Canberra and Sydney: a Character Study
Russell Degnan

We are often given to describe cities as if they were people: Melbourne is sombre but relaxed; London, cosmopolitan and inventive; Paris, a grandiose show-off. But what does this mean really? That it invokes that mood in its visitors, or in its inhabitants; or that its inhabitants create that mood for themselves? If it is, at least in part, the built form that creates these responses in people then we need to ask what properties they give spaces, that they create such different effects.

Canberra and Sydney are two cities that provoke substantially different moods, as well as being as differently planned as any two places can be. Our national capital is generally derided as boring and left at that. Perhaps it is hard to define a mood in a place often devoid of people. By contrast, Sydney is wanton and harried. The harbour sparkles and invites a gaze but like the congested, shadowing streets is busy. The parks offer refuge but even these are full of movement and events, or workers out for a run at lunch.

And that is an important difference. In a week in Canberra I never saw anyone running. Cycling, often, which is an activity preserved for the clinically insane in Sydney, but never running, for fitness or any other reason. Canberra comes across as a city where people make their own time. But that probably isn't the case.

The urban form prevents anyone from rushing in Canberra. Noone walks anywhere of any great distance. I tried it, and it is long, slow and tedious, akin to bush-walking in many places, like trudging across endless playing fields (or a paddock) in others. If you do walk anywhere, it is because it is close, like the local pubs in the older suburbs -- actually that is probably the only place you would walk to. Otherwise people drive, the distances between things, and the tedium associated with seeing noone else. precludes walking. The roads themselves are processions marked only by endless unindicated lane merging; too wide and slow to seem dangerous, most driving in Canberra seems like a trip to the country.

It is the weight of nearby humanity that makes them different. Canberra has only a few places (the Civic mall) where you can sit and watch people, so people don't, they return to someplace else. In Sydney you can't help but watch people, you can hardly escape them (at least in the central city), and so it isn't a city for meditation. Melbourne has a CBD almost as large as Sydney, but its parks are larger and further away, and its streets wider and more open. You can set your own pace. You can tell the rest of the city to shove off. You can't in Sydney, there are always eyes on you wondering what you are doing, or things happening to draw your attention. As Canberra has nothing to engage your brain in social activity, so in Sydney you can't escape it. And as the urban form of the central city makes everyone akin to the social pages of a glamour magazine, so the character of the city reflects that.

It wouldn't be right to say the character of a city is just about its places. It is also its economy, its climate, its cultural mix, and its self-awareness. But those things combine with places that carry the potential of the city's character. Even as Sydney's streets push people to the gentler margins of the CBD, those places allow certain activities that define the character of the city: drinking in a sun-drenched bar along the harbour edge; jogging through the undulating botanic gardens; promenading through Hyde Park; or an older image I get that still seems to fit, of a hat-wearing man reading a newspaper in a be-shadowed Wynyard Square.

But does the reverse apply? If Melbourne's cafe strips, or laneway bars be imported into Sydney, would they fit, subtly understated as in Melbourne, or look out of place? If anything, Sydney came to Melbourne in a few places; at Docklands, and in parts of Federation Square and Southbank. Docklands is still finding its niche, but it is clear already that it won't be the brash destination the promoters originally pushed. For climatic reasons, if nothing else, the cafes are sheltered with gas heaters at the ready; fewer people abound, moving slower; the mood is subdued.

We can conclude that the character of a city is an open vessel, filled by its inhabitants. But not all cities offer much to their inhabitants. Canberra really is boring, pretty at times, but it offers no social comfort to the citizen on the street. Sydney's citizens though, have shaped the city to its surroundings, which in turn shapes its citizens to it. And like any city worth visiting, it has a character all its own.

Passing Fancy 10th January, 2006 13:25:52   [#] 


Sydney, Canberra & Melbourne
I agree. Sydney is far to busy - you can't escape the people. It is very much a place to sit in outdoor cafes, but the city is too busy and doesn't have that many nice cafes (the skyscrapers are too tall, so the ground level is in constant shadow). Canberra doesn't even have footpaths in some places, so they assume no one would walk. It feels eerie walking around the government buildings. At least the parliament is a hub of people (however the people never leave the building). I loved the spaces and trees at ANU, but it felt so odd with no people. The court yard in Old Parliament House on a Friday night is the place to be - lots of young people having fun and drinking the Bees Neez.
BridgeGirl  11th January, 2006 09:10:15