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What's New in Precinct Life?

NewActon wins Australian Award for Urban Design

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In less than a decade, a forgotten corner of Canberra’s CBD has been transformed into one of Australia’s most memorable new neighbourhoods.

Last night, NewActon precinct won the national Australia Award for Urban Design for a completed large-scale project. The award, which was established by former Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1996, recognises and rewards only the highest quality urban design.

While developer Molonglo Group, architect Fender Katsalidis and landscape architect Oculus were presented with the prestigious award, this is truly a win for all Canberrans – and serves as a reminder that we can build spectacular new spaces in our city.

Wander through the laneways of NewActon and it’s hard to believe that work only began on the precinct in 2006, when the cobwebs were dusted from the Hotel Acton and it was converted into the Diamant Hotel.

Molonglo Group was determined “not to be ordinary” when it laid out its vision for NewActon, which was to be a place of outstanding quality and design, world-leading environmental sustainability and a destination with a thriving social and cultural life. The Molonglo Group faced its fair share of setbacks during the development of NewActon – most notably when fire swept through the heritage-listed hotel in 2011 – but perseverance has paid off.

The judges selected NewActon over a number of other outstanding entries because it is a classic example of mixed-use buildings at their best. The precinct embraces what the Molonglo Group calls “the philosophy of public occupation”, attracting everyone from five star travellers to office workers, residents to restaurant goers, cyclists to cinema buffs. People come to work and play, buy and sell, interact and exchange ideas. According to the awards’ lead judge Bill Chandler, New Acton is a “precinct of surprise and delight that is a rich place of outstanding quality and design.”

The surprises and delights are around every corner. NewActon blends old and new to create not just a precinct, but an experience. The hotels, for example, weren’t designed solely for hotel guests; the commercial buildings aren’t just the preserve of office workers. The precinct encourages everyone to enjoy the spaces.

Art gives life to the precinct, and is both playful and thought-provoking. The commissioned art and cultural programs, cafes and cinema, attract people day and night. These public places serve the community rather than cars.

The new buildings in the precinct – NewActon East, South, Nishi and the Gallery – do not mimic the old. Instead, despite their varying heights and styles, the new buildings join the heritage hotel in a ‘conversation’. It is the integration between building uses and the spaces between those buildings makes the precinct worthy of this national award.

The Australia Award for Urban Design is not NewActon’s only accolade, either. Hotel Hotel was named Australia’s best boutique hotel in 2014 by Gourmet Traveller magazine, and recently attracted the attention of the New York Times for being “eco-friendly, luxurious and unpretentious”. Mocan & Green Grout was also praised by the New York Times for both its dining and décor, which it hailed the “perfect combo for outdoor-loving, gourmandising Canberrans.”

NewActon, which was created through private sector vision, investment and effort, is a lighthouse example of Canberra’s potential. A place that encourages both lingering and bustling, that embraces both physical and intellectual pursuits, and that balances the old and the new. The Molonglo Group has created a memorable neighbourhood – but we need more of them, and they don’t all need to be in our CBD. Vacant sites, rundown local shops and abandoned school buildings can be found all over Canberra. These areas could be carefully adapted to provide vibrant new spaces and services for our neighbourhoods.

Disused schools could become affordable and alternative housing, art precincts, next-wave retail outlets, markets or any other combination of local uses. Redevelopment of these sites provides opportunity not only for buildings to house community spaces but also for quality public spaces and new amenities. The ACT Government, industry and the community should partner to develop these sites in such a way that respects past uses and creates memorable neighbourhoods.

Similarly, the faded signs and empty shops along City Walk and in Garema Place are a reminder that we can do better – and we are doing better in other parts of the city. NewActon – and other inspiring places like Lonsdale Street or the Kingston Foreshore – demonstrates the possibilities when we work together to regenerate our spaces, repurpose older buildings and create better places for people.

When our fresh air, clear blue skies and close connection to nature are highly prized, it is understandable that many people are nervous about development that changes the shape of the city we love. But smart, sustainable development can ensure we not only retain, but enhance the quality of life that has made Canberra Australia’s most liveable city.

Canberra began as an idea – a shared vision for a place that “should be laid out in the most perfect manner possible”. While we may be an exemplar of twentieth century planning, we need to adapt to twenty first century needs. NewActon shows us that this is entirely within our grasp.

written by Catherine Carter – ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia