Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why we partied at Canberra's shops

Me, last night -->

"The shops." They matter more in Canberra than in other cities. They are not on main roads, they are either in big town centres or the centre of small surburbs, tucked away in the folds of interlaced roads, unfindable if you were wizzing past in a car.

The local shops are designed as local centres, close enough to walk to. And we do. They are the focal point of each community. Last night each local shops hosted a "Party at the Shops" to celebrate Canberra's centennary. It was as good as you could imagine.

Or maybe you can't imagine, if you haven't lived in Canberra.

More than 40 years ago in Ideas for Australian Cities Hugh Stretton outlined the thinking behind Canberra's shops.

He got it right:

"The city is built of units, neighborhoods that can support a primary school and a walk-in shopping centre. Three or four of them are grouped to share a larger shopping and service centre. Three or four or five of such groups make a district of 60,000-120,000 people with a major town centre. Any number of these can proliferate around the single metropolitan centre, in a pattern usually called a 'metro-politan cluster'. For communications the Canberra cluster would rely chiefly on a network of roads. From the residential cul-de-sac to the freeways which skirt and link the districts, these roads will be more radically differentiated, safer and-faster than any comparable network in Australia.

But the heart of the scheme is not its method of coping with traffic. The heart of the scheme is its use of leasing powers to distribute the city's activities precisely, thus con-trolling the pattern of journeys which the channels have to cope with. For example, for the Canberra population 12 square. feet of shop floor per head is the provision which seems to balance Satisfied customers and prosperous shopkeepers. Each citizen's ration of shop is deliberately distributed 3-1. square feet to the metropolitan centre, 31 to his district centre, 3 to his group centre and 2 to his neighborhood. Some American advisers, used to locating nothing smaller than drive-in supermarkets for no other purpose than retailers' profit, would abolish most of Canberra's neighborhood shops, leaving all the widows and carless housewives to struggle to the super-markets as best they could. But the Canberra planners keep a wary eye on such alien propaganda. They obstinately con-tinue to build the neighborhood centres; and enjoy showing American visitors how they prosper as half their customers arrive on foot and the other half keep their parking spaces as busy as any at the supermarkets.

Commercial office needs are similarly predictable, and government and institutional employments are negotiable. The planners put them where they'll prosper best, and. do most good to the town around them. So also with land uses and employments in industry, service trades and higher education.

Perhaps private enterprise should complain about this tyranny. In practice most private enterprise revels in it, with what adjustments of its enterprising conscience I don't know. Planning reduces many investors' risks. It need not reduce those that are economically and socially productive — risks with new products, processes, methods. But it reduces the useless risks which arise from uncertain forecasting of other people's land uses. There is nothing efficient about a private enterprise that guesses wrong about the future spread of residence, the build-up of rival or complementary businesses near by, the location and timing of public investment in roads, power, water and sewerage. But in Canberra, if private enterprise bids for a site, it knows exactly when its services will be connected, it knows the customers will be housed around it in predictable numbers by predictable dates, and it knows that a watchful (but reasonably incorruptible) eye will limit the release of competing sites to the number the custom can genuinely nourish.

Of course there are policy problems. Producers and consumers sometimes have contrary interests in the level of competition. There are novel business projects for which it is sometimes difficult to provide appropriate land fairly by public auction. In time there will be problems of re-use and redevelopment. So far these problems have been solved in Canberra without impeding innovation — except objectionable innovations, impeded deliberately. Consumers sometimes complain — there's not much chance for any cheap-jack, wild-cat, road-side or tin-shed competition. But the degree of 'producer protection' is no more than a mild case of the general bias of Australian policies towards protected production and employment, at some cost to consumers where ther necessary."

Thank you Hugh. Thank you Canberra's founders.