Canberra’s planning culture in the 21st century


  • Karl Fischer University of New South Wales
  • James Weirick University of New South Wales



This paper looks at the classic shift in planning culture from technocratic modernism to market-based neo-liberalism evidenced in many western democracies. The case study of the Australian capital Canberra provides particularly clear evidence of the underlying processes because in its formative years – and until the late 1980s – Canberra received political support at the Federal level that enabled professional planners to implement their vision of an ideal New Town and National Capital with exceptional perfectionism. Ironically, the neoliberal turn was conducted with a similar degree of perfectionism, throwing the changes into sharp relief and highlighting the mechanisms with great clarity. 

The neoliberal turn has now reached its apotheosis with substantial revisions to the National Capital Plan announced by the Australian Government in 2015. These signal the end of Federal involvement in metropolitan planning leaving overall city-making to local government and local development interests in the Australian Capital Territory. Cabinet Papers from the 1980s and early 1990s released over the past two years by the National Archives reveal that the withdrawal of Federal responsibility was advocated “behind the scenes” by neoliberal wings of government decades ago. 

As a consequence, the awkward division of planning responsibilities between Federal and local authorities established in 1990 has led to a quarter century of dysfunctional governance, manifest in proposals such as building on bushfire-prone, flood-prone and ecologically sensitive lands. The ideal concepts of planning of previous decades have been actively disregarded and forgotten. These include the decentralized network city established in the 1960s and 1970s, components of the National Capital Open Space System and 60 years of exemplary neighbourhood planning. 

The paper traces the mechanisms behind the neoliberal ethos that since the 1990s has contributed to the abnegation of planning standards and the production of disasters including bushfires which penetrated the city in 2002 and 2003, the latter a catastrophic firestorm. 

On the other hand, the reaction of a highly informed segment of the local population to the erosion of planning standards has generated campaigns to make Canberra a more sustainable and resilient city. International recognition along these lines has been sought and partially achieved since the turn of the century, beginning with an OECD study in 2002. The introduction of light rail in a hitherto car-dominated city is the strongest manifestation of the ‘Sustainable Canberra’ movement. The light rail project now in construction, initiated by a Labor-Greens coalition has emerged from a 25 year struggle for meaningful progress in sustainable development by citizen activists. 

There have been some positive outcomes from the neoliberal turn. For example, what was once a bleak city centre produced by rigid top-down planning has been developing fringe areas of vibrant urban culture oozing the seductive appeal of “unregulated space” with popup stores and restaurants providing a strong contrast to the city of modernity. In this latest phase of Canberra’s planning history, a new set of ideal concepts has thus emerged from the dialectic between neoliberal urbanism and the capital city planning ethos of the past. 


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How to Cite

Fischer, K., & Weirick, J. (2016). Canberra’s planning culture in the 21st century. International Planning History Society Proceedings, 17(5).