The Canberra Times

By Primrose Riordan

Dr Ed Blakely knows a disaster zone when he sees it — he was called into New Orleans for a recovery blitz when Hurricane Katrina left the city in ruins, and has advised mayors across the world on their own urban catastrophes.

The University of Sydney academic and regular traveller to Canberra, has now turned his sights to the capital's city centre, a place more often called a barren wasteland than a beating heart.

Dr Blakely said many strip shopping streets in the US were becoming tough competitors to malls — unlike Civic which, like a Harry Potter dementor, has been sucked of its lifeforce by the Canberra Centre.

He said the key to many of these strips was that they "clustered" similar shops — such as jewellers — together, were integrated with mixed-level housing and unusual entertainment options, and were open to some traffic.

Dr Blakely, along with a Brooklyn-based urban designer, were recently employed by Parramatta City Council to transform their town square from pigeon playgroup to hipster paradise.

For example he recently advised the council to allow light traffic through shopping areas, so people could "cruise through and see if their friends were" there and pick out a cafe.

He suggested the best medicine for pedestrian-only areas of Garema Place and City Walk may be for them to be broken up until the city has better public transport.

"If you had a strong transport network like Melbourne, you pedestrianise, because people can get there, in Canberra's case you are going to have to mix it because the automobile is still your principal mode of transport," Dr Blakely said, suggesting one-way, single lanes of traffic and median strips to keep traffic minimal.

He said Pasadena, a city in Los Angeles County in California, had recently been advised against a purely pedestrian mall, which he said "turned out to be the right decision".

Dr Blakely said successful US strips had also moved seats for diners at strip eateries "right onto the street so the chance of running into a friend is much higher".

Parking in good downtown areas was then "hidden" in underground carparks or off to the side of the main streets according to Dr Blakely, and residential buildings were allowed to be a variety of heights from two to eight storeys high.

Dr Blakely said a example of this "interesting density" was Sydney's Surry Hills which allowed people to live amongst the action.

Dr Blakely also had prescriptions for the ramble of shops in Civic saying we may need to chuck out long-held ideas that similar shops in the same place was bad for competition.

He cited the garment district in New York as still wooing wannabe Carrie Bradshaws and the ability of food districts to be honey pots for urban gastronauts.

"People like to bunch their shopping, they like to do comparative shopping," Dr Blakely said.

Despite "hating" the capital when he lived here in the early 1990's, and remaining a critic on his regular visits since to visit relatives, Dr Blakely admitted he did have a soft spot for some areas — you guessed it — Braddon and New Acton.

This article was originally published at The Canberra Times