Canberra has earned consistent international acclaim as a planned city. The Griffin Plan was described as ‘one of the treasures not only of Australia but of the entire urban world’ in 1992 by Professor John Reps. Marion Mahony Griffin’s twelve design drawings are included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program, equivalent to the World Heritage Register.
Since the early 1990s there have been many who have advocated Canberra’s nomination for World Heritage status including many distinguished heritage and Canberra planning advocates. It has also been strongly argued that Heritage Listing and values need not impede Canberra’s development, but on the contrary enhance it.
So it is of great concern that in May 2022, on the eve of the Election caretaker period when it could and should have been left to the new Government, then federal Environment and Heritage Minister Sussan Ley, rejected the nomination of Canberra to the National Heritage List, despite endorsement by the Australian Heritage Council.
For Canberra, one of few cities of international planning stature globally this is extraordinarily disappointing. The Griffins envisioned ‘a city not like any other city in the world,
The designs reflect the Griffins’ understanding that the built environment should interact with the surrounding natural environment. Griffin envisaged urban density, people movement and public transport in a city of horizontal forms, of about 5 storeys, which preserve a sympathetic scale relationship with the natural landscape, its mountains and the vistas of them.
The broad support for the national heritage listing of Canberra hasn’t been reflected in government decisions since the start of the ACT self-government in 1989.
Back in 2007, specialist research, professional initiatives and public seminars, and a Legislative Assembly Committee report, produced a strong nomination of Canberra and the ACT as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, but unfortunately this was subsequently dropped by the ACT Government.
Local organisations seeking city-wide listing have faced continual opposition. The ACT Government and Chief Ministers have persistently opposed National Heritage Listing of Canberra. The new Greens Heritage Minister Rebecca Vassarotti publicly expressed reservations about a listing just prior to Minister Lee’s announcement in April 2022. The ACT Legislative Assembly in March 2020 rejected by a vote of 24 (Labor and Liberals) to 2 (The Greens) a motion to work with the Commonwealth for National Heritage Listing.
The Griffin Society is hopeful that a future government might rectify this and recognise the advantages that heritage listing would bring to Canberra as regards status, symbolism, standards, aspirations, tourism, and especially to the conservation and realisation of the Griffins’ original Plan.
In 2012, the Griffin Society’s Canberra Chapter held a Marion Mahony Griffin Lecture titled Celebrating the Griffins’ contribution to Canberra as a modern planned capital city, given by the president of the ICOMOS Twentieth Century International Scientific Committee, heritage consultant Sheridan Burke, who described Canberra as “a showcase of cutting-edge twentieth-century town planning ideas” and undoubtedly deserving of National Heritage listing. She went on to explain that “Canberra is now an extraordinary cultural landscape of Twentieth Century Heritage significance” and extrapolated the city’s worthiness for not just national but World Heritage listing.
To ensure the amenity and beauty of Canberra is retained for future generations, it should not be eroded away by poor decision-making. Untrammelled unsympathetic development should not be permitted nor encouraged. The national government, the National Capital Authority and the ACT government need to respect and care for this unique inheritance of the Australian people and Canberra residents and allow only sympathetic development to maintain the Griffins’ vision and maximise Canberra’s potential.