Building a Model City


THE Commonwealth Government of Australia is building, on a virgin site in the bush, a Federal Capital which is to be the most beautiful garden city in the world. This new city has begun its career under most favored conditions, although there was a great deal of political wirepulling before the site was finally selected by the Commonwealth Parliament. Within the limitations fixed by the Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth it is an ideal site. It is in the east of Australia, in the State of New South Wales, about 80 miles from the coast, 35 degrees south of the equator and 149 degrees east of Greenwich. It lies in an amphitheatre of hills, with an outlook toward the north and the northeast. The average altitude above sea level is 1800 feet. The site consists of gently undulating country, and prominent hills of moderate altitude have been reserved in the plan of the city for the erection of public buildings. The chief eminence has been named Capitol Hill, and there, in imitation of Washington, the Parliamentary buildings will be erected. A ‘temporary’ building in which the Commonwealth Parliament will meet for the first time in May next, when the seat of Government will be formally transferred from Melbourne to the new city, has just been completed at a cost of $2,500,000. This two-story structure is built of stone and will last for a hundred years, but it is officially regarded as temporary, because the intention of the Government is to erect in the distant future, on the opposite side of Capitol Hill, a more costly and beautiful building as the permanent home of the Commonwealth Parliament.

The name of Australia’s new Federal Capital is Canberra. The accent in the name has been officially placed on the first syllable, to preserve the aboriginal sound of the word; but for some years Australians have been accustomed to place the accent on the second syllable, and it is by no means certain that the official edict will triumph over custom.

Building operations have been carried out on the site for six years, but progress has been comparatively slow, and it will be many years before the city becomes a place of any importance apart from its official status. Its population at present is less than 5000, and more than half consists of workmen engaged in building houses, making streets, laying down water supply, electric light, and sewerage, and laying out public parks and gardens.

But, despite its small size and its unfinished condition, Canberra will become, next May, the capital of Australia. The Duke of York will formally open the first session of Parliament on May 9, 1927. He will make the voyage from England to Australia in the British battleship Renown, and the transfer of the seat of Government from Melbourne — with a population of 900,000 — to Canberra will be carried out with much stately ceremony. Owing to the small size of the new city, the accommodation available on this occasion will be sufficient to provide only for the numerous official guests. Members of the general public who desire to attend will have to camp in tents and provide their own meals.

In opening the first session of Parliament at the new seat of Government, the Duke of York will be following in the footsteps of his father, who exactly twenty-six years before, when he was Duke of York, inaugurated the federation of the six Australian States by opening the first session of the first Commonwealth Parliament in Melbourne.

Although Parliament will continue to meet at Canberra every year, ministers will continue, for some years to come, to carry out much of their official work in Melbourne when Parliament is in recess. A first batch of civil servants, numbering about 600, will be transferred to Canberra early in 1927, in time to get settled down to work before the opening of Parliament in May. The Federal Capital Commission, which is invested with the responsibility of building the city and of controlling its affairs, will have at least 500 new houses ready by the time the influx begins. Civil servants will have the option of purchasing these houses from the Commission for cash, or on terms extending over twenty-five years. Those who do not wish to purchase houses will be able to rent them from the Commission. Those who prefer to build their own houses and employ their own architects to design them will be able to obtain sites from the Commission on lease; but no house or building of any kind may be erected until the design has received the approval of the Commission.

The Commission has built twentyseven different standard types of houses, and in order to prevent residential streets from presenting an appearance of monotonous regularity no street will contain a row of houses of the same type. The rents will range from $4.50 a week for a four-roomed cottage, suitable for a workman and his family, up to $15 a week for a better house of seven rooms, suitable for civil servants who have incomes of upward of $4000 a year. The purchase prices of these standard houses built by the Commission will range from $4500 to $9700, according to type and size, but the price will not include purchase of the land. The ownership of all land within the city site, and of more than three fourths of the total 900 square miles of Federal territory of which the city forms part, is invested in the Government, and it has been decided by Parliament that not a foot of it shall be alienated. The Federal Capital Commission has power to grant leases for ninety years, at a rent of 5 per cent of the unimproved value of the land.

All the houses built by the Commission will be single-story, as is the general rule throughout Australia, and they will contain many labor-saving devices. In this direction, as in many others, Australia has in recent years been departing from inherited English practice, and has been copying American customs. Hot water will not be laid on throughout the house, as is the custom in America, for no central heating apparatus will be installed. Australia’s winter is very mild and lasts for only two months. The English system of open fires is followed, but as the sun shines brightly even on most of the winter days, it is only in the winter evenings that fires are required as a rule.

The site for Canberra was selected mainly because its contour and topographical features lend themselves to the construction of a model city. And in 1911 the Commonwealth Government instituted a world-wide competition for designs for the new capital. Three prizes of $8750, $3750, and $2500 were offered. The competition was widely advertised in Europe and America in order to attract the attention of architects and town planners in the chief countries of the world. Competitors were requested to give special consideration to the allocation of appropriate areas, suitably situated, for public buildings and offices, and for commercial, residential, and industrial purposes. Experts from many countries sent in designs, and the first prize was awarded to an American architect, Mr. Walter Burley Griffin of Chicago. The second prize went to M. Eliel Saarinen of Helsingfors, Finland, and the third to M. D. Alf. Agache of Paris.

Mr. Griffin’s design, which has been somewhat modified by the Federal Capital Commission, provides for several artificial lakes, supplied with water by the Molonga River, which flows through the site. On the north side of the river will be the civic quarter, with the town hall occupying the most commanding position. On the south side will be the Government quarter, with the Parliamentary buildings on Capitol Hill, the most elevated area of land within the site. The town hall and the Parliamentary buildings will be about two miles apart. A large central park will surround the Parliamentary buildings, and outside the park, on a succession of terraces reaching down to an artificial lake, other public buildings will be erected.

All the main roads will radiate from Capitol Hill as the most commanding point of the city. In this respect and in certain others Canberra will correspond to the design of Washington, which has its main thoroughfares radiating from the Capitol. The chief streets will be 200 feet wide, so as to give ample room for a strip of garden down the centre and the sides. Many town planners regard such enormously wide streets as an artistic mistake, and prefer irregular streets of moderate width, which follow the contour of the land. At Canberra the streets will be laid out on a rectangular plan. Outside the city area of twelve square miles, a belt of country — over 150 square miles — will be reserved for parks and public purposes. One of the essentials of a garden city is that it be surrounded by a belt of open country or agricultural land, but few garden cities could afford 150 square miles.

There will be numerous parks, public gardens, and open spaces within the city; around every public building there will be a garden. All the streets will be lined with trees. Special efforts will be made to beautify with trees, garden plots, and fountains the corners where main streets intersect. Every plot of ground on which a house is built will have room for a flower garden in front and a kitchen garden at the back. Trimmed hedges instead of fences will separate the house plots from the streets. The Commission will not allow a fence to be erected at the frontage of any dwelling site. Each block of houses will have a communal garden, where the children will be able to play and the adults to sit amid beautiful surroundings when they are at leisure. The needs of young children are being catered for by large playing grounds in the suburbs, fitted with swings and Maypoles. Sports grounds for football, cricket, tennis, and golf are being prepared, and swimming baths will be built at several places along the river bank. All this work is being done by the Commission, as the trustees of a city owned by the people of Australia.


It might be thought that there would be eager competition to live in such an ideal city, but on the contrary the civil servants who are to be transferred are protesting loudly. In Canberra there are no theatres and no daily newspapers; there are no trams and few shops. The educational facilities provided at present are only for young children, and therefore civil servants whose boys and girls are attending the higher schools in Melbourne, or the university, must leave them behind to finish their education. This means an expense which not many can afford. In the new city there will be very few business or professional openings for their children when they have to begin to earn their own living, and therefore they will have to be sent away to the large cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne. This will mean a severance of family ties at a time when young men and women are in need of parental supervision and guidance, and it will involve the parents in expense, as the salaries earned by the young people will not be sufficient to keep them until they have been at work several years.

The civil servants complain that the cost of living will be 20 per cent higher in Canberra than in Melbourne, and they are demanding that the Government shall make up this difference in the form of a bonus on their salaries. It is the general experience that all manufactured goods are dearer in country towns than in the big cities, though meat and vegetables are cheaper in the country. The civil servants also complain that the prices of the houses they are asked to buy are much higher than the prices of similar houses in Melbourne. It is officially admitted that the prices of the Commission’s houses are higher, but this is due to the fact that the costs of construction are higher, as labor and materials cost more in the country. Another grievance in connection with housing was ventilated by the civil servants, but this has been removed by the Government. It was said that when hundreds of them had to leave Melbourne simultaneously for Canberra they would not be able to sell their homes except at a considerable loss, as the placing of several hundred houses on the market simultaneously would bring down the value of such property. The Government has decided to take over, at a reasonable valuation, the houses owned by civil servants who are transferred. These properties will be disposed of gradually, so as not to glut the market.

The civil servants have another grievance in the fact that, as Canberra grows and property becomes more valuable, they will not derive any benefit from the increased value of the land on which their houses are built. The benefit of all increases in land values will be reaped by the Commission as trustees of the nation, because none of the land will be sold to private owners. As already stated, it will be let on lease, and the leaseholders must pay as rent 5 per cent of the unimproved value. Purchasers of ninetyyear leases will not have their rents increased during the first twenty years of occupation, but then and after the land will be revalued for rental purposes every ten years.

The wives of civil servants are loud in their complaints. They will be separated from friends and relations, and will have to begin life again in a small community. The shops in the new city will be so few and their stocks so small that shopping will be robbed of all its joys. There will be no plays to see in the evenings, for Canberra as yet is too small to support a theatre. The main source of entertainment will be one movie theatre. The Commission has laid down an electric plant for power, heating, and lighting; so far, however, it has not installed a coal-gas supply. The houses are equipped with fire stoves, but those householders who want electric stoves must provide them. In the great majority of houses in Australia the cooking is done on gas stoves, and those housewives who have to make their homes in Canberra hate the idea of going back to fire stoves, or adopting the new fashion of electric stoves.

The Commission is endeavoring to placate the dissatisfied civil servants and their wives. It has been arranged that their household furniture shall be conveyed free of charge. It will be packed and unpacked without cost to the owners. A civil servant has only to give the Commission written instructions as to how he wants his furniture arranged in the various rooms, and he will find, when he enters his new home, that the carpets have been laid, the beds set up, the pictures hung on the walls, the crockery, pots, and pans put in their places, and a bowl of flowers arranged on the hall table. During the interval while his furniture is being transferred from Melbourne to Canberra, he and his wife and family will be the guests of the Commission at one of the hotels.

An honorary committee of residents will be appointed in each suburb to arrange programmes of outdoor and indoor amusements. A recreation hall is being built in each suburb, and it will be the duty of the committee to arrange amateur theatrical performances and concerts. Lending libraries and welfare centres are being established. An appeal has been issued by the Commission to prospective residents of the Federal Capital to cultivate ‘the community spirit,’ so that everyone will contribute to the task of making life in the new city bright and happy.

The legislators who are to shift the scene of their labors from Melbourne to Canberra view the prospect philosophically, for they will not have to transfer their homes. They will not have to endure the discomforts and limitations of the new city for more than six months of the year, and some of them will be able to reach their homes for week-ends. There are only 111 Members of the Commonwealth Parliament — 75 in the House of Representatives and 36 in the Senate. For most of them the journey to Canberra wall be longer and more inconvenient than the journey to Melbourne has been. The distance by rail from Melbourne to Canberra is 500 miles, with a break in the middle, owing to the difference in the railway gauges of the two States of Victoria and New South Wales. Canberra is not on the main railway line which connects Melbourne and Sydney, and it has been proposed to build a branch line from Canberra to the nearest point of the main railway at Yass, but the Federal Public Works Committee reported against it. The cost would exceed $3,750,000 and the revenue would be small. Much of the passenger traffic would consist of Members of Parliament, who travel free, and civil servants whose fares when on official duty would be debited against the Government.

The Federal Capital Commission is building four residential hotels, four boarding houses, and five hundred dwelling houses. For a time the Commission will itself run these hotels and boarding houses, but it will later on transfer the management to private enterprise. The Commission’s municipal socialism extends not only to the ownership and management of water supply, electricity supply, and a motor-bus service, but also to the ownership and management of a laundry and bakery business; but its activities in these directions are not to be regarded as experiments in municipal socialism so much as necessities evoked by exceptional conditions in starting a new city. Compared with American hotels, the tariffs at the Commission’s hotels at Canberra will be modest. The minimum tariff at the principal hotel where Members of Parliament will stay during the Parliamentary session will be five dollars a day, including meals. Two of the other hotels will charge three dollars, and the fourth will provide board and lodging for single men at ten dollars a week, for married couples at sixteen dollars, and for single women at seven dollars a week.

At present Canberra is ‘dry.’ It is the only city in Australia where prohibition prevails, although, as the result of local option polls, the hotels in a few municipal areas in Melbourne and other cities have been closed for some years past. But the closing of such hotels does not mean absolute prohibition in these areas. Bottled liquors of all kinds can still be obtained from grocers licensed to sell them. There is a prohibition organization in Australia which has gained in strength since prohibition came into legal operation in the United States, but it has not much political influence. During the war the trading hours of hotels in Australia were reduced, the closing hour being fixed at 6 P. M. Previously hotels were open until 11 P.M. or midnight. The reduction of hours has met with such general approval that the liquor trade does not contemplate any attempt to obtain an extension.

But there is very little support among the people of Australia for prohibition, and it is doubtful if the new Federal Capital will remain dry for any length of time. It was made dry originally when building operations were begun, to prevent drunkenness among the two to three thousand workmen.

The majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament are not prohibitionists or teetotalers. A committee of the two Houses, which discussed the question of liquor at Canberra, passed a resolution in favor of the retention of the Parliamentary refreshment bar when Parliament is transferred to Canberra. But the House of Representatives felt that it would be invidious for Members of Parliament to be able to obtain liquor while residents of the Federal city were unable to do so. It was therefore planned by Parliament to give residents of Canberra the opportunity of deciding by a local option poll whether liquor shall be sold in the Federal Capital as elsewhere in Australia. The question of opening a refreshment bar will be deferred until the local option poll is taken. Much will be heard during the campaign concerning the great benefits and deplorable disasters which prohibition has brought about in the United States. The campaign will be restricted to a very limited area, — to a population of about 5000, — but the issue whether the Federal Capital of Australia is to be wet or dry is of some importance to both sides.


The story of how Canberra came to be built is of interest, because it provides one of several instances of the way in which the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia has copied the Constitution of the United States. The Australian Constitution, as originally drafted, contained no provision for building a Federal Capital. There was jealousy between the two most important States, New South Wales and Victoria, as to which of them should have the capital within its borders. There was a movement to make Sydney, the largest city in Australia and the capital of New South Wales, — which is the oldest of the six Australian States, — the Federal Capital, but this was vigorously opposed by some of the other States, especially by Victoria. The men who drafted the Constitution thought it best to postpone this controversial question until after the popular vote on the acceptance of the Constitution had been taken; but the vote in New South Wales in favor of the Constitution, though greater than the vote against it, fell short of the total fixed by the Parliament of that State as a condition of acceptance, and therefore another convention of representatives of the six States was held to amend the Constitution so as to make it acceptable to New South Wales. One of the chief amendments was the inclusion of a clause similar to Article I, Section 8 of the American Constitution, which deals with the seat of Government. It was laid down in the amended Constitution that the seat of Government should be in Federal territory, situated in New South Wales. This was a sop to that State; but, in order to appease other States which were opposed to Sydney’s being the Federal Capital, the clause provided that the Federal territory should be at least 100 miles from Sydney; and as a sop to Victoria it was provided that the Commonwealth Parliament should meet in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, until the Federal Capital should be built.

It was generally expected, when the Commonwealth Parliament came into existence in 1901, that not more than ten years would elapse before Parliament would sit in the new capital. But when Parliament began to function it had more urgent matters to attend to than building the capital, and for twenty-six years Melbourne has remained the temporary seat of Government. Members of successive Parliaments— with the exception of representatives of constituencies in New South Wales — were in no hurry to give up the comforts of Melbourne and transfer the scene of their labors to a new city in the bush. The war was also a factor in lengthening the delay. But the original cause of delay was the selection of a site.

This was a matter on which the other States had open minds, but representatives from New South Wales contested with much vigor the rival claims of sites within their own constituencies. In 1903 a Seat of Government Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, with the locality of the site left blank so as to allow Parliament to decide by a majority on the locality, but the final choice of Canberra was not made until 1908.

The American Constitution provided that the seat of Government should not exceed ten miles square, the equivaent of 100 square miles. The Australian Constitution, when amended to provide that the seat of Government should be in New South Wales, provided that the Federal territory should be not less than 100 square miles. The Act passed by Parliament fixing the site at Yass-Canberra provided that the area of the Federal territory should be not less than 900 square miles, and should have access to the sea, the object of extending the territory being mainly to give the Commonwealth control over the catchment areas of the small rivers which flow through the YassCanberra site. It was also provided that all the land within these 900 square miles which belonged to the Crown — that is, the unalienated land which belonged to the Government of New South Wales — should be transferred by that Government to the Commonwealth Government without payment. In order to avoid having to pay an extravagant price for the purchase of private lands within the selected territory, it was fixed by statute that the price paid by the Commonwealth Government to private owners must not exceed the value of the land on the date that the Act was passed. The highest price thus paid as compensation to private landowners within the Federal territory for the resumption of land has been $15 an acre. For some of this land within the city site, which has been leased by the Federal Capital Commission to private persons for building purposes, rents aggregating $4000 an acre per annum are being received by the Commission. It will be seen that the building of the capital promises to be a very profitable enterprise for the Commission as trustees of the nation.

Public life in Australia is remarkably free from graft, and there has been no suggestion of graft at any stage in connection with the site and the building of the city.

Access from Canberra to the sea has been provided by the Government of New South Wales granting the Commonwealth Government the right to construct a railway to Jervis Bay, 120 miles away. An area of two square miles at Jervis Bay has also been granted by New South Wales to the Commonwealth for the purpose of providing port facilities.

Canberra is 204 miles front Sydney — more than twice the distance required by the Constitution. It is 429 miles from Melbourne; 912 from Adelaide, the capital of the State of South Australia; 929 from Brisbane, the capital of Queensland; and over 2500 miles from Perth, the capital of Western Australia.

The building of Canberra on a virgin site has increased enormously the value of the land, but the Commonwealth Government reaps all the benefit. The greater part of the Federal territory of 900 square miles was Crown land, transferred to the Commonwealth free of charge. The Government has spent about $3,750,000 in acquiring land from private owners, who had used it mainly for grazing sheep. The Capital Commission has held several auction sales of business and residential sites within the twelve square miles reserved. The prices realized reveal what a big asset the Commission possesses, and what a big annual revenue will ultimately be obtained. Some of the business blocks in the centre of the city — which for the most part is still unbuilt — realized at auction $400 per foot frontage. The bidding for some of the best corner blocks, consisting of one sixth of an acre, reached $18,000. This represents the unimproved value of the land, and the bidder pays the Commission an annual rent of 5 per cent of his bid. Eventually the Commission will have an annual income of millions of dollars from the rents of business and residential blocks in the new city. This income will wipe out the cost of construction, including the cost of many large public buildings, and will eventually provide a surplus that will be paid into the national treasury.

Steps have been taken to prevent land speculators from making money out of the Federal Capital. The fact that not a foot of land can be sold outright by the Commission eliminates the speculator to a considerable extent, but it is also desired to eliminate the speculator in leases. There is a provision in every lease that building operations must be begun within twelve months of the purchase of the lease, and completed within another twelve months. No lease can be sold by the original purchaser until the building conditions have been fullilled. But so rapid has been the increase in land values that some original purchasers of leases have been able to sell out at considerable profit.

The remainder of the Federal territory outside the city area — with the exception of 150 square miles reserved as a belt of open country round the city, and 170 square miles forming the catchment area of the chief river providing the city water supply — is being leased as farms and grazing areas.

In appointing a commission of three members to control the construction and development of Canberra, the Commonwealth Government followed the example of the United States in connection with Washington. But the Canberra commissioners hope to profit by some of the mistakes made at the American capital, which was laid out before the garden-city idea was born. The leasehold system with regard to land at Canberra gives the nation, instead of the individual, the unearned increment arising from increased values of land. Moreover, the fact that the Commission controls the whole of the land means that it controls the development of the city according to plan. Washington has not developed according to the design on which it was laid out, but has spread in a northwesterly direction, with the result that the Capitol, instead of being the centre of the city, is on the southeastern outskirts. But the Canberra Commission can prevent development in any one direction at the expense of the general plan of the city. It throws open only a limited number of blocks of land at a time, and therefore it can carry on development in all quarters of the compass successively. The building provisions in the leases will also be a factor in the development of the city according to plan. Blocks of land cannot remain vacant while leaseholders wait for a rise in values; nor can huge unsightly buildings of many stories be erected in the business quarter. It is doubtful if Canberra will ever become an important industrial city, but the design provides for an industrial area, separated from the business, governmental, and residential districts.

What form of municipal government shall be instituted will be left for the Commonwealth Parliament to decide. To deprive residents of the right to elect a municipal body to govern the affairs of the city would be opposed to the democratic sentiment of Australians, but on the other hand it will be necessary for the Capital Commission to retain extensive powers in connection with the construction, development, and government of the city. Residents of Canberra — like those of Washington — will have no Parliamentary vote. The Commonwealth Parliament would be willing to give them the vote, but for a great many years the city will be too small in population to justify its being given the right to elect a member of the House of Representatives; and, being Federal territory, it cannot be amalgamated for electoral purposes with any of the adjoining Federal constituencies of the State of New South Wales.

All over the world the people interested in town planning and gardencity ideals are looking to Australia. Canberra has advantages that no other garden city in the world possesses. The site has been selected because of the advantages it offers for such building; there are no private property rights to be considered; there is a great deal of public money available. Although the garden-city movement, which owes its origin to Mr. Ebenezer Howard’s book, Garden Cities of Tomorrow, — first published in 1898 under the title, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, — has spread to all civilized countries, there are very few garden cities in the world. There are some hundreds of garden suburbs and small areas laid out on town-planning lines. New York has a ‘Garden City,’ which, however, has no claims to be regarded as a city; London has a garden suburb at Golders Green, and twenty miles away at Welwyn a small garden city is being built as the first of a series of satellite towns which will be ringed round London. There are small communities living under model housing conditions at a score of places in England, of which Port Sunlight and Bourneville are the best known, and there are somewhat similar model housing areas in other European countries. But the world’s only example of a complete garden city is Letchworth in England, where in 1904 six square miles of land in an agricultural district were purchased by the First Garden City Limited to enable Mr. Ebenezer Howard to give practical expression to his plans. Letchworth is planned to carry a population of 35,000 on an area of two square miles, the remainder of the land forming an agricultural belt round the city. There are now about forty factories in Letchworth, operating in a specially planned industrial area, and the population numbers 12,000. The streets are wide, and are lined with gardens and trees. The workers have good homes with plenty of air and sunlight, and each house has a small garden.

But Canberra is being laid out on a much larger and more elaborate scale. Far more money will be expended in making it a model city than any private company can afford in making Letchworth beautiful. Already more than $10,000,000 has been expended, though little more than a beginning has been made. The public buildings to be erected will rival the magnificent public buildings at Washington. As the Federal Capital of a country which is almost as large as Europe, Canberra has a great future before it; as a State-owned city, it is a unique experiment in civic government; as a garden city, it is destined to prove an inspiring example to town planners in all parts of the world.