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Planning Capital Cities

Most Australian capital cities developed from small colonial settlements, and their formation tended to be dominated by the desire of government and military officials for urban order according to a well-known planning device that had existed from ancient times, a grid of streets. Towns and cities in the Australian colonies were often planned in distant London, with the Colonial Office producing plans to be imposed on the land, whether or not they suited a particular site.

The notion that generous public space and buffer zones between various categories of land use – administrative, commercial, industrial and residential – should be provided in order to enhance social amenity and public health emerged in the early years of the nineteenth century. The idea that cities and towns could also be beautiful and pleasant places was in part a reaction to the crowded slums of industrial cities. A wide range of reformers emerged with plans ranging from model industrial communities to utopian societies.

From the Renaissance onwards planners employed by rulers of some city-states also prompted developments in urban design. They achieved grand effects using bold geometry to create monumental architectural and landscape ensembles, such as Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles and Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for Washington DC, and inspired a school of city planning called the City Beautiful movement. Nineteenth-century park and city plans aimed also to inspire civic pride, and large-scale recreational spaces such as New York’s Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, were set aside for citizens’ leisure.

Another key influence on city planning in the early twentieth century was the Garden City movement. The plan devised in the 1830s for the city of Adelaide, with its belt of encircling parklands, set it apart from other colonial capital cities in Australia, and it was featured in the foundational text of the Garden City movement, Ebenezer Howard’s Tomorrow: a peaceful path to real reform of 1898 and its second edition, Garden Cities of Tomorrow of 1902. This advocated that new towns be planned, self-contained communities surrounded by ‘greenbelts’ separating housing from industry and combining the best of the city and the countryside.

While there is considerable controversy over whether the colony of South Australia’s Surveyor-General, Colonel William Light, can be credited with the sole responsibility for the plan of Adelaide, or whether others such as George Strickland Kingston and Rowland Hill also either originated the plan or contributed to it, Light’s name is the one associated with the Adelaide plan in the public mind. One fact is not disputed: Adelaide was the first town planned in the world using Trigonometrical survey for cadastral purposes.

The William Light Collection items distributed across four institutions – History South Australia, City of Adelaide Civic Collection, State Library of South Australia, and State Records of South Australia – cover the period from 1809-1841, and contain significantly more than the plan for Adelaide. There is correspondence to and from individuals and organisations in South Australia and London; notebooks; diaries (including Light’s journal of his service in the Duke of Wellington’s army as reconnaissance officer in the Peninsular War); and sketchbooks and artworks depicting Light’s travels in the Mediterranean, demonstrating that he possessed an artistic ‘eye’. The papers give an insight into the problems Light faced and how he dealt with them, and are a significant body of material relating to the early years of an Australian colony based on systematic colonisation and planning principles.

The winner of the 1911-12 competition to design the new federal capital of the Commonwealth of Australia, Chicago-based landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin, said of his plan for the city to be named ‘Canberra’ in 1913: ‘I have planned an ideal city – a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future.’

Griffin’s plan, exquisitely rendered by his wife and fellow architect, Marion Mahony Griffin, employed a geometrical approach that owed much to Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for Washington of 1792, and fellow Chicagoan Daniel Burnham’s plan for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and his unrealised 1908 plan for that city. Two major axes – land and water – define the National Triangle and, combined with minor axes, create impressive vistas and links to the surrounding hills. The landscape setting for the city gave Griffin the opportunity to create, in the Land Axis that extends from Mount Ainslie to Mount Bimberi and traverses the Australian War Memorial and Parliament House, ‘one of the great landscape axes of the world’.1 The Water Axis created by the lake that bears his name was completed in 1964. The Griffins believed that cities could become places of social reform, and elements of their plan also incorporated Garden City principles, whereby value would be retained in the community through a leasehold system for land.

Federal Capital Design No. 29 Burley Griffin

Federal Capital Design No. 29 Burley Griffin, full view from Mount Ainslie, National Archives of Australia, A710, 48

The National Archives of Australia hold The Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin Design Drawings of the City of Canberra. They provide inspiration for today’s planners who seek to honour the Griffins’ legacy, and remind us of their glowing vision for ‘an ideal city’. The plan of Adelaide that bears Light’s name, and the Griffin plan, have influenced city planning around the world.

1Ken Taylor, ‘The Hunt Is On’, in Ken Taylor and David Headon (eds), Canberra: The Guide, HarperCollins, Sydney, 1997, p. 28.

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