The creation of a light rail corridor in the national capital is expected to shift the focus of urban development from the city's traditional town centres to its downtown area and the northernmost part of the ACT.

As a planned city created from scratch to serve as a new national capital and head off the internecine rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, the future of urban development in Canberra is characterised by a number of unique circumstances and challenges.

Hamish Sinclair, a research fellow at the University of Canberra’s Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis, notes that the contrived circumstances of the national capital’s creation have long provided urban planners outstanding opportunities for innovation and experimentation.

Hamish Sinclair

Hamish Sinclair

“The evolution of Canberra over the last century continues as a laboratory experiment in urban planning,” Sinclair said. “It is a planned political city as described by Sir Peter Hall, and exemplifies the various experiments that have been undertaken by cities as a consequence of rapid urbanisation in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

Despite Canberra’s status as a planned city whose final design was determined by means of an international competition won by Walter Burley Griffin, Sinclair noted that Canberra is far from a finalised urban product, and must continue to adapt to changing circumstances in the 21st century.

“The city is very much a work in progress and now faces some major structural problems to adjust to innovations in urbanism such as guerrilla planning, public transport infrastructure such as cycle and light rail networks, and climate adaption that is focused on 90 per cent renewable energy and urban regeneration,” he said. “All of these transformations are in part unsettling the traditional legitimacy of government and community relations.”

The key change in Canberra’s urban planning paradigm at present is the shift in emphasis away from the long-established town centres of Tuggeranong, Woden and Belconnen, which are strung along the city’s north-south axis and serve as major employment and business hubs in tandem the CBD. Focus has instead been placed upon the long-touted light rail corridor, which will connect the centre of Canberra to the northernmost suburb of Gungahlin.

“The big three town centres have all recently experienced dieback following a change in federal government direction, while the immediate future for Gungahlin as a terminus for the rail project is seen is good,” Sinclair said. “The land development opportunities for enhancing the town centres are limited, although potential in Tuggeranong is offset by the eastward suburban expansion costs of crossing a major river and community expansion.

“The main development front remains tied to the light rail corridor from the inner city at Braddon to the north. The town centres will find competition challenging given this $600 million investment corridor.”

Proposed light rail route

Proposed light rail route

Given that plans for Canberra’s future urban development hinge heavily upon the light rail corridor, the ACT government has taken what Sinclair considers rash measures in order to expedite its development, which could in turn raise issues further down the road.

“In what amounts to throwing out the planning book and ignoring the lessons to be learned from other failed major project legislation, the ACT government has removed appeal rights from a two-kilometre wide development corridor from the north through to the central city, with the corridor extension over the rest of the city at a later stage already protected in legislation,” he said.

“While the government is currently adamant that this is only for light rail ‘related’ development, it remains to be seen if such a distinction will hold over time or whether in the public interest of economic surplus some definitional creep will occur. The opportunity for urban intensification along key nodes of the rail network and Canberra’s economic dependence on land development will no doubt challenge future generations of politicians and planners.”

Focus upon the development of the light rail corridor as it’s currently envisaged also means greater growth potential in the northernmost part of the ACT where its planned terminus point is situated, as well as across the border in adjoining parts of NSW.

“The government and private development interests are exploring a cross border suburban expansion to the north which may well see the ACT government become a land developer in NSW,” said Sinclair.

Overall, Sinclair gives the state of urban planning in the national capital a positive assessment, with the potential of overcoming the city’s traditionally staid reputation and elevate its international profile.

“The city is adapting faster than many and seems to focused on taking to the global stage as a brand rather than competing with Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane,” he said. “As to the future of the strategic planning for capital cities, there are lessons to be learnt from Canberra, but you need to know where to look and what you are looking at.”