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This article builds on a talk given by Prof. Nick Brown (School of History, ANU) at a CPAG forum 21 April 2022, as refined by Dr Chris Braddick (CPAG)

The Canberra paradox: Australia made Canberra, just as much as Canberra governs Australia. Australians could learn a lot by asking what made Canberra. For a city that has no history, no past, which is always self-consciously being (re)made, it actually has many layers of history, secrets to be uncovered.

Deep History

The Ngunnawal and Ngambri worked with an expanse of territory that bore no relation to white borders. Open grasslands, shaped by Aboriginal burning practices and ecological processes, led into woodland and alpine forest offering cool retreats in summer and a seasonal harvest of Bogong moths. Indigenous people moved across a wide expanse of country. Usually living in small groups, they came together for ceremonies that impressed early European settlers. James Wright, born at Lanyon station in 1841, recalled growing up at Cuppacumbalong, further up the Murrumbidgee River, as ‘an unlimited out-of-doors’ existence, shared with ‘blackfellows, who to my childish brain seemed to me to be in number as the stars’.

Dispossession came quickly with white settlement. ‘Queen’ Nellie Hamilton – cast as the last of the Queanbeyan Aborigines, and who died in 1897—was remembered by John Gale as proclaiming the hypocrisy of white law: ‘Yah, yah! I don’t think much of your law, you come here and take my land … leave me starve’. But Indigenous peoples remained on and connected to their country to the extent that opportunities for work and resilience allowed. Two men—Jimmy Clements and ‘Marvellous’ John Noble who travelled to country shows offering boomerang demonstrations—dropped by to observe the opening of Parliament House. They were at least encouraged by the crowd to ‘do as they pleased’ when a policeman tried to move them on. For one local resident, these men were ‘the first Aboriginals I had seen’. A clergyman among the crowd declared they ‘had a better right than any man present’ to a place that day.

The New Federal Capital

The creation of the city itself was a very conscious intervention: the choice of site—neither Melbourne nor Sydney, but somewhere in between—and questions of health and climate outweighed the lack of connections the Limestone Plains had to the networks of the emergent nation: no railway; no town; no port; no name. King O’Malley, who would do much to influence the issue, argued for ‘a cold climate’ where ‘men can hope’ in activity rather than grow idle in comfort. From 1911 until 1928—thanks to O’Malley’s tee-total advocacy—those few residents were even denied the capacity to purchase alcohol (‘stagger juice’) within the territory.

As is well known, an international competition was held to design the capital city. In total, 137 designs were received: 42 from Australia, 41 from the United Kingdom, 20 from the United States, 12 from South Africa, 6 from France, 4 from Canada, 3 from New Zealand, as well as entrants from Finland, Hungary, India, Italy, Mexico and Rhodesia. Walter Burley Griffin’s winning vision for ‘an ideal city’ reflected the ‘radical steps in politics and economics’ he admired in the Australian nation. Developed in collaboration with his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, his scheme was a bold vision of organic urbanism laid gracefully across the plains, framed by hills and mountains, and infused with symbolism. In space and in symbolism, relationships were envisaged between functions of a capital, its people, institutions, and landscape. The heroic modernism of the Finnish Saarinen and the romanticism of France’s Agache were two of the paths not chosen – each in themselves indicating the remarkably open choice regarding what the city might be and mean.

Burley Griffin served as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction until 1920, but Australian architects (including Sir John Sulman) slowly and then completely insinuated themselves into the project. Griffin’s plan was modified for a variety of reasons. It was deemed unrealistic and unnecessarily expensive (Griffin projected serving a population of 75 000; those taking the reins thought at best 10 000). And rather than the Griffins’ integrated neighbourhood-based urban areas, with housing looking out onto shared parkland and framed around bold, radial boulevards, Sir John Butters’ Federal Capital Commission (1925-30) adapted to the halting pace of development after World War I. Instead it built scattered suburban precincts and bungalows with private gardens (but no front fences: everybody should be visible) in materials and on streets that reflected/affirmed social hierarchy: timber on straight roads for the middle; brink on gracious curves for the better; hostels for the rest. It was ideal in its way: a garden city and ‘the world’s biggest experiment in the systematisation of the happiness of humanity’. Some elements of Griffin’s streetscape survive in Reid, whereas Forrest, Griffith, Yarralumla or the missing rows of Westlake revealed new ideas. So from Canberra’s beginning there was genuine debate over planning: very different models; different ideas of the city, and of the nation. It could have been very different depending on Australia’s images of itself.

Planning is one thing, but in reality early growth was slow. There was little real investment, public or private. Parliament moved in 1927, but the surrounding city retained a transitory atmosphere. The population reached about 8 000 at end of the 1920s, and only 12 000 by the end of the 1930s. Even Parliament House was provisional. The final site was left to future generations to choose. The city before World War II was more defined by the people building it than those coming to serve the nation, who left as soon as they could.

The imperatives of wartime national government signalled the need for change, even if the National Capital Planning and Development Committee (1938-57), in seeking to ‘safeguard the Griffin plan and maintain the high aesthetic and architectural standards worthy of a National Capital’, lacked the power to coordinate still ad hoc pressures for development. Canberra was floundering.

The Post-war Boom

Post-1945 Australia needed a capital and it also needed a laboratory for the kind of social programs that were defining the new post-war nation. Large scale immigration led to an ethnically diverse pool of labour and drove community adaptability, albeit within limits. An example was Narrabundah with its prefabricated homes and numbered streets, where an infusion of European labouring families largely unintentionally created its own communities. There was mixing, if with a certain degree of friction on the sporting fields. Canberra would, often inadvertently, provide a laboratory of neighbourhood-based support for successive phases of immigrants – just as it did for the mothers, children, elderly and disadvantaged who did not neatly fit into assumptions of a public-service town.

The creation of the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) in 1958 brought the chance to integrate these diverse layers – if with an undoubtedly authoritarian approach. As Hugh Stretton observed in Ideas for Australian Cities (1970), while the parliamentary triangle might have remained unresolved, Canberra had become the exemplification of good urban planning in Australia. Suburbs adopted new models: free of congestion, homes only a pram push away from basic services (including child care, schools, shops, etc.), with a ‘peppering’ of public and private housing, and of densities, that could secure some genuine form of ‘social mix’. The NCDC’s Y-plan – formalised in 1966 – brought further coherence to this planning amidst the rapid growth of the city and certain assumptions about the balance between the urban and the environment as exemplified in the balance of services, employment and amenities to be offered by town centres as mediated by the family car. Woden can still be seen as the exemplar of this approach, with a variation in housing form, a mix of densities, and a careful regulation of land use still reflecting the fundamental ethos in Canberra’s conception. There was to be no ownership of land, but rather a 99-year leasehold system to avoid speculation in property and to maintain public control over zoning. But the town centres that followed had to adjust to shifting capacities and commitments to keep to these principles.

In these phases of development through the 1960s to the 1980s, Canberra was quick to feel the impact of the environmental movement, the women’s liberation movement, and parent power (e.g. lobbying for the ACT college system). Canberra was once again a laboratory for the nation, a vehicle for national policy, no longer just the capsule that accommodated the core of the nation’s public servants. Privileged yes, but it was testing the boundaries and responsibilities of privilege.


With self-government, ACT citizens were told that they needed to live like everyone else. Land was the ACT Government’s only asset once Commonwealth investment ‘normalised’, and inevitably this led to speculation. Meanwhile, strong local community engagement in planning processes largely dissipated. An educated, privileged community that understood how government worked and was used to taking the initiative, discovered there was little capacity for their voices to be heard.

With these past layerings and influences in mind, we might see the proposed new Planning Act as strong on planning mechanisms, but not on core guiding principles. There is no clear statement on what will guide the increasing flexibility, and nothing about the role of community, or what is still a very fragmented series of communities defined by interests and needs (generations, economic disadvantage, kids, the homeless, etc.). The history of Canberra has always shown that ‘community’ is not to be taken-for-granted or seen as self-evident. What kinds of communities are envisaged as engaging in the discussion?

In short, Canberra’s planning history has always been defined by paradoxes: the Griffin Plan was authoritarian (geometric, urban, with dense symbolism), but it also paid attention to parkland, recreational and ceremonial spaces. And if Canberra has been a much-derided experiment by Australians, it remains the case – as Don Watson observed ‘— it is like no other Australian town or city, yet no other Australian town or city is more Australian’. As the city has grown, so the balance between deterministic planners and community aspirations has shifted. Yet the latest proposed reforms appear to privilege the views of the Chief Planning Executive. Hence, planning in the ACT is likely to remain a contested space—and what is at stake is a reflection of wider pressures on the kind of model of urban planning Canberra has always been.

31 May 2022

Nicholas Brown, Professor of History at ANU


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