How is culture created? How do cities gain worldwide reputations? What is the cost, and what can be gained?
These are questions that Canberra is grappling with now, and the answers being presented by the Barr government are clear – buildings, buildings, a tram and more buildings.
I was recently at Grand Central Station in New York, at that special place in the concourse called the ‘Whispering Gallery’. The story goes that if you stand in one corner of the ornate archway, and a friend stands in the opposite one, you’ll be able to whisper into the walls and the sound will travel straight to their ear.
It’s an incredible building – but what makes the Station, and indeed New York so rich with culture, is not the building. The buildings are just the setting for the centuries of human culture, which has evolved in a way that is unique to the city. In fact, Grand Central Station was rebuilt three times, to better suit the needs of New Yorkers.
Coming back to Canberra, I was struck by the marketing terms employed by developers spruiking the numerous new buildings being thrown up across the city.
Branx, one Braddon apartment block is called, a name that heralds the gritty urban borough in NYC, the Bronx. Another apartment development in Woden is called Grand Central Towers, and offers a lobby to rival the Station in NYC. Geocon offers (or threatens, depending on how you feel about it) to ‘shape Canberra’s skyline’ – a skyline that many residents already love for the way it offers an uninterrupted view of the mountains that ring the valley.
Soon these will be blocked by apartments, apartments, and more apartments.
Here’s the thing – you can’t create a vibrant city through imitation, and by investing in buildings without investing in people. You know why New York has Grand Central Station, and the High Line, and the Brooklyn Bridge, and any number of other iconic architectural landmarks? It’s because they evolved over many years, dreamed into being by New Yorkers, based on the culture of that city. They were intended to enhance the culture, not replace it.
Importantly, New York is what it is because of the people in it, the industries it houses, and the role it plays in America more broadly. With this in mind, the desperate attempts to mimic that city in Canberra seem even more ludicrous.
Instead, why not play to the unique characteristics Canberra already has? As the Bush Capital, people come to Canberra precisely because of our lower urban density, the access to nature parks, and the stunning views that stretch (uninterrupted by high rises) across the lake and between mountains.
Infrastructure projects should be focused on adding value to the community in areas of identified need, rather than strategically to enhance sites of current development projects that will ultimately only be available to high-income earners (i.e. the numerous apartment complexes being built on Northbourne Avenue and starting at over $300,000 for one-bedroom plans).
Frustratingly, even when the Government decides to invest in culture, it is once again with the ambition of imitating famous cultural events from America, instead of investing in local communities.
The plan for an arts and music festival that rivals South By South West (SXSW) is particularly ludicrous. That festival, based in Austin, Texas, was created by a community of musicians and artists, who used their skills and networks to develop an event designed for the people it attracted; it evolved with the objective to serve artists and to connect that art to the community, not with the objective of selling more apartments and grabbing more tourism dollars.
That the ACT government assumes that by throwing money at bureaucrats they can create something similar in Canberra is offensive to the artists here, who have been working for decades to create a scene that is unique to our city and who have been doing this with minimal investment from the government.
I have worked on multiple grassroots festivals and events in Canberra, and they have been exciting and vibrant, and able to attract interstate artists precisely because they have grown out of authentic arts communities that exist independent of the government. They are free to explore and experiment the way that the arts should, rather than being beholden to the numerous approval and procurement processes of the public service.
Yet just a few years ago, the newly re-elected Barr government tried to sneakily cut arts funding by 60 per cent without informing the community, making it harder for the arts culture to thrive in Canberra while simultaneously using its lack of thriving as justification for launching a government-run festival instead. (It should be noted that after collective action from Canberra artists, the funding was restored and a new advisory council on the arts established).
Of course, the other aspect of this rhetoric about ‘revitalising’ Canberra that grates is the assumption that Canberra isn’t vibrant already. It’s an assumption predicated on there being a straight line drawn between ‘vibrancy’ and ‘bustling metropolis’. It ignores the numerous ways that cities diverge from this stereotype, and remain exciting and unique.
Leave Canberra alone – let us grow and change naturally, rather than trying to force this square peg into a round hole.
Zoya Patel is a writer, editor and communications professional, based in Canberra. She is the founder and editor of Feminartsy, an online feminist arts and literature journal, and was named ACT Young Woman of the Year in 2015 for her commitment to raising the profile of women’s voices in the media.