Australia’s national sport: Canberra bashing

A child riding a pony at sunset.

These are the views every Canberran knows and no Canberra-basher will admit to.

Once you start researching a move to Canberra, it doesn’t take you long to realise that Australians have a rather schizophrenic relationship with their own capital, to the extent that ‘Canberra-bashing’ would easily compete with cricket and Aussie rules football for the title of national sport.

The uneasy between Aussies and Canberra seems to taken as carte-blanche for others to say what they like about the place, whether based on fact or not.

Take last week’s Guardian article ‘50 years of gentrification: will all our cities turn into ‘deathly’ Canberra?’ by Guardian architecture and design critic, Oliver Wainwright.

In the article, Oliver is pretty scathing about our new home town, describing it as “a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds. It is what a city looks like when it is left to politicians to plan.”

Black Mountain viewed from the National Arboretum.

Apparently, this is what a “deathly” city looks like: Black Mountain viewed from the National Arboretum.

What seems to have riled Oliver is the recent announcement by the OECD that Canberra is the best place in the world to live. No, seriously, this really seems to have upset him.

What’s strange about this whole debate is that the people who seems to hate Canberra, are on the outside, while the people who love it, actually live here. On the whole, Canberrans seem used to the idea that the rest of Australia (and indeed, the world) will readily line up to pour scorn over their city. But it’s something that I find bemusing.

Oliver’s tirade and others like it seem a little to me like one of those Facebook memes ‘First World Problems’, where people take to Facebook and tell everyone the world is at an end because they can’t find organic feta cheese for their forthcoming dinner party, or that they’ve arrived at a cocktail party to find someone is wearing the same shoes and now can’t leave the bathroom. These are not real problems.

If Oliver wants to see deathly communities, I suggest he takes a trot to a refugee camp, or a shanty town, or dare I say it, one of the high-rise estates his architect forebears foisted on people like my grandmother as their vision of ideal communities – architects who indulged their own creative follies while afterwards walking a mile from the problems they created or failed to anticipate.

The playground at the National Arboretum.

Try telling my kids that this is example of bad planning: The playground at the National Arboretum.

For my money, and I did a fair bit of research before bringing my family here, Canberra is family-friendly, of a manageable size and full of both professional and leisure opportunities. When I look at my kids splashing about in our community’s brand new swimming pool, or playing on the Xbox as the brand new local library, or begging to visit the local zoo, dinosaur museum, reptile house, water park, playground, or just to walk the 100 metres from our house to open bushland so they can watch the kangaroos grazing, they’re not bemoaning the lack of architectural soul or the deathly community vacuum created by the roundabouts on the way to school. They’re thinking that this is a pretty cool place to live and that they’re glad we moved here.

Two children splashing about in the Murrumbidgee River.

Splashing about in the Murrumbidgee River, without much sign of “a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges.”

That’s what real families do. They live real lives, in real places like Canberra. And they call this a community, not an architectural case study.

Meanwhile, people like Oliver move on, stroking their chins and raining down wrath on real lives while praising esoteric follies that they don’t have to live next door to. The 1950s was full of architects like that, and the blight of them can be felt all over the world. Meanwhile, from the “windswept plazas” to the “soulless wipe-clean charm of an identikit downtown,” real people are just looking for places where they can be happy. Like us, in Canberra.

A bottle of wine from the Canberra region.

Enjoying a glass of local wine sometimes makes us reflect on how miserable life can be in Canberra.

15 thoughts on “Australia’s national sport: Canberra bashing

  1. Love this post of course. Like you – but a long time ago, I actively chose Canberra as a place to live because I’d fallen in love with it on a visit when I was 15. It was very quiet then – but beautiful, easy to manage, and enough to do, with a lot of interesting people. To me it’s got the best of a city and the best of a country town with little of the worst of those!

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  2. Trish. says:

    Since 2013 when our city celebrated its 100th birthday (in fabulous, festive style, I might add) I have decided that we are way too old to give two hoots about what anybody thinks of it. I was born here, my kids were born here, and I love it. When I see an article that bashes Canberra now, I ignore it, and wonder why someone who calls themselves a writer or journalist couldn’t come up with a more original topic to write about.

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  3. It is true that Canberra bashers rarely live in Canberra. I must admit I was one, coming originally from Adelaide (also a common target city bashing, yet often rated highly in best-of rankings) Canberra was an easy target. Now that we have been living here for a few years, it is as a ‘liveable’ city that it comes into its own, not as a ‘party’ city or a ‘city that never sleeps’. I still find it breathtakingly beautiful and marvel at the incredible foresight and benefit of Burley Griffith’s plan for its accessiblity and amenity. When I come across people bagging Canberra, I just smile now because it’s actually Australia’s best kept secret!

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    • I’m wondering why we have to “bag” any city. I’ve been to every capital city in Australia (6 states and 2 territories) – have lived in three of them (Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra), have a son living living in another (Melbourne) and a brother in another (Hobart). I think they are all great. My preferences would be Canberra, Adelaide and Perth – because I like hot dry climates and smaller cities. But we are in so many senses a lucky country. I’d like to think that we Australians would recognise and promote that rather than “bag” each other. I really don’t get it. Can’t we just accept that we all have our reasons for living where we are and not ridicule the choices of others? I’ll get off my soapbox now.

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      • I agree with all of that, especially when so many of those cities have do much to offer. Never been to Hobart or Perth — one day soon — but I’ve been to all the other capitals and all have something to commend them.

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      • I hear good things about Hobart and am really looking forward to that one , perhaps as part of a round-Tassie campervan trip. I think that might be next year’s family holiday.

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  4. Mark says:

    Touche, but you should really offer this pithy response to the Guardian. After reading Oliver Wainwright’s incoherent and illogical rant, I seriously wonder whether he has actually ever set foot in Canberra, or just relied on some shallow observations he picked up online.

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    • Actually, I did post a comment on the Guardian website. In it, I actually focused on the received wisdom that Copenhagen is a ‘utopia for people and bikes’. Here’s what I wrote — “I’ve lived in Copenhagen for the past 10 years and just moved to Canberra. Why? It’s a family friendly place that isn’t so big that it dwarfs the people who live here. Same is true of Copenhagen, but London, where I grew up, is a money-focused dehumanising sprawl. I’d take Canberra over London any day. On Copenhagen, it always makes me laugh when city planners and architects take credit for the cycling culture without mentioning the 180% tax on vehicle registrations — the Danes joke that you “buy one car, pay for three.” That, as much as anything else, makes car ownership prohibitively expensive for many, driving them towards bikes and public transport instead. It’s not a bad thing in my view, but it’s a lot more complicated than “build it and they will come” bike lanes.” I guess his under-informed comments about Copenhagen should be taken as illustrative of his depth of knowledge of Canberra. Still, he annoyed me, which takes some doing.

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  5. I’m from Melbourne and I admit I have participated in a bit of Canberra bashing in my time. My excuse is that it did appear to be a boring place to a teen or young adult. Now as a “real” adult it seems like a great place to live and it’s so beautiful. My brother lives in Narrabundah and every time I visit I have a great time – we usually go skiing so I really appreciate the accessibility of outdoor activities. Also, every time I’ve been there the sun has been shining. Can’t complain about that!

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    • I’m sure it depends on your time of life and your lifestyle priorities, but the article in question is just lazy. Copenhagen has its rough areas, London more so, but to focus on a single aspect and decide a city is utopia (or deathly) seems to me to lack understanding of the real lives people lead in those cities. Whatever you think of it, at least the OECD survey looked at multiple criteria and based its findings on fact rather than opinion. The article is particularly ironic when you look at what the writer thinks is great architecture — the Serpentine Gallery and the LSE Student Centre in particular.

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