VISIBLE CITY: (THE GRIFFIN PLAN) by Chris Endrey – Design Canberra Festival

Canberra. Photo: 5 Foot Photography
Canberra. Photo: 5 Foot Photography


‘The Visible City’ is an annual urban renewal series of public conversations presented as part of the DESIGN Canberra festival. The series brings together inspirational and sometimes radical perspectives with contemporary case studies in urban renewal to inform Canberra’s ambitious CBD renewal as it transitions form and function.

This year during Visible City: Contemporary Canberra: utopia or dystopia? we asked our speakers: How do we make visible the Griffins’ vision of a bold, radical and big vision for a young nation and an ideal utopian city of democracy in contemporary Canberra?

The panel discussion was a valuable opportunity to engage deeply with the idea of utopia in Canberra’s past, present and future. For those who are interested in revisiting the talk or have missed the event, DESIGN Canberra would like to make available our speakers’ presentations.


(THE GRIFFIN PLAN) by Chris Endrey
Canberra, 4 Nov 2023

The Griffin Plan – is often cited as the source of this city’s greatness, which in many ways it is. Marion and Walter’s idealistic visions of citizenry and nature converging in sacred geometry defines so much of what we have.

We live in a city that I truly love.

So much so, that I tried to track down a descendant of theirs a couple of years ago to send a letter thanking them for all I’ve been able to enjoy in my own life from the work of their ancestors – unfortunately for me, no such person exists to contact. There were rumours of an extra-marital child of Walter’s, but a DNA test ultimately proved otherwise.

Regardless, a criticism that Canberra often receives is that it is so planned and stale, to which I proudly reply that the alternative to planning is certainly not good either.

But it’s also worth noting that these high ideals plans were deviated from basically immediately, and you don’t need to look at the plan for too long to see that certain critical features never even hit the ground.

I remember Jack Waterford writing a few years ago that we were still mostly living in the halo glow of the Griffins’ initial design decisions, and that almost all locally-generated subsequent decisions have detracted from it.

Add in a couple of world wars and a general Australian cultural antipathy towards the capital, and the city we have today is in many ways unrecognisable from that original vision.

1. (CRACE)

Belconnen, Woden, Tuggeranong and Gungahlin are not accounted parts of the plan, and while each have their charm – albeit in some instances, an ironic charm – they contain none or at best very little of the original conceptions of citizenship and society.

Given all cities are to some extent maps of the time in history in which they were constructed, the dominating force of various modern technologies cannot be overstated in their influence on our own little utopia. Unfortunately for us, several new and extraordinarily formative technologies have emerged in the tiny patch of time since 1913, and while they’ve come with fabulous opportunities, they’ve also come with significant and uncharted obstacles.


The emergence of cars is enormous and in many ways definitive. And all that has come with them – the primacy of asphalt roads, massively increased range for suburban sprawl, transit congestion and petrol emissions.

While these are of course laughably small issues in comparison to the national standard, they still significantly define so many areas of our lives and society.

In the morning commute it always feels absurd to cycle past so many stationary cars waiting in queues, so many with just a solitary driver lugging and four empty seats. It certainly doesn’t feel like the kind of phenomenon that has any role in utopia. Most notably, it’s nearly impossible for any functioning citizen in our society to fulfil their life without using a car. This adds a barrier and stratification disfavouring those citizens who for whatever reason can’t access that technology.


The massive productivity increase that’s come with industrial free market capitalism has revolutionised the way in which we physically build our cities. But with this has come a greater capacity and incentive for property developers to maximise profits by expediently compromising the long term social viability of their work. Have the design of our social controls kept up with this? Too many of our new developments even within mere blocks of where we sit today are treeless, grassless towers that require constant heating and air conditioning at a time where we are more capable than ever of regulating temperature without either. You can walk kilometres along Northbourne Avenue, our city’s grand boulevard, passing thousands of residences without encountering even a single place to buy a meal.

4. (CIVIC)

Of course, there are myriad and complex design features interacting to create such realities, but I would say that there has been a near catastrophic failure of our shared public spaces to reflect the communal activities and even the market desires of those who inhabit our city.

It’s not at all to suggest that these features can’t be surmounted to live a good life. But when considering comparable cities and both their aesthetic and functional beauty, it becomes hard to mount the case for Civic as the keystone of much of a utopia.

The third technological development I’m going to touch on today surrounds a recent string of advances centred upon the internet and personal computing devices, which together, represent perhaps the greatest peacetime social disruptions in human history and must be considered. 

5. (VR)

We can now find entertainment without leaving our homes or talking to others. This dramatically changes the public sphere and has only just begun.

We can engage in social discourse without encountering real people. And when we encounter those we disagree with, we often treat each other cruelly, not needing to ever acknowledge ideological opponents as fellow humans. This disconnect has started to flow into our political systems, but will only become more and more stark as the generations of those who have only engaged in public discourse through their online profiles inhabit more and more space.

In the age of hook-up apps and the online liberation of sharing and de-shaming sexual tastes and experiences, people are having less and less sex. With the most recent generation to reach adulthood having the least sex of anyone. For such a basic human pleasure, I’m confident that for many of us, this is fairly considered an alarming trend.

How have we responded to this technological upheaval? Have we integrated these realities to create a utopia?

The rise of stress, depression and anxiety that are commonly attributed to social isolation suggest that perhaps we haven’t.

Though these are still early days.

The opportunities and obstacles presented by all of these technologies are of course universally-experienced and not at all of our own creation. But they are of our own responsibility to address, and I think there’s a fair case to mount that the utopian society of our dreams would have a far more proactive, responsive and participatory discourse on how to best measure and harness these disruptions for our utopia.

Which leads to another oft-missed but fundamental element of design: a society’s politics and cultural discourse. 

6. (ETHOS)

Because across time, it is ultimately the political form of our society that comes to shape its reality.

It was a political decision at some stage to furnish the corridor that enters our city with ambitious public housing, which, despite not perfectly fulfilling its function, was a bold statement on who we hoped to be.

It was a political decision to subsequently disband that housing and pave the entrance to our utopia with apartments courtesy of our friends and Gods over at Geocon.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the design of our political systems lay the foundations for prosperity or ruin. Land use, building regulations, and the rules dictating the use of existing shared and private spaces are determined via a jurisdiction’s political framework.

How do we measure in such a prism? Not disastrously against most, but I fear, deeply deficiently against any imagined (and achievable) optimum.

A very transient population with a high median wage leaves Canberrans relatively indifferent to the machinations of the Legislative Assembly. This pale engagement paired with a limited scrutiny through engagement in local issues via our media consumption leaves us poorly equipped to determine the issues that matter most to the collective, let alone to stave off the soft corruptions that inevitably emerge around concentrations of wealth and power. I’m sadly sure that more people were driven to alarm when seeing a certain ten-titted whale balloon than they were about the various corrupt exchanges of land or the ongoing reality that we have more pokies per capita than nearly anywhere on the planet.

Our political engagement feeds back and forth from our cultural engagement, and I am sadly increasingly of the mind that our structures to provide for organic expression and celebration of our own society – which is both very worthy and capable of such expression – are sadly deficient.


There’s a Norwegian proverb – ‘that which is loved, is always beautiful’. From the constant replacement of our city’s buildings and in particular, the continuous tearing down of a modernist and brutalist heritage that could have been a defining feature of this city, we engage in a self-mutilation from which one can only conclude that we do not indeed love ourselves or our story.

And how we choose our new constructions also comes to define our character. Sadly, we find ourselves a long way from the grand visions of what a virtuous citizenry means and are, as far as I can deduce, subservient to the dull grinding primacy of commercial forces.


Braddon and New Acton in particular are much feted as a source of cultural cache when we engage in the indignity of comparing Canberra to Australia’s other metropolitan centres. Though they do indeed have excellent offerings for those on high incomes, they are in many ways merely an aesthetic mimicry, controlled by and for the narrow interests of the small number of developers who create them.

However well-intentioned and executed, these spaces simply cannot compete with the global best – in a city full of talent, ideas and wealth that do.

And please don’t misunderstand me, I am absolutely no Communist in this – a gold standard for design should and indeed must harness free market opportunities, but the monopolies that have dominated these spaces with a stark a deficiency of spaces for community to organically generate and thrive, which are most striking for me.

Furthermore, what sort of hipster Mecca are Lonsdale and Mort streets without bike paths, any live music venues or cheap places to eat? Even the vegan store closed down, if that’s a measure of anything.

9. (SALON)

For me; a key mark of a truly great society is one in which people have equal capacity to contribute as best suits their skills and temperament. I think that this is a key failing in the design of our own society – one in which the cost barriers for participation in life are so high.

It is many ways a near invisible problem, given the very high median wage and accessible comfortable standard of living. But for those who choose life paths that generate non-financial forms of capital, the high costs of living can render parts of society totally inaccessible, and consequently, leave such life choices invalid.

In a liberal society, we are encouraged to pursue a work and life that best matches our proclivities and capacities, and with so many roads closed by the threshold costs of living, our entire society is impoverished. To be a writer, a carer, a musician, a community builder, a single parent, a philosopher or a dedicated volunteer – these are roles that I hope are obvious in their potentially tremendous contributions to our society.

However, they do not typically offer anything near a baseline poverty line wage – let alone incomes close to competitive with other, often less-critical roles.

That the fruits of such social contributors are silently lost to the high cost of the most basic goods – notably housing – is a huge loss. The vital importance of the non-capital contributions of any of those roles to a great society could easily form the subject of another presentation, and their routine loss is no less than a tragedy.

And what then for those who are not so well positioned to choose to join the median wage life? Those with severe mental illness, victims of traumatic experience and sufferers of addiction can find themselves falling terminally behind, and do, in our city which has one of the highest rates of homelessness and poverty in the country. For a society as rich as ours – this can only be read as a failure.

10. (UTOPIA)

These shortcomings are not inherently design failures, they are the output of having tested many of the design features of our society and vital feedback to take on board in considering how we want to structure our world for the future.

I want to reiterate my message from the start: I love this city. It is truly the best in the world for so many things. We continually measure very favourably against other cities for good reason.

But this position of tremendous success comes with an equivalently large responsibility – to take true account of the causes of our successes and failures so far, and work to make sure that we proactively improve the design of our systems to give ourselves the best opportunity of the utopia we know we can achieve in the future.

DESIGN Canberra acknowledges the Ngunnawal people as the traditional custodians of the ACT and surrounding areas. We honour and respect their ongoing cultural and spiritual connections to this country and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region. We aim to respect cultural heritage, customs and beliefs of all Indigenous people.