Explanatory statement

Section 9 of the Australian Capital Territory (Planning and Land Management) Act 1988 (the Act) states that the object of the National Capital Plan (the Plan) is to ensure that Canberra and the Territory are planned and developed in accordance with their national significance.

In order to establish an effective relationship between the Commonwealth’s role in the planning and development of Canberra and the Territory as the National Capital, and the ACT Government’s role in the planning and development of the Territory in the interests of good government of the Territory, it is essential to have an understanding of the implications and intent of the concept of ‘national significance’ as presented in the Plan.

Part One provides a narrative describing the national significance of Canberra and the Territory. This narrative describes the aspiration of our forebears and the subsequent selection of the site for the nation’s capital, the winning plan for a city which now symbolises Australian democracy, the values, ideas and achievements of Australian people, and the city as a place of foreign representation. Following this narrative, a series of ‘matters of national significance’ are nominated. These matters of national significance are those considered vital to advancing the aspects of Canberra and the Territory which are special to the character of the city and to the National Capital role.

Having regard to the national significance of Canberra and the Territory and the matters of national significance, Part One specifies Designated Areas in accordance with section 10(1) of the Act. These areas represent those places and spaces deemed to have the special characteristics of the National Capital.

1.1 Matters of National Significance

Canberra is nationally significant as a major outcome and symbol of the Federation of Australia and home of Australia’s democracy. The city was conceived as an ideal city, a National Capital worthy of the aspirations, passions, values and patriotism of the Federation movement for the fledgling Australian nation. Canberra is home to the Parliament and Executive, is the centre of national administration and home to many of Australia’s national institutions. It is a city which embodies the Australian spirit, and symbolises Australian life and achievement.

Canberra is one of the few cities in the world designed on a greenfield site through an international town planning competition. The result of this is a city in which the character and setting are unique – a beautiful city of identifiably Australian character, based on ‘city beautiful’ and ‘garden city’ town planning concepts prevalent at the time of the city’s inception.

An international competition for the design of Australia's National Capital was announced in 1911. Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin's (the Griffins’) winning plan, on which the development of Canberra was first based, was more than sympathetic to the aspirations of those in Federal Parliament at the time. The Griffins’ used the topography to provide fitting sites, approaches, outlooks and backdrops for great buildings to house the nation's major institutions of democracy, for ceremonial occasions, and for other purposes related to the national functions of the city. The open space system, the hills, and grand avenues accentuate natural axes and become both the symbolic and functional base for the Capital.

Adherence to the vision of the National Capital as a ‘great and beautiful city’, has ensured that the immediate landscape setting of the City as well as the distant mountains in the Australian Capital Territory have been consciously protected from development; has protected the environment of the ACT from excessive pollution; has created the open space system which separates individual towns yet binds the whole together into the city of Canberra; and has preserved the integrity of land and buildings for national purposes.

As the seat of Australia’s robust democracy, Canberra provides the Australian community with public spaces for vibrant exchange between the citizenry and their parliamentary representatives. Canberra has been the site for momentous decisions and movements for change that have impacted on the lives of all Australians and continue to resonate today.

The city is significant for its role in commemoration – the celebration of people, events or ideas that have meaning and value for the community, and sites or objects which are a physical expression of prevailing ideas and beliefs of the Australian people. The central areas of Canberra are home to the many commemorative works representing people, ideas and events that have cultural significance for the nation, which reflect the evolving values, ideas and aspirations of the Australian community, and which contribute to the education of all Australians by enhancing our sense of place and increasing our understanding of cultural diversity.

The major criteria defined in the aspirations of our first Members of Parliament and translated so eloquently in the Griffins’ plans, are the keys to the character of the Canberra of today. These principles and the city they produced were judged to be of national significance when first espoused in 1907, and remain so today.

Matters of national significance in the planning and development of Canberra and the Territory include:

  • The pre-eminence of the role of Canberra and the Territory as the centre of National Capital functions, and as the symbol of Australian national life and values.
  • Conservation and enhancement of the landscape features which give the National Capital its character and setting, and which contribute to the integration of natural and urban environments.
  • Respect for the key elements of the Griffins’ formally adopted plan for Canberra.
  • Creation, conservation and enhancement of fitting sites, approaches and backdrops for national institutions and ceremonies as well as National Capital uses.
  • The development of a city which both respects environmental values and reflects national concerns with the sustainability of Australia’s urban areas.

1.2 Designated Areas

In identifying lands that have the ‘special characteristics of the National Capital’ and deciding the extent of the Designated Areas, three primary factors are relevant:

  • Canberra hosts a wide range of national functions – activities which occur in Canberra because it is the National Capital and which give Canberra a unique function within Australia.
  • The Griffins’ strong symbolic design for Canberra Central has given the National Capital a unique and memorable character.
  • Canberra's landscape setting and layout within the Territory have given the Capital a garden city image of national and international significance.

The National Capital functions include Parliamentary uses; key Australian Government policy departments which have a close association with Parliament; official residences of the Prime Minister and the Governor-General; chanceries and diplomatic missions of foreign countries; major national institutions such as the High Court, Australian National Gallery and the like; and major national associations.

Land has also been set aside and developed for non-building uses. Examples are Anzac Parade, which performs a ceremonial purpose as well as functioning as a roadway, and Anzac Park which is effectively set aside for memorials. All of these examples and like activities and functions have the ‘special characteristics of the National Capital’, and should be included within Designated Areas of the Plan for their national significance to be recognised, and assured.

The Griffins’ design incorporated the hills of (inner) Canberra – Mount Ainslie, Black Mountain, Red Hill and Mount Pleasant – and the lake and its foreshores into the plan, as much as buildings and roads.

The Griffins’ design had four main elements:

  • the use of topography as an integral design feature and as a setting
  • a symbolic hierarchy of land uses designed to reflect the order and functions of democratic government
  • a geometric plan with the central triangle formed by grand avenues terminating at Capital Hill, the symbolic centre of the nation
  • a system of urban centres.

Canberra has been developed as a series of separate but linked towns, established in valleys and shaped and separated from each other by a system of open space. This arrangement has protected the major hills and ridges from development, and has created a scenic backdrop and natural setting for the urban areas. It has reinforced the garden character for which Canberra is renowned. This landscape setting makes a major contribution to the environmental quality which is a feature of Canberra's character. Conserving and enhancing the landscape setting is important in retaining the character of the National Capital.

Within Designated Areas the National Capital Authority has sole responsibility for determining Detailed Conditions of Planning, Design and Development, and for Works Approval.

The use of land within Designated Areas for a purpose not specifically set out in a Precinct Code may be permitted by the National Capital Authority where it is satisfied that a particular proposal is not inconsistent with relevant principles and policies of the Plan.

Designated Areas comprise:

  • Lake Burley Griffin and its Foreshores
  • the National Triangle and adjacent sites
  • the balance of the Central National Area adjoining the Lake and the Triangle, and extending from the foot of Black Mountain to the airport
  • sites set aside solely for Diplomatic use
  • the Inner Hills which form the setting of the Central National Area
  • the Main Avenues and Approach Routes between the ACT border and the Central National Area.

A map of the Designated Areas is available here.