J. G. Griffin, C.E.

Sydney Morning Herald 30 December 1911.

J. G. Griffin, and Australian civil engineer and at the time he wrote, President of the Local Government Association, wrote this statement for a Sydney newspaper. He did so just a few months before the conclusion of the international competition held to determine the plan for the Australian Federal Capital that was to be build on an inland site. In this article Griffin recommended that "main avenues...converge towards the Houses of Parliament and other Government buildings which must naturally be the main feature of the city." Elsewhere "main avenues from two or three radial points, with the land between these main avenues cut up on the rectangular system" would complete the design. Griffin noted "this is the principle followed in Washington, and at each focal point some eight or nine main streets meet." Although not all planners would have agreed, radial designs were then probably favored by most.
There is a feeling abroad that the settlement of the design of the Federal capital is a question which must be left in its entirety to experts. This is not so. the final design would be greatly improved if the citizens of Australia were to take a close interest in the development of the plan. After a lifetime of experience in municipal government, I am convinced that no worse fate can befall a town or a city than to be left to grow haphazard. As president of the Local Government Association, I am aware, from personal correspondence, of the envy with which the town planning authorities of the old world regard our present opportunity. No such chance has occurred in the world since Washington was laid out in 1791. Since that date the problem of public health, the development of industries and transit, and all the changes wrought by a hundred years of civilisation, have to a great extent changed the needs of the city. On the other hand, all these problems have resulted in the very closest study of their solution, and all of us who are concerned in municipal or town planning work realise how much can be achieved in the way of health and beauty of commencing to build a city on right lines, and by enacting proper regulations for its development.

In the planning of an ordinary town one must--however much the necessity may be deplored--to a certain extent make the utilitarian the dominant note as against the esthetic. but in planning a capital more liberty is given in the insistence on beauty, even at some sacrifice. A capital is looked upon to a certain extent as the expression of the artistic taste of the people. If we erect a huddled commonplace collection of masonry we may expect the indignant criticism of the nations who are now waiting to see our handling of the problem. In achieving this esthetic object, it is impossible to lay down any hard and fast rule for adoption. We have many advocates for the racial or rectangular systems or for other ready-made schemes of planning. Although the beauty of regularity is not to be despised, one must not forget that it is but a step from regularity to monotony. It would be well, perhaps, to lay down a particular scheme out of those brought forward, but its real effectiveness would be found in daring departures from it according to the contour of the land. That is to say, any scheme adopted should be capable of great modification to preserve as far as possible the natural beauty of the land, and every advantage should be taken of hill and dale, in order to bring into relief those features of the city which most please and impress.


It will perhaps be accepted as an axiom that any scheme adopted must have certain focal points. The very fact of the city being a capital city requires the adoption of such a scheme. The Romans boasted that all roads led to their famous city, and so the main avenues should converge towards the Houses of Parliament and other Government buildings which must naturally be the main feature of the city. Imagination linger pleasantly over the result which may be achieved by suitably grouping in the centre of the city the Houses of Parliament and their attendant departments, and surrounding them with a botanical gardens so arranged as to give an idea of uninterrupted approach to the buildings themselves. The underlying scheme, however, much as it may be modified, will probably comprise an extension of main avenues from two or three radial points, with the land between these main avenues cut up on the rectangular system. This is the principle followed in Washington, and at each focal point some eight or nine main streets meet.


In our smaller towns the width of street is an important question from the point of view of expense, but in mapping out the Federal capital it is essential that the main avenues should be at least double the width of our ordinary streets, and broadening on occasion to allow garden or tree-planned strips along their sides. The lesser streets might be brought down to 66ft, but no lessening of width should be permitted on the main avenues. the mixture of street and park is one which more than any other will tend to impress and please the eye.

The provision of ample park space is, of course, one of the prime essentials. I have been much struck by a suggestion from an English correspondent that instead of placing parks in large blocks where the people have to make a definite journey to visit them, it would be much more useful if the park could be brought to the people. This result is achieved by making the parks in long strips. For example, it would not have been difficult to extend such a part as Hyde Park for three or four miles through our own city, passing the railway station and linking up with the University Park. The suggestion is that wherever some natural beauty invites attention--a pretty gully or stream--its length should be followed by a park and drives. If the area reserved is some 300 yards wide, it gives a continuous park with ample room for recreation, without taking up an undue territory.


As a member of the committee recently appointed by the Local Government Association in connection with housing and town planning, I could not help but be impressed with the evidence gathered as to results achieved by proper provisions of housing. I take it as important that if the Government lays out a city at great expense and adorns it with buildings which are the supreme step in Australian architecture, the private owner should not then be allowed to ruin the effect as he pleases. I am not in favour of stringent building laws, but in this matter ample power should be given to the city authorities to safeguard the beauty of the city. There should be no overcrowding, and hovels should not be permitted. Those of us who have studied the conditions at Port Sunlight and Bournville, know that the beauty of the town may be conserved without throwing any undue expense on the builder or the tenant. In the towns mentioned the artisans live as cheaply as in other places. The death rate is ever so much lower, while the appearance of the place has called into being that appropriate name "garden cities." In all these matters the experience and devices of other parts of the world must be looked at. The idea of placing factories on the opposite side of the town to that whence come prevailing winds is an idea we should borrow from the orderly German. I mention it as one little item among many which may be garnered from experience. The industrial centres will offer a problem, but one which is easily capable of treatment. What is under ordinary conditions an unsightly and perhaps offensive factory may become pleasing by the proper surrounding of trees and gardens. An example of this in a small--though very small--way may be seen by any suburban traveller at Clyde.


Whatever it may be in love affairs, there can be no doubt that in the development of a city the saddest of all words are "it might have been." There is no necessity to labour the opportunity that Sydney lost in its own planning. Unfortunately, the development of Sydney could not be foreseen. In approaching the planning of the Federal capital, we face our responsibility with our eyes open to its full meaning. We are about to give to Australia for all time its capital city. If we make mistakes now those mistakes will impair the result for ever. If we choose rightly from the experience the world offers us we not only raise a beauty spot, but we give to all the towns of Australia an impetus in planning and development which must react beneficially on public health and on the public artistic sense. The advantages of such an example cannot be over-estimated. Moreover, to all who desire to see the development of a patriotic spirit, the possession of a city which is the last word in the science of city building and government, will tend to impress upon the national the national ideal by a concrete exposition of the majesty of the powers which govern the Australian nation. 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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