They are both planned cities
Major Pierre L’Enfant submitted a grand design for the new U.S. capital to President Washington in 1791. His Baroque plan called for ceremonial spaces and grand radial avenues, lined with trees. Sites throughout the city would feature monuments and fountains.
Canberra held an international competition in 1911 to choose an architect to design the new capital. The winners were a pair of American architects: Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin. Their grand civic design was based on circles and rectangles joined by long avenues. It included parks and boulevards, public buildings, and monuments. The city was designed to fit within the natural landscape.
Neither city was built to match the designers’ original vision.
They are home to embassies and government buildings
Washington, D.C. has the Capitol and the White House, while Canberra has its spectacular Parliament. Both are dotted with embassies from all over the world although Canberrans are much more forgiving of foreign drivers.
They feature lots of green space
Nearly 20 percent of Washington, D.C. is parkland, and ample green space was part of L’Enfant’s vision for the capital. His original plan called for 15 large open spaces at the intersections of avenues. His plan was reworked in 1901 to add an improved public Mall, waterfront parks, and parkways.
The Griffins designed Canberra to be a planned garden city. More than 30 nature reserves in and around the capital incorporate native plants and animals. Because of that, Canberra’s nickname is the “bush capital.”
They both struggle with their reputations
Both cities gained the reputation for being boring, full of bureaucrats, and having no nightlife.
Both have responded by sponsoring annual festivals, becoming foody destinations, and nurturing lively theater scenes.
People come and go
Capital cities tend to have transient populations. The Washington metro area has one of the highest mobility rates in the United States at 14.2 percent. In two Virginia suburbs, about 1 in 5 households moved a year.
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT), where Canberra is located, also has a transient population, the highest of any territory in Australia.
When I lived in D.C., a native-born Washingtonian was a rare animal. The same is true for a native Canberran.
One way they differ
Washington, D.C. has the sixth worst traffic in the country and ranks 15th for the worst traffic in the world. Commuters spend 61 hours in traffic congestion each year.
In contrast, Canberra doesn’t have much traffic at all. The city’s spacious highways are well-maintained. We live in one of the inner suburbs, and just about any destination is 15 minutes away by car. And rush hour is truly just an hour in the morning and evening. During rush hours, we allow about 15 extra minutes on certain highways to get to our destination.
I have really enjoyed having the opportunity to get to know both cities.