The significance of place

The Canberra Civic Arts & Cultural Precinct (‘the Precinct’) is a gathering place for diverse cultures in the heart of the city centre at Civic Square, bounded by Constitution Avenue, London Circuit, Northbourne Avenue, and Vernon Circle. The area around Civic Square and the Canberra Theatre Centre needs revitalisation to support the arts and cultural offerings within the Precinct. Being Ngunnawal country, activation and integration of the public realm in this iconic location must be sensitive to the significance of intertwined spatial relationships—the cultural and temporal heritage, and the legacy of the original masterplan by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin connecting the urban fabric of the city with Lake Burley Griffin.

This Precinct is critical for attracting visitors to the centre of the Canberra Civic and Culture District for performance and as a gathering space in the ACT. The Canberra Theatre, The Playhouse, and The Courtyard Studio are the three main performance spaces of the Canberra Theatre Centre within the Precinct. They are connected in part by a shared building called the Link Building, which also houses the Canberra Library. The Canberra Theatre Centre was opened in 1965 and was the first government-developed performing arts centre in Australia. Anticipated population growth in Canberra and the surrounding region, however, will likely increase demands on the Centre beyond current operating and technical capability. Supporting this, the recent arrival of light rail in Civic, and the future extension of the light rail to the Parliament precinct, are extremely important. This is significant since it links major elements of amenity (Acton) such as cultural and educational infrastructure, as well as Exhibition Park to Civic.

The Precinct is also home to the ACT Legislative Assembly, the Canberra Museum and Gallery, the new ACT Government Office Building, and other Constitution Place developments including office, retail, and hotel use. Despite the sameness of place, currently, these numerous buildings and functions exist independently of each other; there is a clear absence of a unifying element drawing together each of the disparate components. Given the style and character of the area and existing buildings, the Precinct’s future must be one of adaptiveness, respect, and celebration of cultural differences. Published literature highlights the relationship between norms, philosophy, and design over time, positioned from the perspective of the need to be in keeping with evolving needs, expectations, and endeavours. Here, society’s needs manifest into specific urban planning, architectural forms, and functions that are endowed with community spaces that attract and shape a diversity of behavioural norms by local, interstate, and international visitors and become drawcards to attractions and repeat visitation alike.

Public urban squares are considered landmark destinations that are dynamic and culturally rich and have a symbolic function that provides a ‘sense of place’ for local communities. The notion of ‘sense of place’ is widely accepted as the relationship between people and place that provide meaning or elicits emotional attachment to a location.¹ This is critical given that the literature largely posits that the built environment has the capacity to influence behaviour given its immediacy to the greater community. Public squares and communal open spaces form integral components for interaction and community participation in events and everyday life.² They form spaces for interaction and are instrumental locations with the potential to host social events, providing a range of associated ‘systems’ benefits³ such as the opportunity to increase economic contribution. Physical ‘markers’ and networks of spaces and infrastructure design that are adaptive and scalable collectively support a diversity of activity throughout the precinct to suit the needs of different users.⁴

To cultivate a ‘sense of place’, communities must plan for physical environments that are uplifting and memorable, and that generate a unique sense of belonging. A community also fosters a ‘sense of place’ by recognising and valuing its natural surroundings, views, landmarks, and traditions. Here, the perception of a ‘sense of place’ is forged through level of activity, increased physical participation, and occupation of space—fundamental urban design principles toward designing environments that are socially sustainable⁵ and promote increased activity day and night. Urban density would further support activity, participation, and occupation.

However, the Precinct boundary must consider the role that Civic plays more broadly in Canberra’s urban and community context beyond the immediate site, to holistically connect with the immediate physical and visual context beyond – strengthening the embedded relationship with the place. This position supports Newman’s notion that the presence of a community with a collective interest leads to territorialization, defence, and natural surveillance. This is amplified in and around public squares and parks that are often deserted during night hours with a visible absence of pedestrian transition.⁶

At this scale, Hames Sharley’s Portfolios work collaboratively in partnership with its extended communities-of-practice to push the boundaries through understanding of complexity that individuals alone cannot; a multi-dimensional approach across several dimensions such as 1. environmental systems, 2. social/ urban systems, 3. political systems, 4. economic systems, and 5. technological/ connectivity systems. Understanding the application of cutting-edge research technology and data in this space provides allows designers to position conversations with collective communities-of-practice from an evidence-based people-centred approach. Permeability, height restrictions, heritage, and legacy attributes of the Theatre Centre itself, the surrounding lands, and Ainslie Place, must be developed in the spirit of stewardship to society with the ACT Government. To provide high-quality venues, and solve key technical, environmental, and sociological issues from the individual to the global scale, architecture and other built environment disciplines must be united in a research-led approach commensurate to the significance of the place, project, or impact. For this reason, research must be adaptive and increasingly cross-disciplinary to derive new knowledge and insights from the clients our spatial propositions seek to serve.


¹ Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1977. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis, Mn: University of Minnesota Press.

² Jonescu, E.E., Wuu, A. and Do, K. 2022. A Case for a multi-dimensional Development Grid for Perth, Western Australia, (Chapter 7). In: C. Donnellan, ed., The Complex City: Social and Built Approaches and Methods. London, UK: Vernon Press. 978-1-64889-477-0.

³ Lang, Jon T, and Nancy Marshall. 2017. Urban Squares as Places, Links and Displays: Successes and Failures. New York: Routledge.

Jonescu, E.E., Peake, J. and Do, K. 2020. Feasibility Analysis into Deathscape Infrastructure: a Case Study Supporting Bereavement Spaces for Perth. The International Journal of Design in Society, 14(3), pp.1–17. doi:10.18848/2325-1328/cgp/v14i03/1-17.

Cozens, P. (2011). Urban Planning and Environmental Criminology: Towards a New Perspective for Safer Cities. Planning Practice and Research, 26(4), pp.481–508. doi:10.1080/02697459.2011.582357.

Jonescu, E.E., Olatunji, O. and Foo, J. 2022. Design-led Solution for Curbing crime: the Case Study of a Major Entertainment Precinct in Perth, Western Australia. Journal of Urban Design. doi:10.1080/13574809.2022.2081139.

Bergstén, Sabina, and Carina Keskitalo. 2018. “Feeling at Home from a Distance? How Geographical Distance and Non-Residency Shape Sense of Place among Private Forest Owners.” Society & Natural Resources 32 (2): 184–203.

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