This past weekend, a friend was visiting from Melbourne. We grew up together in Canberra and we have both lived in other cities over the years. But for the past five or so years, I’ve been in Canberra and she’s been in Melbourne.
Over the two nights that she was in town, along with other friends, we went out to dinner in Braddon, enjoyed dog walks by the lake, brunch at GangGang in Downer and a lazy afternoon at the Old Canberra Inn. All that, and we didn’t even get started on the delights of the southside!
At multiple points over the weekend, my friend exclaimed, “Canberra is so cool!”
I paused each time, looked around, and nodded. “It’s pretty great.”
And while I wasn’t surprised to notice this, it did make me think about the rhetoric we’ve had about ‘vibrancy’ in this city over the almost decade of Andrew Barr being Chief Minister.
As we’ve undergone this supposed transformation into the ‘cool little Capital’, with funds poured into enhancing Braddon and putting outdoor furniture into Civic, the reality is that true vibrancy in Canberra has emerged in places that have eluded the scrutiny of our city centre. By this, I mean local shops and community spaces that have been developed by the actual community.
Downer is a great example.
I had the pleasure of living in Downer for some time, and the thing I loved about the suburb was how the Downer ‘shops’ are a focal point of community gatherings. With the community centre available for local groups to gather, GangGang providing a much-loved venue to grab a meal or a coffee and enjoy local musicians and performers, and a few other eclectic amenities, I found myself at the shops regularly. The oval was the site of an informal dog park, community sports and picnics.
Similarly, now that I live in Watson, I love being able to walk the dog through the powerlines to where loads of locals take their daily exercise with or without a four-legged pal and make my way to The Knox for a coffee. The local shops have all my everyday needs, there’s a pharmacy and a post office, and on a weekend morning, many of us will gather in the courtyard outside the cafe, sitting with friends on the adjacent green space enjoying a coffee and a chat.
I know that these scenes are familiar across Canberra. To me, they paint a picture of what vibrancy actually looks like – community spaces, people connecting in a way that matches the rhythm of their actual lives, small businesses thriving, and the necessary amenities to offer convenience and support to locals.
We’re lucky in Canberra to have these neighbourhood spaces supplemented with easy access to larger town centres that can host the other shops, services and resources we need without having to travel large distances.
Yet when we talk about vibrancy, and whether Canberra has it or not, we often measure this in the form of whether we attract visitors, how we compare with the nightlife of bigger cities, and what the external reputation of Canberra is.
I don’t think this has served us well, and attempting to emulate the ‘vibe’ of other cities doesn’t recognise the unique character of Canberra as a city and as a community.
While eating out in Braddon on Saturday night, I did enjoy the hustle and bustle of the nightlife, people hopping from a restaurant to a bar, music spilling out of venues, and the lights in the trees causing more than one person to pause for a selfie with the ambient backdrop.
It contrasted nicely with the relaxed and enjoyable daytime in our sprawling suburbs, with the uncrowded and accessible environments I love so much about Canberra life.
Maybe that’s the key to true vibrancy – balance.