Is Canberra a Real City?

Canberra, the federal capital of Australia, is a purpose-built city. It was designed specially to house the Australian government and did not exist prior to this undertaking on the 12th March 1913. Barely a century old, it lacks the gravitas of an Athens or Rome. Even, Washington DC dates back to around 1791 and included pre-existing towns like Georgetown and Alexandria. Canberra, however, in European terms was formerly a place to graze sheep upon. Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal people, had inhabited the area for thousands of years and archaeological evidence in the form of rock paintings confirm that. The question, often, asked on the basis of its provenance is, “is Canberra a real city?”

Canberra Could Have Been Named Eucalypta

Sydneysiders and Melburnians have long looked down their noses at the public servants and others who reside in the nation’s capital. They see it as a fake city lacking any real history or true grit. Walter Burley Griffin, an American architect, won the competition to design the new capital, with substantial input from his wife Marion Mahoney Griffin. The Royal Military College at Duntroon was the first Commonwealth institution to open within the newly defined Australian Capital Territory (ACT).  Canberra could have been named: Eucalypta; Cookaburra; Wattleton; Federalia; or Austral. Too ostentatious, perhaps?

Many New Arrivals were Less than Impressed

Making an impression is the first and foremost requirement of a nation’s capital city, in my view. The beginnings of Canberra struggled to emerge from the its bush setting and tent camps and shanty towns housed the legions of construction workers in the 1920s. Many Melburnians forced to relocate to the new capital were less than impressed with their new accommodation. Grumblings were heard far and wide about the conditions they had to endure. It took many decades before Canberra was to be lauded as a gourmet destination.

Canberra Lacked the Character of a Sydney or Melbourne

It was so unlike Sydney and the other state capital cities in its parochial limitations. Aussies constantly asked, is Canberra a real city? The answer was, usually, a resounding no. Canberra lacked the character bestowed on cities by their poorest citizens who resided in inner city slums. Canberra had no slums. It was a city or regional centre grafted onto a sheep field. It was too perfectly laid out by designers and engineers. Its streets and boulevards too straight and wide. Where were the crooked lanes inherent in a Sydney or Melbourne?