The advantages conveyed by having a 'nice' city
Russell Degnan

I had occasion last weekend, to take a jaunt to the gold mining regions of central Victoria. The stated purpose was to see the art galleries of the region; since they have a fine reputation. But I'm also fascinated by the area.

If ever the goal was to recreate Mother England in the distant colonies, it had no better implementation than this region. The major towns and country are - not surprisingly - the living reincarnation of the Jerusalem Hymn. Rolling green hills and pastures, few native trees, and a collection of grand churches and public buildings that shames Melbourne (who tore so many of theirs down).

These towns should be shadows of their former selves. The gold rush finished 140 years ago. The towns lost substantial proportions of their populations with the collapse of their major resource. Although away from the coast, their presence on the major routes to Melbourne from the country allowed them to maintain themselves through the early 20th century. But with faster modern transport methods and limited natural resources there is no geographical reason that medium size cities like Castlemaine, Ballarat, Bendigo or Daylesford ought to exist. And yet they are booming.


The Castlemaine post office and streetscape

The reason is their relative proximity to Melbourne, and the benefits of sound urban management 150 years ago. The citizens of the boom towns laid out wide (even too wide), graceful streets, built majestic buildings, planted large trees, and started galleries, libraries and other sources of civic pride. You can tell Melbourne is starting to reach the limit of its growth, not because the government has implemented an urban growth boundary which may or may not hold; but because so many people are moving to country towns to live. While there is a marginally longer commute than living on the urban fringe, country residents reap the benefits of the afore-mentioned urban amenities, and accessible walkable neighbourhoods.

Meanwhile, Melbourne residents come out to those cities on day trips in their thousands. Castlemaine has so many antique shops and cafes (though many were closed last week) as to have no other industry. The galleries started 150 years ago are - through donations and acquisition - now full of Australia's best artists from the past: Buvelot, McCubbin, Streeton, and an impressive collection of modern art as well.

If the boom period of the 1850s was an example of the benefits of sound urban practise, the boom period of the 1950s is a perfect example of the opposite effect. Both saw a rapid increase in population - though the 1850s was an order of magnitude worse - and desperate shortages of housing, and infrastructure. The 1950s however, produced sloppy concrete buildings and ugly townships and suburbs, lacking in any grace, trees, sources of civic pride and basically: care.

If you were to travel in an easterly direction you'll come across the Latrobe Valley. Despite being well within the day trip range of Melbourne, its' cities are largely devoid of cafes and activity. In Moe - traditionally, yet rightly bashed - the job losses from power industry reform in the 1990s have left shops closed and streets deserted. Unlike the gold regions though, Moe can't trade on its' grand buildings, and its' beauty, because it doesn't have any. Whatever money it managed to extract from 50 years attached to the power industry hasn't gone to making the city a better place. Now there is a downturn, all that is left is a dying city.


Economic sustainability is a bit of a myth - particularly if you are involved in mining. All things can and do change. A city is much like a surfer, all they can do is keep their head up and be ready to catch the next wave. For Castlemaine and Ballarat, decisions made a hundred and more years ago are being turned to their advantage. I highly recommend a visit, the galleries are better than I expected, the food is generally excellent, and if you like late Victorian, the architecture is as impressive as any place in the world.

Sterner Matters 11th July, 2004 18:04:02   [#] 

Comments

Keeping our heritage
I agree that we are very lucky to have towns such as Castlemaine and Ballarat. The buildings are wonderfully grand.

I went to a lecture last night about the Western region of rural NSW and how many of the stately homes are in disrepair, requiring huge funds (eg. $400k per home) to be restored. No one wants to do it, because the weather is so fickle out there and it is therefore difficult to farm (profits are unpredictable and so many people become frustrated and leave for literally greener pastures).

Michelle Grattan has written a book about the region. She followed the footsteps of journalist, war-correspondent and historian C E W BEAN, who wrote "On The Wool Track."
BridgeGirl  13th July, 2004 11:08:00