Hating Canberra


CanberraDuring one conversation about Canberra's flagrant lack of appeal, a friend told me the true reason why Canberra, like Washington DC, is positioned in such an inhospitable climatic location (parched summer coupled with hypothermic winter): 'To diminish the appeal of government for politicians and public servants. Who in their right mind would want to live with that weather for more than a decade?'

Disregarding the mind-states of individuals who gravitate toward absolutist governments, and not vouching for my friend's sobriety when he told me this interesting 'fact', the gist is compelling: that if Australia's capital was Brisbane, we might be living in a banana republic whose despotic ruling family would never want to relinquish their grip on leisure governance.

The model explains a lot about Canberra's austerity.

I recently visited my brother and his wife there. I hadn't visited Canberra since my year six class were bussed off to study public life. In other words, I had previosuly only been there while under the nauseated influence of junk food for four days. My few recollections of that first trip are a mud-brown motel with a swimming pool and the rumour of a Kim Beazley sighting.

This time around, I decided I would try my best to form a coherent view of the city.

My foremost impression was that Canberra's defining quality is the dull consistency of its design. The city is a product of the Modernist project, which attempted to eliminate all disorder and congestion. This imposed, and imposing, harmony, marked by the calculated placement of monolithic buildings and wide roads, neglects what is dynamic about urban life and the what defines great cities: their ability to encompass extremely diverse populations and activities.

The city's layout was heavily influenced by the garden city model, which incorporates the natural environment with urban development, allowing for plenty of park space (and for animals to frolic freely with automobiles...).

Canberra's unostentatious nature is attractive compared with Melbourne's posh Euro gardens, but the labyrinthine roads are frustrating. Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of landscape architecture, wrote, 'Curved streets imply leisure, contemplativeness, and happy tranquillity'. Unsurprisingly, he never lived in Canberra, where the mantra goes, 'Like the clunky machinery of bureaucracy, these roundabouts take us nowhere very fast, chortle, chortle'.

When I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, the place seemed somehow sinister; the deep silence of the street was unsettling. 'A capital city ought to have some life to it', I thought to myself, hearing the cry of a far-away bird. I was interrupted by a whoosh as a peloton glided past, helmets sporting a forest of cable-ties intent on deterring the magpie's swoop.

There is plenty of activity in Canberra. Outdoor activity. It must be the abundance of nature that encourages such healthful living.Lots of cyclists, joggers and generally fit people. So I thought, until I noticed the young professionals jogging around Lake Burley Griffin during their lunchbreaks, and learned that a popular social pastime in Canberra is pumping iron. At the gym.

G. K. Chesterton wrote, 'The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy. Physical nature must not be made the object of direct obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped.'

I think like many professional environments, Canberra's competitive atmosphere encourages mindless self-improvement and fuels a dependency on external validation. But unlike other professional environments, Canberra is isolated and by virtue of its function, culturally homogenous. It is naught but the pumping organ of Australia's vibrant bureaucratic life.

The best thing about hating Canberra is that it discourages nationalism. Australia has great cities, and as their populations increase, they will become more dynamic and exciting. But so long as none of them is the capital, our sense of pride about where we come from, and what we think that means about who we are, will always be thwarted by that dark little secret that we share: Canberra.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage edits the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Canberra, Burley Griffin



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Existing comments

Having lived in Canberra the vast majority of my life I'd say this article reflects the stereotypical view of the blow in who doesn't bother scratching beneath the surface. Canberra is vibrant, fun, dynamic and loved by its long-term residents.
AC | 29 October 2010

O Ellena, how I wish I had your way with words..what mysteries you have solved and forgive me for wanting to plagiarise to the last word, to sum up my March visit to Canberra. Thanks,and keep up the good work. Pauline
Pauline Kennedy | 29 October 2010

I love Canberra. I love Sydney Harbour. I love the MCG. I love the NSW south coast fishing village of Bermagui. What makes me love these various places? I can't really say. Love in the final analysis is one of life's great mysterious joys. Or should that be joyful mysteries? But were I to hate a place, what would that say about me?
To hate any person, place or thing is psychologically damaging.

But I need not have worried about Ellena Savage and her essay on the less lovely aspects of Canberra.

First of all she quotes G K Chesterton - always a good sign of intellectual and emotional maturity.

Secondly she is exercising her satirical skills - something I admire.

And thirdly what she sees as defects I see as blemishes on the face of a beloved which proves to me that my love is not based on the hollow ground of physical perfection.
I look forward to the day when someone like Ms Savage becomes Prime Minister and makes Canberra the vibrant beating heart of this still young nation.
Uncle Pat | 29 October 2010

I totally agree with the first comment made on the article. Why not spend more than a weekend here in Canberra? The diversity and cultural life here is vibrant. Its not a dark little secret - its Australia's best kept secret!
Clair Hochstetler | 29 October 2010

Oh Ellena, how can somebody write so well, and yet get so many things so wrong?

Canberra has more hours of sunshine than any other capital city in Australia - apart from Darwin.

Canberra's air is often (as it was this very morning) so delicious it is like champagne - or like one of the many sparkling Australian wines (if you prefer) being produced by one of the 35 wineries on Canberra's doorstep.

And yes, Canberra is so very different from any other capital city in Australia, and indeed the world...and how lucky we are to live in a country where our cities each have their own charms (and foibles). Long live diversity! Long live a Canberra - even in its imperfections - that has no rival.

And do come back again...and, unlike a Bill Bryson or a Billy Connolly, spend some proper time here next time.
Nanzan | 29 October 2010

Canberrans have long been aware of the passionate hatred that some in other parts of Australia direct towards their city and workplace. It is one of those Canberran urban myths that those who drive around in other states with Canberra numberplates on their cars must beware lest they be the targets of other angry drivers.

The word 'Canberra' expressed with deep scornful disdain, seems to sum up.... 'envy'? Usually those people, like the writer of this article, have visited once or twice, seen similar things and sworn never return. Their criticism tells more about the critic than the city itself - if only they would care to look.

But perhaps Ellena Savage's comments form but one voice in the large group nation of which she and I are both members. I contribute my own memories and impressions of Canberra from a childhood and young adulthood spent there. My voice, like Ellena's belongs here, too.

It is some years since I left Canberra, the city in which I grew up and thus spent my formative years to move to Melbourne. My choice of professional training was not available in Canberra at that time. The writer of this article has merely visited the place. Hers is the view of an outsider. She clearly has not been invited into the nooks and crannies to see and experience the place when it is not on display.

What she would find if she did so is a remarkably 'cosmopolitan' place with a strong sense of the country and the world beyond its doorstep. The presence of the embassies is one of its unique features. Unlike my peers who grew up in other cities and towns across Australia, the presence of the embassy kids at school,who came to stay in Canberra is a memory I value. As a kid I visited their homes,was introduced to different sorts of food and heard different languages spoken around me. People dressed differently. Some of the embassy folk came to our house where my mother worked as a dressmaker, asking her to make the clothes they wore at home in Ghana or Nigeria they could not obtain anywhere in Australia, then. As a child and young adolescent I formed friendships with peers from India, Cambodia, Laos, Denmark, United States and England - amongst others. Japan also figured in my family's professional radar. Later on as a young adult it was through such friendships that I developed an interest in Russian literature and art, and began to appreciate the diversity of the Balkan region. I remember the early days, in early 1973 when the China was recognised and the first of their embassy people came to stay. Where else in Australia, in the late 70s could these opportunities be found so easily? Melbourne by contrast seemed closed, narrow and parochial...although it had and has its own culture, values and aspiration. Ambition was far more commercially based than in Canberra where a good Arts degree which developed one's analytical skills in politics, history and languages - coupled with post graduate degrees went far. Melbourne had its generations of doctors and lawyers; its cliques of school friends and a closedness to newcomers that still prevails - if my recent conversations with young Canberrans is any indication.

The schools are good. My old primary school, Red Hill is now an international school offering Baccalaureate studies. Narrabundah High, now Narrabundah College provided an education as good as any in the expensive private schools in the larger cities.

Politics was also central to our lives in a way I have not experienced since moving from Canberra. It continues to be so amongst my friends and relatives living in Canberra today. My family and their friends were employees of the public service. They had a strong awareness - not just of matters across the country but of international affairs, leaders and events. They were participants in these events, too. I remember dinner parties in which it was joked by some of the guests that it was they, the public servants 'who ran the country'. And it was also the younger folk, who came to Canberra to learn the craft of governance, of relating the public interest to policy and law, who proved to be thoughtful and interesting, creative contributors to the intellectual music, theatre and cinema scenes. Too.

Yes... there is the competitive aspect of the Canberra public service. It recruits folk who imagine themlseves as diplomats and policy makers. They want to make a difference to the way things are run in their country. And of course pumping iron balances the essentially sedentary nature of brain work. It would be a pity if they all dropped dead from heart attacks too young before their work was done!!

Christine | 29 October 2010

I share disappointment with some of the stereotypical views expressed. Canberra has been my home for 35 years and I love it for being a fantastic healthy place to raise a family, for its closeness to the bush, for the endless variety of cultural experiences available, for the ready availability of the National Library, National Gallery, War Memorial etc etc.

Those not used to roundabouts need to take the trouble to plan their trips better.
One hope. If only the media would desist from labelling decisions of government as 'Canberra decided' or some such descriptors.

It becomes too easy to dislike, even despise, a beautiful city based on decisions of government that are not popular.
DavidG | 29 October 2010

How often I've heard these complaints of our nation's capital by those who merely pass through and don't investigate the city.

Although I only visit once or twice a year I find Canberra to be vibrant in its artistic life, entertainment, theatre, culinary pleasures, museums, galleries, shopping etc but it is a place where these things can be out of the way and cannot be found by merely scratching the surface. It is a city that requires contemplation and not simply a tick on the itinerary as a 'been there, done that' exercise.

In many ways I'm glad the weather has its extremes it tends to keep those away who have already made their minds up and aren't interested in searching for the soul of the city.
Alan Blackshaw | 29 October 2010

You write, Ellena, as though it is self evident that your opinion of Canberra is shared by everyone. Well it isn't. There are lots of us who love Canberra and its weather. Crisp mornings, sunny days - invigorating. On the other hand Brisbane's steamy climate would drive me to drink. So I stay well away!
Terry O'Neill | 29 October 2010

So you’re back from Yarralumla, Miss Elena, where you went
And the roundabouts and cyclists give you writer’s discontent.
Well, you know it’s not so often that young ones like you come down
And no doubt you’re better suited to the night life in your town.

If I continued in this vein, would it be regarded as ad hominem or ad mulierem?
Frank | 29 October 2010

What a sad and cynical view of a warm and friendly place. if you were to broaden your connections you might see more.
Mary Perth WA | 01 November 2010

Ho hum...yawn...this has all been said many times before by fly in fly out journo's and pollies who know and care little about community life in the bush capital. Spend some time here look beyond the bleeding obvious and find out what this place is really like.
David Turbayne | 01 November 2010

I was going to defend this beautiful, natural, and dare I say VIBRANT city… but then I re-read your article and found that you hadn’t substantiated your view with any credible knowledge or observations of our town.

You don’t like the city’s layout? Something other than right-angles is somehow displeasing? Would you like a GPS?

An inhospitable climatic location? There is no such thing as bad weather – just inappropriate clothing (and a disposition for complaining).

‘Sinister’? If peace and quiet and the sounds of native wildlife leave you with a sinister feeling, perhaps you should venture out of your urban jungle a little more often.

‘Canberra-bashing’. Yawn.

Steph L | 03 November 2010

The problem with Canberra apologists is that they believe fundamentally that the nice things in Canberra (there are plenty of nice things) make it a good city. This perhaps reflects on the recruitment selection criteria of the main employers here: steadiness and obedience.

What makes a great city is not its pretty streets or good schools--though these certainly make a place easier to live. It's the extremes that make a city. Canberra has no entrepreneurs. If you live here, name for me how many butchers (real butchers, owned by the butcher who works there) are within 3km of your house? How many bakers? Indian spice marts? Fruit stores? If you can name more than one, you are doing mighty well.

The truth is that in Canberra, most of our commercial experiences are had in sterile shopping centres, or at Woolies. If you're lucky enough to live in Dickson or Kingston, you have the choice of a single fruit store or single butcher. That is not a marque of a great city.

Canberra bound | 04 November 2010

I feel bound to respond to 'Canberra Bounds' assertion that 'Canberra has no entrepreneurs' and to name a butcher, Indian spice mart and fruit store within 3 kilometers of where I live.

Yes, it's true this planned city has no corner stores but the local shopping centres quite often do have such places. Within 3 kms of where I live in Watson I have a local baker, a Lebanese owned fruit shop, a great Indian spice store and a Vietnamese grocery and vegie shop, as well as Chinese and Aussie owned butchers. But best of all, 5 minutes walk away is a Farmers Market which Kylie Kwong rates among the best in Oz.

So, I've got nothing to be a 'Canberra apologist' about.
What gets me is just how uninformed, inaccurate and superficial so much of the criticism is about this town.
But then again, prejudice knows no bounds.
David T | 06 November 2010

If you were to hate living in Canberra, what would that say about you? The same way that people move out of Somalia. That you made a really important decision by moving away. Or, that you don't come from Canberra, thus come from a better place to live. (Which is quite easy to find) The "vibrance" is crap and far too expensive for what you get. Don't kid yourself, life is better elsewhere. You just have to get out of "Pleasentville."
Paul | 05 April 2013

I love Canberra. Fresh clean air. Great bike paths. Hot summers - but never muggy and sticky like Sydney. Great food & cafes. I love the cold winters - Just enough to wear and warm wooley coat and gloves. Did I mention the galleries.
Gene Taylor | 11 March 2014

Canberra...uugghh, having moved here, did uni, left to Sydney and then came back, I look forward to soon departing and never to return. Scorching hot and freezing cold, pollen is rife, half the population are APS and that creates a stigma/atmosphere that's unbearable. Political and nasty, everything overpriced and boring as hell compared to Syd and Melb. 50% of the population leaves every 5 years.
Simon 69 | 16 January 2020


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