A Changing Capital

A Changing Capital
Reflecting on Canberra in 1968
12 March 2018

As we celebrate Canberra Day 2018, it is timely to reflect on the city fifty years ago. A story about Canberra is included in the Library’s new exhibition 1968: Changing Times. While researching for the display I was amazed to discover the scale of development the nation’s capital experienced in the 1960s. A tourist map of the city provides a snapshot of the urban sprawl of Canberra in 1968; compared with today, it had a much smaller footprint. The Library’s collections include important material, such as this map, which is featured in the exhibition.

Survey Branch, Department of the Interior, Canberra, A.C.T., Tourist Map Canberra, Australian Capital Territory  1968, © Commonwealth of Australia (Geoscience Australia), nla.cat-vn191437

The development of Canberra into a world-class national capital was a focus in 1968. Since its creation in the late 1950s, the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) oversaw planning of the city. Sir John Overall (1913–2001) was the inaugural Commissioner of the NCDC from 1957 until 1972. He is celebrated for reinstating aspects of the Griffins’ plan for Canberra.

Photograph of John Overall and Doug Anthony on Hindmarsh Drive in 1967, Papers of Sir John Overall, nla.cat-vn1109579

In 1968, the NCDC’s efforts concentrated on the Parliamentary Triangle, a ceremonial precinct in the heart of the city that was home to the Provisional Parliament House and the new National Library of Australia. Matters such as the location of planned buildings of national significance and their architectural qualities were debated with a view to establishing a uniform character in the area.

The building for the National Library of Australia, with its white marble façade, was intended to set the benchmark for the Triangle. It was to be joined on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin by the new Parliament House. In 1968 that plan was abandoned and Parliament House (which opened in 1988) was eventually built on Capital Hill, an area previously earmarked for a ‘cultural and historical centre’.

The Triangle and Capital Hill, National Capital Development Commission, 1968, nla.cat-vn86863

The NCDC was also concerned with the suburban infrastructure required to accommodate necessary population growth. Developed from the mid-1960s, Woden and Belconnen were the first in a series of satellite towns developed in Canberra. The towns were designed to be independent from Civic—the city centre—with their own shopping centres and public amenities. In 1968, Woden was marketed as a forward-looking area offering modern townhouse living. That year, suburban blocks of land in Belconnen were available for purchase; the area was designed to cater to the expanding number of young families in Canberra.

Fifty years on, the planning decisions made in 1968 have had a lasting impact on the city. The NCDC’s legacy can be seen throughout Canberra. One can only speculate about how the nation’s capital will grow and change over the next fifty years. If you have any predictions, please share them below.