[John Nolen]

National Municipal Review 1 (October 1912): 718-21

John Nolen was among the half-dozen best known American city planners, and it is strange that neither he nor any of the others in that category chose to enter the Australian Federal Capital competition. It is also odd that no illustrations accompanied this review. Readers unfamiliar with the site or Walter Burley Griffin's winning design would have found it difficult to appreciate Nolen's detailed description of the plan. Users of this anthology, however, can find some of Griffin's drawings and diagrams in his own description of his plan.
The considerations that determined the location of the federal district of the commonwealth of Australia at Yass-Canberra, seventy-five miles inland in New South Wales, were probably the scenic beauty and the equable, bracing climate. The great industrial regions will no doubt gravitate sometimes to the more fecund tropical tracts of the island continent. The federal district is a plateau region of some 900 square miles bounded and intersected by the evergreen mountain ranges of the Australian Alps, with intervening meadowed vales, and will serve not only as a great federal park, but as a water shed of the Cotter River for an ample pure gravity water supply for the capital city. It is at present a region richest in flora and fauna of any in the state, in years of extreme drought affording refuge to the wild life of the surrounding country, while its clear waters perpetually teem with fish.

The spot selected for the city itself, four miles square, with a large portion of flat and gently undulating land dotted with a few conspicuous hills, averages about 2000 feet above the sea, is admirably drained and set in a rugged amphitheater of foot hills flanked by three considerable mountains backed by beautiful blue ranges with occasional snowcapped peaks. In the natural state the only water course in the city site is a small winding stream whose willowed banks in the flat lands practically conceal its waters in any general view of the landscape. On the whole the setting is one that would be appropriate for any inland city and possesses that degree of superior advantages that might be expected to result generally from the opportunity for intelligent selection in advance of occupation.

In formulating schemes for the development of this site into a capital the designers were allowed almost unrestricted scope as to forecasting ultimate needs, even as to the disposition of railroad and all other external artificial influences.

The first step governing the distribution of the activities for which a city must provide, involves analysis of the possibilities of the dominating site characteristics. In the case of the Yass-Canberra location the salient features may be summarized as follows:

1. The sheltering, forested ranges and distant snow-capped peaks to the southward and westward for background.

2. The three local mountains in and about, 700 feet above the city for aspect and prospect: conical Ainslie at the northeast corner, round topped Black Mountain near the northwest corner and to a lesser degree, irregular flat-topped Mugga Mugga just beyond the southern limits.

3. The lesser hills rising to 200 feet above the city plain for the sites of the most important structures, the center of busiest groups making of them as terminals of radial thoroughfares, at the same time most conspicuous and most accessible.

4. The water way and its flood bottoms as water basins for landscape and architectural effect, recreation and amelioration of a characteristic climatic tendency toward hot dry spells.

5. The remaining generally flat valleys for purposes of general industry and habitation.

The individuality of cities grows as much out of the nature of the work they must house as out of their sites. The monumental scale and imposing function of the government of a continent is an extreme case of specialization of occupation but in no case exceptional except in its magnitude. Here, however, government though the chief is not the only function of the capital which is required to provide public museum and recreation headquarters, the national university and a military post in addition, all of which under one supreme authority are capable of being made to contribute to an aggregate expression which necessarily takes precedence over the other and more general requirements. The arrangement of these groups dominating an entire city follows the same laws as the arranging of rooms for them might in a single building. The fitting of them to the site characteristics as enumerated suggested naturally the placing of the government group so as to extend on terraces from the highest of the internal hills in front of the sheltering background to the south side of a central water basin, thus forming, as it were, a stage setting, set off by a broad basin from the slopes of the opposite shore, the auditorium as it were, where are located the public gardens with a stadium in center, theaters behind and museums, galleries, baths, gymnasia and zoological structures stretching out on either side, in turn backed by the business portions of the city where the greatest throngs could benefit by a prospect of the ensemble. The high, isolated conical peak, Ainslie behind, in turn forms the final vantage point for the comprehensive spectacle of the whole.

Of the other federal groups, the university finds its appropriate setting in the hilly site in front of Black Mountain behind its own circular water basin, half a mile in diameter, which affords the first link of a grand water axis which, starting from Black Mountain, extends at right angles with the axis of the other groups and which, prolonged through the central basin, one mile long, and through another circular terminal basin at the other end, is still further prolonged to the far shores of an irregular upper lake from which rises a precipitous, bald knob where the military headquarters take on the characteristics of a citadel.

In general this arrangement of all the federal buildings on heights about two coordinate garden front axes, the individual groups set off and connected by formal water basins forms one dominant grouping of parallel-set buildings around which the possible confusion and hubbub of other enterprises must always remain subordinate.

However, the buildings of the municipality affords further opportunity for extending the harmonious public groupings. They are made to conform with the axes of the federal group by the location of their two centers, first that of municipal affairs and administration and second that of the markets and railway station equi-distant from the center of the federal grouping to form the terminals of an avenue which may be considered a secondary axis, parallel with the water axis.

Avenues of about a mile and a third connecting the regions of the two municipal centers with each other and with that of the executive apex of the federal group. form together a triangular circuit surrounding the governmental department and recreation groups (with the one mile long basin between) and connect the capitol, university and military groups. This triangle may be considered as typical of the main divisions into which the city is platted which are triangular, the object being to concentrate traffic and travel along lines directly connecting important points, at the same time leaving inter-spaces that are easily accessible yet without the necessity for long cross thoroughfares and therefore free for large and varied units of subdivision to suit special needs. Thus it is possible to have within the city a chain of five lakes varying between one half mile and two miles in diameter as well as federal departments, public gardens, university and a military post, which are quarters of ample area, yet which suffer a minimum of interference from and present a minimum of interference with the city traffic circulation. The bulk of the area of the city is similarly available for residence settlement relatively secluded and free from probable intrusion of business.

Whereas the subdivisions of the public groups take the forms of courts, quadrangles or other congregations of massive structures on the one hand or large open areas of water, hill or plain on the other hand, the subdivisions for smaller units of private occupations can also be determined primarily by architectural and utilitarian needs rather than according to exigencies of communication lines. In general rectangular plots of various shapes and size afford the best building sites and permit an orderly relationship between structures. Stub streets that are not blind alleys permit easy communication without encouraging through traffic and afford terminal sites and commanding vistas. In the flatter regions, therefore, such arrangement is obtained by keeping the distribution street systems parallel with or perpendicular to their nearest circulation avenue, the blocks adjacent to which are provided with shipping alleys and are shallower and shorter than those farther back where unit block lengths of 1000 feet are often allowable and considerable depth for garden area is possible without interference with the normal circulation of the city. That the city of the future must provide far greater area per family than have those that evolved from the walled-in pedestrian-transit periods is evidenced from the relative death rates of about two to one between Liverpool and Port Sunlight or Birmingham and Bourneville or London and Letchworth or Hampstead Garden suburb.

The intersection between the divergent rectangular systems is accomplished without acute corners anywhere by confining the change of direction of the ring cross street to the middle portion of block frontages affording a degree of informality in building arrangement at the points farthest from the busiest thoroughfares and where the space and latitude for varying treatment is the greatest.

Hilly regions adapted to finer residence purposes are frequent in the site and invite irregular rounded plots rising above the ravines through which the winding thoroughfares are directed as far as possible.

The apices of the triangular plots are typically the points of convergence of at least six avenues and consequently the centers of those trades and industries demanding general patronage and requiring general distributive facilities, the arterial avenues themselves being adaptable for the location of trades whose patronage and delivery are concerned primarily with the local needs of the inhabitants, or of the special interest occupying the contiguous portions of the triangular areas. This is a lineal alignment of trade such as has evolved with the improved street transportation systems of cities in general as shown in the old main roads leading out from town which have been transformed into miles of stores as they have become absorbed in the bulk of our metropolitan cities.

Of the three convergent points already mentioned, the one at the junction of the two sides of the governmental triangle where is established the executive capitol has radiating from it altogether eight traffic avenues, none of which, however, approaches nearer the structures than the limits of a park a half mile in diameter embracing the capitol hill. Three of these avenues lead to rocky fastnesses of the higher residence districts. Moreover the executive department while the principal focus of the government group can by no means be considered a business center nor will it be possible for a congestion of street traffic to occur at such a large round point. Similarly the municipal administrative center and the station and market center are disposed as groups around occupied central features and elevated building sites easing the circulation and preventing the development of congestion rising out of crossing concentration.

Following the example of many German cities, lines of growth definitely foreseen are supplemented by provision for other development that may or may not eventuate. Five outlying centers, one for residential suburb, one for manufacturing and three for horticultural and semi-agricultural pursuits are allotted, respective sites that seem most advantageous through scenic setting[,] railroad facilities or soil conditions as the case may be. The object of early establishing these centers is, of course, largely to prevent misdirected improvement or speculative experiment and will have further justification in fixing the character of the lines which are circulatory the direct through lines of communication whose aim it is to take care of the motor, tram and long distance traffic of the city. These streets are in all cases 200 feet wide allowing not only for three separate paved ways to accommodate tram and fast and slow vehicles, but for tree and shrub accompaniment to render them as satisfactory parkways as are narrow boulevards restricted to the aristocratic private vehicles and even with larger possibilities because of the greater importance in the structures facing them.

There are recreational drives through the public gardens, parks and mountain reservations. They form continuous lines along the embankments of the triple basins in the heart of the city which are arranged for circulation.

For the greatest proportion of the city streets however, the function of circulation is subordinate to that of distribution to and from the wide tram and vehicle ways. These tributary streets are of less width and formality with narrower pavements and greater areas of unintersected blocks proportionate to the less demand for publicity in the occupation served. It is not necessary that the precise nature of this street development be determined far in advance of the actual use of many of those districts lying between the main thoroughfares, and possibilities need not be denied to individual initiative and imagination to work out with comparatively free hand, architectural and landscape developments of recessed, courts, closes, quadrangle, terraces, driveway subdivisions, garden commons and irregular hill gardens.

There is better possibility for a satisfactory development to take place in this capital than has perhaps ever been afforded to a city.

Here is a whole district of 900 square miles to be held and controlled by a single unhampered governmental authority backed by the taxing power of the country starting with an organic plan and capable of directing improvement so that the immediate consequences of its activities to land values can be foreseen, even directed.

Starting with a mean site cost of $5 per acre the result from keeping forever the land rent for the support and development of the public works of the city, as is now the announced policy of the Australian government, can be realized by comparison with the tremendous values created for private owners during the past thirty years of governmental activity in Washington, D.C., with the rentals now raised from the square mile of the heart of Chicago that formerly belonged to the school district and of which the few scattered parcels that have been retained contribute so largely to the support of public education there or by citing the fact that the cost to Australia of repurchasing now the entire federal district is less than the amount required, for instance to obtain a suitable site in Sydney for a single parliament house.

It is on some such terms of leasehold as are now made between builders of city blocks and private land holders generally that the private improvers of Australia's capital will instead deal with the state.

Stimulus greater than elsewhere to easy development may be expected too from the avoidance through the policy of the inconveniences and the waste in useless travel and service equipment around a tremendous proportion of area that in our cities is vacant or withheld from effective use for private speculation in increment values. 

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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