The planning and regulation of public memorials in a capital city significantly shape the representation of a nation’s identity and values, lending it both historical and conceptual grounding. The processes through which commemorative planning for a capital is conducted also reflect a nation’s democratic traditions. In autocratic nations, urban plans are decided and built by a central authority to serve and reflect its specific beliefs and interests. But in multi-party democracies with active civil societies, the development of capitals’ commemorative landscapes is much more complex. Memorials in democratic capitals are often not initiated, funded or designed by the government itself. These commemorative landscapes develop through negotiation between political parties, social movements, interest groups, subject experts, and individual mourners. This paper provides a comparative analysis of national and local government planning approaches that have guided the development of public memorials in a structured sample of four types of capital cities: capitals that have long, pre-democratic histories of physical development; new, masterplanned post-colonial capitals in the New World; ‘international’ capitals that host major international political organisations; and capitals of countries where democratic government has only emerged in the last 25 years from a range of kinds of pre-democratic regimes (dictatorship, communism, apartheid). It is hypothesized that these different polities employ quite different strategic, procurement and regulatory processes for public memorials. The paper’s methodology centres on analysis of policy documents from relevant agencies, including special-purpose strategic plans, policies that establish approval authority and criteria, and codified decision-making processes for approvals, as well as examination of key commemorative precincts and individual cases, and interviews with planning officials. The paper considers the relative prominence of various commemorated themes, the ways strategic plans and policies guide the location, form and theme of individual memorials, and how commemorative masterplanning relates to the cities’ wider spatial planning needs.