16 December 2021

BEST OF 2021: Is stress-free, carefree Canberra living on borrowed time?

| Zoya Patel
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Weston Creek

The population paradox: will what makes Canberra attractive be lost as more people are attracted to Canberra? Photo: Region Media.

Year in Review: Region Media is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2021. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking in 2021. Today, Zoya Patel takes a look at the changing face of Canberra.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of this city. Canberra has been my home for the better part of 20 years, and despite the brief sojourns I’ve made interstate and overseas, I imagine I’ll be living here until I die (ideally peacefully, in my sleep, sometime before the climate apocalypse really takes hold).

The same reasons why some people disdain Canberra as a soulless city that lacks the grit and energy of our bigger neighbours are the reasons why most Canberrans love it here.

There are fewer people, which means less traffic, less urban sprawl and more meaningful access to the entertainment on offer here. We have great schools, a sufficient job market, and while the property market is entirely dysfunctional, the same is true of every capital city in Australia right now.

Of course, these benefits are only available to those of us with the income and resources to engage in them, and we do still have significant inequity in Canberra. But for people like me, with stable incomes, a house to call their own, and a dog to wander the mountains with, things here are truly excellent.

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My brother recently moved back to Canberra after almost a decade of living in Melbourne. Since being back, he seems like a different person.

Instead of waking up at 6 am every day to start the two-hour routine of dropping the kids at before-school care, driving to the train station and catching the train to work so that he can start by 8 am so he can leave at 4 pm to do the whole thing in reverse before it’s too late, he now strolls five minutes down the road to catch a bus for his 10-minute journey to his job in the city, while the kids walk the short distance to their school.

After years of just not being able to reasonably squeeze in the time after work, he’s started playing sport again and is even coaching his kid’s soccer team. He’s also looking into volunteering to mentor young people in need.

I watch this transformation of my brother from a harassed and exhausted father of two, constantly stuck in the rat race of home-traffic-work-traffic-home, with every potential outing or experience requiring more time to get there, and navigating crowds, and then getting home through more traffic, into someone with time, energy and convenience at their fingertips. I can’t help but feel validated in my love for Canberra.

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For years, as I watched my friends do the classic migration from Canberra to the flashier cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, I felt a little ashamed of staying put in my home town. I would question whether my desire to stay was a sign of a lack of adventure in my spirit, or a sort of lethargy that made me boring, or lazy for wanting to keep my life as pleasant and easy as it is here.

But with the wisdom of age, I can now see that the stressed, harassed, constantly busy demeanours of my friends isn’t a sign that they’re living life to the fullest, but a sign that they are so stretched just managing their full-time work and life admin on a week-to-week basis that they can’t relax and actually enjoy life.

In contrast, I spend 20 minutes getting to and from work. I can easily avoid major shopping centres by heading to my local shops when I need groceries, and there are schools, supermarkets, doctors and a post office within five minutes of my house. Even when we lived further out than we do currently, there was never more than 25 minutes of nasty peak ‘hour’ traffic, and we still had amenities right near us that made our day-to-day lives much easier.

I assume people in big cities do have relaxed and happy lives, but I would wager that the people who have the best experiences are also the ones with the most money and freedom of time. The same is true of Canberra, of course, but the actual level of resourcing needed to have a relaxed and happy life here is much lower than that in bigger cities with higher rents, more competition for work, and population sizes that create a constant sense of scarcity.

But as glad as I am to live here, I’m equally scared that our enjoyment of a smaller population and the benefits that it offers is doomed to end.

As apartments go up on every available block of land, and more people journey to join us here in Canberra, it’s clear that our comfortable existence in the middle ground between town and city is due to change, probably in favour of the latter.

Does this mean the ease of access and convenience that we all love about Canberra is on borrowed time? How do we safeguard the best things about living here when it’s those same attributes that act as drawcards to people looking to move to the ACT? Is Canberra only this good because there are fewer of us here to enjoy it?

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As long as we keep electing neoliberal governments like our longstanding Labor/Green coalition, things will only go downhill.

Capital Retro4:30 pm 08 May 21

Living on borrowed time?

It’s actually more like living on borrowed money, from the Territory government to the unemployed.

There is a massive debt bubble in Canberra and, thanks to the policies of governments and the RBA, few people see the need for borrowing restraint.

I won’t make a prediction about what is likely to happen.

The Canberra lifestyle is fresh air, trees, birds, roos, mountain views, bush and lake walks, good roads, bike paths, kids, picnics, sport, slow coffees, intelligent conversation, gardens, parkland, gardens and uncrowded spaces. So if you want to keep this lifestyle don’t encourage people who want to change it. You know who I mean.

Capital Retro8:33 am 09 May 21

“slow coffees”?

You mean warm/cold coffees. Even when one asks for a hot coffee it rarely happens.

HiddenDragon7:59 pm 06 May 21

The time remaining for a relatively low stress Canberra might be longer if some of the people who are pushing to make this town more like places they’ve lived in relatively briefly (typically as unattached/childless young adults) or places they’ve never been to, but imagine they would like to live in (based on fantasy lifestyles depicted in film and TV), stopped trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Canberra will be stress free when we stop gold plating the road network and build a public transport system that is flexible and can move with the times. This does not include a tram given our sprawling city with very low densities.

Yep. Express peak hour buses used to get workers relatively quickly from home to work without too many stops and without having to change buses.

Then some bright spark in the ACT Government took those buses and the bus stops they served away. They replaced these popular buses with a worse service and commuters have voted with their feet.

No good having more buses more often in the time periods that less people want to catch a bus.

Flexibility can be a problem. You get used to a service; maybe even buy a house near it, and then because it is flexible it can be easily taken away, as has happened. At least light rail gives some certainty. Much harder to remove, which is in its favour. Because of that, it will attract people to live near it, especially near the stops.

I agree. The shared and cycle paths also could do with a massive overhaul so that we have an actual network that cyclists can use and avoid roads entirely. There actually are cyclists who still prefer this to riding on roads.

Jenny Graves2:35 pm 06 May 21

I fell in love with Canberra when I first came here in 1980. I’ve been living here permanently for 25 years now and I’m so sad to see the huge apartment blocks going up everywhere. I really feel that the city is being wrecked. The developers seem to be given free rein to do whatever they want, despite many protests from the city’s residents. The beautiful city that I first saw no longer exists in many areas. Very sad.

Completely agree. Sad to see greedy developers exploiting the policies of single-minded, corrupt politicians. I wish people woild think long term when they vote.

ChrisinTurner2:23 pm 06 May 21

What! “less urban sprawl” you must be pulling our collective legs. Canberra has the same north-south dimension as Sydney which is a disaster for public transport and journey times. Berlin is the same size as Belconnen.

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