Why are there so few footpaths in Canberra?

You won’t find a footpath beside every Canberra street. Surprisingly, that’s by design.

This week’s Curious Canberran was so keen to have his question answered, he asked it twice.

“It came from walking around, especially picking my daughter up from school in the Belconnen region,” questioner Tony Kennedy said.

“Some regions have plainly got footpaths and others don’t.”

The primary school teacher believed it to be a quirk of the city and couldn’t help comparing it to his hometown of Melbourne where “every street had footpaths.”

He wondered whether it had been a cost-cutting measure.

To test his theories, we spoke to a landscape architect, Roads ACT and a pedestrian advocacy group.

It was done on purpose

Director of Roads ACT Ken Marshall explained that the suburbs with fewer footpaths also happened to be some of the city’s oldest.

“It’s really a question of changing standards over time, so in the older suburbs the infrastructure was built to the standard of the day,” he said.

Early Canberra suburbs, in the inner north and south, were constructed under guidelines that didn’t change until 2000.

“Under those guidelines … it was considered that in a residential street the verge, or indeed the road, were a safe and reasonable place to expect people to walk.

“Now attitudes have changed … so the standards evolve over time to reflect those changing attitudes.”

Ken explained that in new suburbs, only rear access laneways would be without a footpath.

Canberra’s slightly hidden walkways

It may seem like pedestrians were overlooked in some parts of Canberra but that’s not the case.

Dianne Firth, a landscape architect and Deputy Chair of the ACT Heritage Council, says the city was designed with those travelling on foot in mind.

“Integral to each suburb’s layout was the separation of roads and walkways. A pedestrian system of walkways was located through public green space instead of beside the road.

The walkways offered quick access across the suburb whereas the roads often meandered indirectly.”

So Canberra does has footpaths, they just look a little different to those found in other capital cities.

And here’s a problem unique to Canberra: “If there were no formed footpaths defining property boundaries, residents often extended their front gardens right down to the curb,” Dianne said.

One of the problems of a city where front fences are banned.

The city’s footpaths are changing

Leon Arundell is the chair of pedestrian advocacy group Living Streets Canberra, and he’s keen to see a footpath on every Canberra street.

“About five years ago the Territory Plan was varied so that every new street in the territory has to have a footpath on at least one side, and the footpath has to be 1.5 metres wide,” he said.

“So the new suburbs are not going to be a big problem but we still have something like 1000 kilometres of streets in existing suburbs that still don’t have footpaths.”

Leon’s own street, in Downer, didn’t have a footpath until recently.

But even he admits that retrofitting footpaths is not ideal.

“It wasn’t just a case of putting a straight footpath along the street because the street had been built with trees … and light poles … and driveways,” he said.

“It’s much easier to build a footpath when you’re designing the street in the first place.”

Canberra residents can request new footpaths, path extensions and report ones that need repair via the government’s Fix My Street portal.

Robert Altamore, executive officer of People With Disabilities ACT, encourages the community to use the service.

“In situations where there are no footpaths, people with disabilities have to make the best of it … but it does make it a lot more difficult and a lot less safe,” he said.

More about our questioner:

Tony Kennedy’s first car came from Canberra, even though he was living in Melbourne at the time. The teacher spent 12 years living in Japan and is now based in the nation’s capital with his wife and daughter.

Overseas, Tony observed a ‘walking bus’ for students, who walked to school together. “Be great if we did it,” he said. “Perhaps some children could leave some of their excess energy in the morning, instead of [bringing it into] the classroom!”