Historic Canberra - why they put a city in the middle of a paddock

Historic Canberra - why they put a city in the middle of a paddock

The city of Canberra is a hidden gem. It’s the perfect-sized city – large enough to be well-serviced, but with a population small enough to feel like you’re part of the community. Geographically, you’re never more than 30 minutes from anywhere in Canberra. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who came to Canberra for work and has left, or locals who leave and don’t eventually return.  

Whilst Canberra celebrated its centenary in 2013, it is still one of the world’s youngest capital cities. The city was originally planned for a population of 25,000, but is now home to just under 400,000 people.

Parliament originally sat in Melbourne, however it was decided a capital city independent of Melbourne and Sydney was required. The selection criteria was that the site would be in NSW, but at least 100 miles away from Sydney, and that it had to be inland, to reduce the risk of attack from warships. The main contenders for the top spot included: Albury, Armidale, Bombala, Dalgety, Orange, Tumut, Wagga Wagga, Orange, and Yass-Canberra. Cool climates were considered favourable as they had previously “produced hardier races”! The sites were all visited and considered in the sweltering summer of 1902. The hot weather may have been partially responsible for the outcome of the vote (as places like Albury were unbearably hot during the tour), which was finalised in 1908 when Canberra was declared the new capital.

The running joke at the time was that “the city’s construction ruined a good sheep paddock”, given that there were initially more sheep than people in the area.

However, there have always been people living in the Canberra area. The indigenous Ngunnawal people have lived in the region for thousands of years. It is actually thought that the name ‘Canberra’ originated from an indigenous word meaning ‘meeting place’. The early 1800s marked a new chapter in the habitation of the Canberra area with the first European explorers arriving in 1820, followed by the first settlers in 1824. One of the oldest remaining buildings from Canberra’s early European settlement is St John the Baptist Anglican Church, found on the corner of Anzac Parade and Constitution Ave in Reid.

Building a capital city more-or-less from scratch was an immense undertaking at the time, made even more unique by the tendering of its design via an international design competition. Of the 137 entries received, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin reigned supreme and realised their vision of a “garden city with roads in concentric circles” (perhaps they initiated Canberra’s abundance of roundabouts!). As exciting as the Griffin’s original design was, sadly not all elements were implemented.  

Work on the city was halted from 1914 to 1918 due to the First World War, but the 1920s saw plans get back on track with construction of the first Parliament House and Cotter Dam. Progress was short-lived though, as the Great Depression and Second World War swiftly followed and stalled work until the 1950s. Following these tough times, Canberra’s population grew exponentially from 15,000 in 1947 to over 100,000 in 1967.

The Shine Dome (humorously referred to as the Martian Embassy) in Acton was one of the first projects commenced during Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ term during the late 1950s. This was followed by Lake Burley Griffin (completed in 1963), the Royal Australian Mint (1965), and the collection of buildings that make up the Parliamentary Triangle, such as The National Library in 1968 (the largest reference library in Australia, containing more than 5 million books), as well as the High Court and National Gallery in the early 1980s. Many of these buildings have a distinctive Modernist style.

Canberra is also unique in the way its “satellite” suburbs have been planned and developed, starting with Belconnen and Woden, and extending to Tuggeranong and Gungahlin in the 1980s and 90s. These self-sufficient townships take the pressure off Civic (Canberra’s centre) by deviating from the traditional ‘spoke-and-wheel’ city centre model. This is particularly effective when businesses and Government departments are located outside the city centre, such as the Department of Home Affairs in Belconnen. This means that people can live and work in different parts of the city, without having to commute to a central destination, thereby reducing traffic congestion.  

Canberra is often referred to as the ‘Bush Capital’ - a unique feature that many residents enjoy by utilising the abundance of trails around the city. As Canberra develops, there is a strong focus to maintain this connection to the bush by creating a sustainable urban environment with easy access to nature.

There are plenty of things to love about Canberra. In addition to Parliament and Government departments, Canberra is also home to two universities and a number of other educational institutions, the National Zoo and Aquarium, the Australian National Botanic Garden, National Arboretum, as well as galleries, shopping centres and sporting facilities. As a result, there is always something happening in Canberra. Canberra is a well-serviced city with facilities to rival other cities, but with a smaller population. So if you like feeling connected, but without the crowds, this is the place for you!

Additional reading:

·         Celebrate Canberra at the Canberra and Region Heritage Festival

·         Learn more about Canberra’s history

  • By admin
  • May 27, 2019

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