Reversing Woden’s decline requires imagination and ambition

The problems with Woden Town Centre are well known, especially to those who live in the valley. As the first satellite town centre beyond Burley-Griffin’s original plan and separate from the Central Canberra district, it was designed originally in the 1960s and built for a previous era. 


Today it appears tired, with abandoned buildings and empty offices. We now see old buildings and infrastructure that need replacement and upgrading. The community life of the centre has not been helped by the closure of community and recreation facilities, most recently the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT).

The town square is dying—partly due to Westfield turning its back on the square and Commonwealth Government employment moving elsewhere. The layout of the centre lacks a focal main avenue and on-street shopping, and is poorly designed for walking and cycling.  Sadly, it also lacks entertainment precincts with cafes and live music.

The local community has consistently expressed its need for improved pedestrian and cycle connections, better public spaces, more employment opportunities and improved sports and recreational facilities.

ACT Greens believe this low point is a great time to plan the redevelopment of the centre for the next 50 years.  Our vision is to revitalise the town centre to become a thriving and diversified hub of jobs, services, recreation and community activities.

So how do we get there?

Woden Town Centre needs a comprehensive urban renewal strategy that draws together community and recreation facilities, renewal of public areas, planning rule changes and major projects like light rail.  Urban renewal that is not done well will inevitably result in disputes between developers and the community, a dormitory centre with poor quality of life and missed opportunities—to bring life to the area, improve environmental sustainability and deliver affordable housing for young people and service workers.

The Woden Town Centre Master Plan developed by the ACT Government in 2015 was actually a good start and had community support.  However, implementation has lagged. It is disappointing that a conspicuous 26-storey tall tower has been approved in Bowes Street, contrary to the 12 storey limit agreed by the community in the Master Plan. The existing skyscape of Woden already shows that very tall buildings can create dark, unpleasant streets—not the busy, active streets the community wants.  

The ACT Greens believe that the planning system needs to be used to deliver what the community wants, not just what developers want. Very high buildings should be permitted only as an incentive to provide real community benefits—like community facilities, an entertainment precinct or affordable housing for retail workers. New buildings should be designed for the challenges of the next 50 years, including high energy efficiency and low or zero greenhouse gas emissions. Mixed residential options should be offered to meet the needs of people of different ages and types of families, including affordable housing for young people and service workers.

The decline in Woden’s community, education and recreation facilities must be reversed, and the effort to reverse it should be imaginative and ambitious. For example, why should the proposed new University of NSW campus be located in the City when the Southside now has almost no tertiary education institutions? A large, flexible site needs to be reserved for future community and recreation facilities.  A report has already been completed into adapting Callam Offices for these purposes, but it needs to be implemented or a different site chosen. The former CIT site also needs to be looked at as a community asset, not just vacant land to be sold. Could this become part of the hospital precinct, or another education option?

The town centre should be walkable and bike-able—so that residents living close to the bus interchange, shops and jobs don’t need cars to get around. Light rail will help a great deal, co-ordinated with other actions such as major redevelopment of the bus interchange. This is a huge opportunity to improve the entire area between Callam Street and the town square. The plan should feature an attractive entertainment precinct where people can go on weekends for restaurants, cafes, bars and live music.

The citizens of Woden Valley and the wider community who work there or visit deserve a welcoming, vibrant and modern town centre—not dead malls, dank alleys and incongruous towers. With proposed changes to the Territory Plan relating to Woden, the ACT Government has an opportunity to set the rules for Woden’s renewal in years to come.