Public servants, Poli’s, Questacon.
If you ask any Aussie outside of Canberra what there is to do here you will often be met with a vacant stare whilst the mind searches for a distant memory of some school trip to Parliament, or maybe, more excitingly Questacon, home of the vertical slide (which many Canberrans attest is its best attraction).
Better still, if you tell anyone ‘Im moving to Canberra’ you will be met with a pitied look, a furrowed brow and a straight out, WHY?
Yes, Canberra is revered as something of a blight on the nation by its fellow countrymen and visitors, famously immortalised by Bill Bryson with the crushing tag line – Canberra. Why wait for death?
A planned, sprawling city with a stunted skyline, I first thought that this was a sad, yet accurate indictment when I arrived last year. My first impression was ‘where is everything?’ followed by horror at the fact that the city centre was concrete, deserted and due to close at 6pm.
However despite my initial feelings, after living here for almost a year I am full of love for Canberra. Love I am so eagerly and generously willing to share, both here and if you catch me after a few vino’s of an evening.
I would like to proceed and tell you five great things about this unusual yet fascinating place. However first, for the Brits out there at least, we may need to proceed with a brief history lesson.
If you are anything like me (only a mere few years ago) you may not have the foggiest idea of where Canberra is. I say that because Canberra to me was the name of a meeting room I used to frequent at my old job in London. When I questioned it’s whereabouts and received an answer I exclaimed aghast,“I aways thought the capital was Sydney!”. Hopefully you are better informed than I, but in any case here goes.
Melbourne: I want to be the Capital. I’m super cool and awesome.
Sydney: No I want to be the Capital! I’m older, it’s not fair!
Commonwealth: Oh sod it. Let’s just stick it here.
Upon federation in 1901, the ink barely dry on the Constitution, fighting began between Australia’s biggest cities, Melbourne and Sydney as to who was going to be crowned the nations capital.
As each considered itself a worthy contender and wouldn’t budge, a compromise was reached in 1908; the new capital would be located in the state of New South Wales and Victoria would have the honour of their flag becoming the new Australian flag with the addition of the federation star.
same same but different
To keep the minds of the poli’s sharp, the deathly cold by winter, stifling hot by summer sheep populated area of Yass – Canberra was selected. At 170 miles from Sydney it met the terms of the compromise and was a clean slate on which to build. The Australian Capital Territory was born.
Given that there was bugger all there though, an international competition was launched shortly thereafter for the city’s design. The winners were husband and wife team Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, Americans who had never actually been to Australia, yet captivated the judges with their ‘garden city’ inspired design.
Their design looked like this:
The early days looked a bit like this:
And it all ended up looking like this:
The first fully planned city in Australia Canberra has been going strong for just over a 100 years, which when you think of places like London or Rome really is no time at all. Today it holds a population of just shy of 400,000, forecast to grow to almost double in the next five or so years. Whilst it may be teeny tiny compared to other places, Canberra is developing all the time, from the constant popping up of flat pack houses or delivering of the deeply polarising (I am #protram) light rail planned for completion in 2019.
Anyways I have strayed from my historical overview and was about to go on and bore the pants off you as to its legal quirks and intricacies but it would be cruel to do so without at least the promise of a drink.
Lets get to the main event. Five things that are awesome about Canberra that Canberrans already know and others should know in order to reduce the incidence of Canberra bashing.
Number 1 : Its just so darn liveable!
This is a buzz phrase that has been much banded around from when Canberra was hailed the worlds most liveable city in 2014 (albeit from an organisation I have never heard of).
It got a fair bit of milage at the time, mostly from Sydney and Melbournites who were left baffled that Canberra could come first in anything.
Hype aside, I can say first hand that it is remarkably accurate.
Canberra has all of the things that you value day to day, such as stress free commutes (traffic, what traffic!), excellent salaries, low crime rates, low rents, good health care and heaps of services just to name a few. Never again in my life do I expect to earn a six figure salary and be a mere 10 minutes cycle from home, doing whatever I want by 5.30pm. Could you imagine the same from London? Nope. Not going to happen. Work life balance is not a term given lip service here, it’s just the norm.
Canberra also supports the possibility of living somewhere with views like this, yet being half an hour from work.
Number 2 : True to it’s Bush Capital name, it is impeccably beautiful
Whilst its buildings may not inspire, and its city centre (civic) is certainly nothing to write home about, it is inescapable that Canberra is totally gorgeous.
I have, in the last few weeks been residing with Mr S in Campbell, in a lovely little suburb surrounded by gum trees and pines. Every morning I am awoken by the (slightly obnoxious) sound of Cockatoos making their presence known and have coffee with King Parrots in the garden. It’s great, I have loved living in a place with birds in all the colours of the rainbow.
Birds aside, I absolutely adore kangaroos and they are plentiful in Canberra. Sometimes too plentiful as a colleague was telling me who described trying to find her way home in the dark surrounded by roos, wishing that Canberra was a ‘normal’ capital.
I totally dig the bush capital vibe and will miss it terribly.
Number 3 : People actually do stuff
Now this is more of a British person perspective than perhaps a Canberra specific phenomenon, though I have spoken to other Australians who endorse my observations.
Travel home on the way from work and you will see people, lots of people out doing stuff. It could be dragon boating on the lake, it could be playing netball, it could be playing football, or climbing Mt Ainslie, but they’re all at it.
The same is true of weekends where camping trips, mountain trips, beach trips or a tour of one of the many local wineries may be on the agenda. Personally I find this so different to living in the UK where my weekends used to revolve around going out on Friday and then watching X Factor on Saturday. I may have a selective memory but I recall most of my weekends back home revolving around drinking, going out and watching TV where I would get to Sunday and realise I hadn’t really done that much.
Don’t get me wrong all those things are fun, but I feel that was all I really did in England, whereas in Canberra I have found myself doing something new and interesting most weekends, even visiting NASA!
Number 4 : There’s a sense of community and one that is actively engaged in what is going on
Despite not even being Australian, I have in the past year considered myself very much a Canberran. Never before I have felt such a connection with what is going on in a place than I have here and had that reflected back at me at dinner parties and the like.
Now my feelings in this regard could be biased by the fact that I have actually been an ACT Public servant for the last year working on a number of things from trams to prisons, but I have noticed that everyone has a view and has bothered to read the news about the governments next big endeavour, policy or the like. This is something I haven’t really experienced in the UK. Sure some people are interested and get riled about the big things, such as the decimation of the NHS or Legal Aid, but many are not and so many people have an opinion here, it’s quite refreshing.
Take for example the proposed light rail project. In my view a fantastic initiative to address the city’s woeful lack of public transport, which, in my opinion at least, will transform the city. To say a bit more about this briefly, I have always found it quite odd that on attending a BBQ on a friday night you will find a street littered with cars so everyone can get home afterwards, unheard of in the likes of London, especially on a Friday with the promise of booze.
Anyway I digress, this project aims to deliver the first 12km stretch of light rail to Canberra and is deeply polarising. Some people hate the idea of it, which I find fascinating, I can’t imagine people getting so fired up about such a thing back home!
Number 5 : There’s more going on than the Canberra bashers would have you think
Canberra often gets a bad rep for being boring, a place where the young and feckless will suffer terribly on the account that the place is only good for public servants and politicians (whom it is assumed are already boring).
In my experience I have found the opposite and have found Canberra full of things to do.
In the summer it comes alive with all the trappings of it’s glitzier cousins Sydney and Melbourne – open air cinemas, festivals (not that glasto kind mind), pop up food festivals, markets, lawn parties, bowie tribute nights….I could go on.
That and Canberrans love to go out. Out out.
Friday’s and Saturday’s are heaving in the city centre, everyone dressed up to the nines, which reminds me a lot of home. Whilst the nightlife is not, admittedly, up to Sydney and Melbourne standards, there’s still more than a smattering of good bars in which to let down your hair and shake your tail feather.
So there you have it, just a few reasons why , in my humble opinion Canberra is a pretty awesome.
And it is with this is mind that I am very saddened to be leaving Canberra today. Yes today!
After just shy of a year of being here, learning so and meeting some fantastic people, I am packing my bags and heading back to Europe before my visa expires. Whilst this is not the first time that I have left a city I loved (Manchester, London, Melbourne to name a few), I feel as though one day I will return to Canberra.
For now though I am taking the best part with me in Mr S. The good and oh so comfortable life which Canberra offers must be put on hold for large dose of uncertainty and adventure in moving to Berlin this April, with stop offs in Malaysia, Burma and Manchester.
So I will leave you with this. The next time you hear someone bagging on Canberra, give them a jab in the ribs, for they must be called out on their preconceptions – it really is quite a lovely place.