Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Shaping 'The Finest City Region in the World': Gordon Stephenson and Canberra's National Capital Development Commission 1960-73

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Shaping 'The Finest City Region in the World': Gordon Stephenson and Canberra's National Capital Development Commission 1960-73

Article excerpt

Canberra, Australia's national capital city, was transformed through the 1960s from a straggling city beautiful on garden city lines, to a modern new city of international standing by the powerful National Capital Development Commission (NCDC), established in 1957. Gordon Stephenson first visited the city in 1954, became a consultant to the NCDC in 1960 and was appointed to the National Capital Planning Committee in 1967. His activities ranged across all scales - residential communities, town centres and the development of a long-term metropolitan planning strategy. Stephenson appears to be an underrated figure in the urban metamorphosis of Canberra through the 1960s. Drawing on a mix of extant primary and secondary sources, this paper sketches the extent of Stephenson's role and influence in Canberra.

Described as 'one of the great planning minds of the twentieth century' (Wright, 2000, 39), Gordon Stephenson first visited Australia's national capital city when working on the metropolitan planning scheme for Perth. Canberra in the mid-1950s had the character of a country town, albeit set within the elaborate geometric template inherited from its historic 1912 plan, but was on the verge of a growth boom into a major city region. Stephenson's career at this time was similarly stalled in an interregnum but on the cusp of far-reaching change. He had resigned prematurely as Lever Professor from Liverpool and his hopes of moving to the United States to take up the chair of planning at MIT were fading. In this period of career uncertainty the well-credentialed and highly regarded Stephenson may well have imagined that here was another place that might bear his stamp sometime in the future. As fate would have it, he was to play a key role in guiding and refining that process when he returned to Australia after his stint in Toronto in 1955-60.

In a distinguished professional career spanning three continents and six decades, Stephenson was involved in a remarkable number of high profile commissions, all of which he approached with 'incredible enthusiasm and boundless energy' (DeMarco, 1993, 38). His Canberra connection, at a time of rapid physical change, offered him both great 'intellectual stimulation' (UWA: Box 1, Draft autobiography outline, 1979) and practical opportunities to contribute to what he foresaw as one of the coming great planned city-regions of the world (Stephenson, 1970). Drawing upon government and private archival sources and interviews with former colleagues, this paper revisits Stephenson's contributions to the planning of Canberra over more than a decade. Prefaced by a brief recapitulation of the general urban and institutional contexts for his visits, the paper examines Stephenson's five main engagements, all under the auspices of the city's planning authority, the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC): advising on the future city centre; developing a metropolitan strategy; as a member of the National Capital Planning Committee (NCPC); the design of a Radburn-inspired new suburb; and leadership of a cross-disciplinary residential planning process. Stephenson's roles were mainly behind-the-scenes, often collaborative and usually advisory, but nonetheless helped indirectly shape design outcomes at a variety of geographic scales. His major contribution to Canberra was less in operational planning and more in his influential advocacy of a long-term, integrated approach to strategic planning.

Canberra from the 1950s

Canberra in the 1950s was 'an overgrown garden city', A. J. Brown (1952, 165) told readers of this journal, 'with emphasis on the garden, and with isolated architectural incidents which are too distant from one another to give any cohesion to the plan'. The city was caught between a somewhat ill-fitting geometric legacy bequeathed by Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin, ad hoc responses to post-war growth pressures and a small town mentality. A single planner, Trevor Gibson, buried away in the Commonwealth Department of the Interior was doing his best to balance the legacy of the past, contemporary best planning practice and what consensus could be secured on the city's future. …

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