freeways, are always present, according to Tucker, but these are balanced by strict monitoring by the communities. This is probably why Canberrans say theirs is a city where tap water is even cleaner and safer than the much-vaunted bottled mineral water.
Tucker emphasized the need for stakeholders to be involved, especially at the local level, with the young and the elderly being invited to take part in the process. New mechanisms are now being designed to allow the community as a whole to participate in planning and implementing urban redevelopment, she said.
Canberra proves that the concentration of populations in cities need not lead to ecological or social disaster. Governments can be effective in reversing this trend and managing the possible consequences. In fact, managed carefully, densely populated cities and towns can still conserve forests, woodlands and other ecosystems. The key is the provision of excellent services that conserve resources and energy and eliminate, reduce or deal sustainably with wastes. The government must work with communities to manage the development or redevelopment of the cities.
Canberra’s urban planning encourages the transformation of existing commercial centers into eco-villages where most services are located within walking or cycling distance. These are linked to each other and to town centers by accessible bus services.
From the University House, a hotel within the ANU, I took a leisurely five-minute walk to the city’s commercial center. It is called the City “Civic”, dotted by Vietnamese, Mediterranean, Italian, Mexican, Turkish, Greek and Thai restaurants as well as trendy bars and cafes. Various shops surround the Vernon Circle. Around the Canberra Center are at least 180 specialty shops stocked with fashion items, giftware, jewelry, books and shoes. There is no mall in Canberra.
For entertainment, one can go to the Westfield Belconnen in North Canberra, which houses a cinema complex and other centers for young people. Older structures like the National Library and the Australian War Memorial can also be visited but you need at least a day for each of these. Or for variety, one can also visit the Stromlo Exploratory, an astronomy center perched on top of Mt. Stromlo, a mountain located just outside the city. Here one can use the Mt. Stromlo Observatory telescopes to view the galaxy, the hidden planets and also learn about Aboriginal Astronomy.
The feeling of oneness with the land is best described in an Aboriginal word — “bungaree” — which has been adopted by Australian ecologists. Aboriginal people of Alustralia believe that the earth is man’s sacred relative, and a very special relationship “based on nurturing, caring and sharing” can be developed with it.
Aborigines also believe that ” the spirit of creation is in all things, for all life forms are related to each other, so every aspect of the natural world is honored and respected, and we learn to tread lightly on the earth. ” Their worldview — reflected in what the Aborigines refer to as “dream time” — centers on a philosophy of respect for all living things in the past, present and future.
Australia is a nation and continent that has modern cities like Canberra, yet it has preserved its secluded nests of bush lands. It has limited itself to medium-density housing and residential development. In effect, native habitat is maintained to support kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and possums.
To protect existing vegetation and prevent the loss of habitat and diversity in the environment, degraded communities are regenerated and restored. Pedestrian access to the pristine bush land habitat in the woodlands and re-vegetation sites are limited. Walking trails are constructed along the scenic areas to direct visitors away from the fragile habitat areas and protect native plant and animal spaces.
For a visitor who has no need for nostalgia, the diversity of Australia’s capital is cause for much celebration and appreciation. It makes one realize that human creativity can be unleashed for a sustainable future, not simply for commodities and consumer goods that make the future unsustainable. Our treatment of the environment today will have an impact on the quality of life of future generations. It is a future worth working for.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in Mar 20th 2006