The central business district of Canberra is officially named City, however it is also referred to as Civic, Civic Centre, City Centre, Canberra City and Canberra.
Canberra’s City was officially established in 1927, although the suburb name City was not gazetted until 20 September 1928. Walter Burley Griffin’s design for Canberra included a ‘Civic Centre’ with a separate ‘Market Centre’ located at what is now Russell. However, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce vetoed this idea and only the Civic Centre was developed, with the idea of the ‘Market Centre’ being abandoned.
Further variations from Griffin’s plan that affect City include the abandonment of a city railway and a reduction in the widths of some streets, including of London Circuit, which was planned to be 61 metres and was reduced to 30 metres. Griffin’s civic focus on Vernon Knoll, now known as City Hill, never materialised, mainly because of the way city building has progressed.
Unlike many cities, Canberra has very strict planning rules, including height limits on buildings. The maximum height of the office tower blocks in Civic is thirteen floors, giving Canberra a ‘small town feel’ to many visitors.
The first major buildings planned for the commercial centre were the Melbourne and Sydney Buildings. Construction began in 1926 and they were finally completed in 1946. Immediately after World War II, the Melbourne and Sydney buildings still comprised the main part of Civic and the Blue Moon Cafe was the only place to go for a meal apart from the Hotel Canberra and the Hotel Civic.
Up until the 1960s, Canberra shoppers found the retail environment frustrating. Many did their weekly shopping in Queanbeyan, where the central business district was more compact. Major purchases were made in Sydney. In 1963, the Monaro Mall, the Canberra Centre since its redevelopment in 1989, opened. A three-storey shopping complex, it is Civic’s main shopping precinct with a retail presence from the national chains David Jones, Myer, Big W and Target department stores. It was the first Australian three-storey, fully enclosed and air conditioned shopping centre and was opened by the Prime Minister Robert Menzies. A further redevelopment was completed by late 2007, substantially adding to the diversity of retailers and services within it, including a Dendy Cinema complex.
Nearby is Glebe Park, a picturesque park near the centre of the city with elm trees and oaks from early European settlement before the city was founded. Civic also is home to the Canberra Theatre, Casino Canberra, Canberra Museum and Gallery and the National Convention Centre.
Garema Place and City Walk are open areas of Civic for pedestrian traffic with many outdoor cafes. One of the longest running cafes in Civic is Gus’s Cafe on Bunda Street.
A local bus interchange predominantly used by ACTION, the ACT government-operated bus service, is located on East Row, Alinga Street, Mort Street and Northbourne Avenue. On the western side of Northbourne Avenue is the Jolimont Centre, which is the bus terminal for interstate buses.
Civic Square, designed by Yuncken and Freeman architects and completed in 1961, houses the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly, Canberra Museum and Gallery, Civic Library and Canberra Theatre as well as many local cultural organisations, including the Canberra division of the National Trust of Australia.
It sits within a primary axis of Griffin’s design for Canberra that links City Hill and Mount Ainslie. Griffin intended that the square be the ‘heart of the city’. Civic Square is listed on the register of the National Estate.
The Canberra Theatre was opened in June 1965 with the Australian Ballet’s production of Swan Lake. The Old Playhouse, also from 1965, was demolished and rebuilt in 1998. The link between the Theatre and Playhouse buildings has been redeveloped to include the Civic Library and the theatre’s bar and administration area.
A sculpture of Ethos by Tom Bass was commissioned by the National Capital Development Commission in 1959 and unveiled in 1961. “The NCDC intended that the work would emphasize that Canberra is the non-political centre, the locale of commerce and of private enterprise in its best sense.” The sculpture was designed to represent the spirit of the community. Bass interpreted this in the figure which he intended “the love which Canberra people have for their city to be identified with her…I want them to be conscious of her first as an image from a distance…then comes the moment when they become personally involved with her… they feel her looking at them, reflecting their love for the place”.