Place name processes

Place naming is an integral part of the history of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Most of Canberra's suburbs are named after famous Australians who have contributed to the existence of Australia as a nation. Each suburb has a theme by which its streets are named.  The theme may include people, places, flora, fauna or things relevant and important to the history of Australia. Some of the people commemorated in street names are well known, whilst others made their mark as quiet achievers.

The historical research undertaken by the ACT Place Names Officer makes an important contribution to the commemoration of Australian history, and the process of place naming in Canberra allows this history to be woven into the fabric of the ACT.

Basis for public place names

The ACT was established from land ceded by New South Wales in 1911. Names already in use in 1911, and these were mainly natural features and locality names, were retained. Although some localities, overtaken by urban development, have disappeared, their names have usually been retained in some form.

The City of Canberra was named by the Commonwealth Government in 1913. The name has local authenticity, being associated with the district since early settlement. Joshua Moore obtained a land grant in 1822 at Canberry on the Limestone Plains (the inner northern suburbs now occupy the Limestone Plains) and the explorer and naturalist John Lhotsky in 1834 referred to the area as "Kembery". The Government Gazette of 20 September 1928 listed Canberra as an Aboriginal name of doubtful meaning. However, the official explanation at the naming ceremony on 12 March, 1913, was that Canberra was an Aboriginal name meaning, "meeting place".

The National Memorials Committee presented a report to the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia on 14 December 1927 which outlined the unique scheme by which Canberra's public places and thoroughfares were to be named:

"...Every name that has been used commemorates a name famous in the annals of Australian exploration, navigation, pioneering, colonisation, administration, politics, science and letters.  Every name on the plan approved by the Committee is believed to be thoroughly characteristic of Australia and the Australians.  All have been considered from a national viewpoint rather than a parochial one.  Every state has been taken into account in the selection of names, and Australian national sentiments have been carefully studied."

Public Place Names Act 1989

The Public Place Names Act 1989 replaced the Commonwealth Ordinance following the establishment of self-government in 1989. The Act provides for the Minister to determine the names of divisions (suburbs) and public places that are Territory land. The Act also provides for the Minister to make guidelines about the naming of public places.  The guidelines which are notified on the ACT Legislation Register detail the established policies for the naming of new divisions, roads and other public places in the ACT.

The criterion for selecting names essentially remained the same as for the Commonwealth Ordinance: when making a determination for naming a division the Minister “shall have regard to the names of persons who have made notable contributions to the existence of Australia as a nation" and when making a determination for naming a public place the Minister "shall have regard to:

  • the names of persons famous in Australian exploration, navigation, pioneering, colonisation, administration, politics, education, science or letters;
  • the names of persons who have made notable contributions to the existence of Australia as a nation;
  • the names of Australian flora;
  • the names of things characteristic of Australia or Australians; and
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander vocabulary."

General practice for naming

As well, where a name commemorates a person, it is usually not formally determined until 12 months after death. Duplication of names is avoided. Names that would lead to confusion or difficulty of any kind are avoided. Names that are likely to give offence are avoided. Where possible, there is a correlation between the length of streets and the length of their names. Generally, an arterial road is assigned a more significant name. Street names are selected according to the theme assigned to the suburb in which they are located (for example, the streets in Mawson are named after Antarctic exploration).

District, division and street names

The ACT is divided into 19 districts, such as Gungahlin, Tuggeranong, Woden Valley and Tennent. The names of districts are determined under the Districts Act 2002.  Districts are further divided into divisions (suburbs).  The names of divisions are determined in accordance with the provisions in the Public Place Names Act 1989.  The names of the streets within the division are named in accordance with the street nomenclature theme assigned to the division and the provisions of the Public Place Names Act 1989.

Division names and the themes to be used for roads within each division are recommended to the Minister by the ACT Place Names Committee. Approved names are gazetted and then tabled in the Legislative Assembly for six sitting days to enable the Legislative Assembly to disallow any unacceptable names.  In the case of disallowance, the offending name or names are revoked and the process repeated. These determinations are published on the ACT Legislation Register.

Place name determinations are disallowable instruments, meaning they have to be tabled in the Legislative Assembly for six sitting days, during which time they may be disallowed. The Public Place Names Act 1989 states that the Minister may in writing determine (a) a division of Territory land or (b) a public place that is Territory land.  These determinations are published in the ACT Legislation Register.

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