My hometown, Canberra, is a planned city. Carved out of the Australian bushland in the early 20th century as a compromise choice to satisfy the competing ambitions of Sydney and Melbourne to be the national capital of the newly established commonwealth of Australia, it was designed by two Americans – Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion – using architectural ideas influenced by classical design elements.
The early central city had, and still has, a very old world European feel despite later construction (such as the national galleries and the new parliament house) that tried to reflect the Australian environment more effectively.
In the years since its establishment, traditional suburbs have emerged as the population grew from a few thousand (often transient) government workers to a large settled community (now around 320,000), raising families in red brick houses on tree lined streets, where the occasional kangaroo leapt from the surrounding bush into unfenced gardens.
This lack of front fences was, in fact, an early attempt to create a more liveable place. Early planners wanted Canberra to be a ‘garden city’, where housing blocks flowed into each other and people could interact, rather than hide behind walls they created.
Like many great ideas, the principle was fine but this one faltered under the pressure of tradition and picket fences were replaced by even taller hedges.
The ‘fun living’ suburb
Despite this, Canberra has continued to innovate as it grows, committing itself to improving liveability and establishing best practices in environmental sustainability. The most recent example is the newly established suburb of Crace, where sustainability, health and happiness are key design goals.
With work commencing in 2009, Crace is a mix of urban and suburban developments that will eventually form a mini city of 1,500 homes and 4,000 residents.
Shops and community facilities have been designed to promote interaction, while the overall landscaping with its open plan and communal areas, such as parks, playgrounds and community veggie gardens (25% of the land has been reserved for community use) is intended to facilitate engagement and ‘fun living’.
People can easily walk or cycle through areas that have retained the Australian bush character (including the original treescape), while also seeing sustainability at work through various innovate design features.
Given that Canberra, like many parts of south eastern Australia, has suffered through long periods of drought, the suburb has been designed to be water sensitive. The landscaping minimises the use of town water, relying largely on natural capture or recycling. Rainwater is filtered through wetlands and most houses have tanks installed for watering their gardens.
The streets have been established in a grid, rather than looped, to make it easier for buses to move through the suburb thus improving the services and promoting use of public transport.
The original intention was to make Crace carbon neutral (in line with Canberra’s goal of zero emissions by 2050) and as part of that, 14,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions were offset during construction.
Housing has also been designed to meet the highest energy efficiency standards and placement on the sloping side of the block maximises solar orientation. Thermal envelopes moderate internal temperature and sky-lighting enhances natural light, while many residences use solar cells to generate much of their electricity (noting that 55% of Canberra’s emissions come from electricity use).
Several houses have also gone above and beyond in their pursuit of sustainable living, no more so than Girasole (The sunflower). This incredible house, the 50-year long dream of a Canberra builder, rotates 360 degrees following the sun in winter and hiding from it in summer. In addition, it runs 10.5kw solar panels that generate enough electricity and hot water to meet the occupant’s annual needs.
Not surprisingly, Girasole has been awarded a six-star energy efficiency rating (the highest available) and was recently sold for $1.3m (£800,000) suggesting that smart, sustainable design has a market. It’s worth noting that the median price for four bedroom houses in the suburb is approximately $690,000 (£424,000).
Crace itself has been the recipient of several awards for innovative and sustainable design as well as receiving a Greensmart accreditation from Housing Industry Association.
Adding to its sustainability, Crace is also a cat containment area whereby owners of domestic cats must keep them within the confines of their premises in order to protect the indigenous wildlife.
The University of Canberra is also conducting a five-year study which is investigating whether sustainably designed suburbs make people happier and healthier. A part of this includes a field study where local artists engaged with the community and I will cover this project in a future article for Environment Journal on art and sustainability.
Time will tell if Crace is the future of urban and suburban developments, but for now it stands as a real example of what can be achieved with good ideas and commitment.
Photos by Brenden Ashton and Bart Meehan