31 August 2022

What's it really like moving to Canberra?

| Zoya Patel
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a man cheering wearing yellow and green

Finding your community can be tough, but if you get out there, you’ll probably find people just like you. Photo: Ben Appleton.

I met someone last week who had just moved to Canberra. Our paths crossed through our social circles, and when I found out she was a recent arrival to our city, I asked her the question I automatically present to everyone in the same situation I come across – ‘How are you finding it?’, delivered with a sympathetic wince.

Why the wince?

Well, everyone I’ve met who has moved to Canberra post-university has confessed that the transition to their new home has been lonely and difficult. Canberra, apparently, is a tough place to find a community if you’re not being placed into an existing one.

Being a Canberra local, I used to prickle with defensiveness when people told me how isolated they felt in my hometown. I’m used to hearing people from bigger cities bash Canberra as boring and lacking vibrancy, but that’s easy to dismiss as sledging from outsiders who haven’t spent enough time here to have a valid opinion.

But coming from someone who has lived here for almost a year and still feels like they haven’t found a community to be part of, the feedback is harder to ignore and does beg the question if Canberra is just one of those places that’s really hard to move to as an adult.

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I’ve had friends jokingly tell me about how their first year in Canberra was so lonely that they became exceptional at knitting due to the many hours spent home alone.

I’ve heard from people who came here for work that after initially living alone, they soon transitioned to a sharehouse as a way to meet people (and also probably to escape the extortionate rents for a one-bedroom residence). The general feedback is that most locals have established networks and aren’t super open to new friends. And unless you have someone who is already connected to Canberra, like a partner or family member, or you enter as part of a cohort of new people, such as a graduate program at work, finding people to befriend can be awkward and take a long time.

In some ways, I’m sceptical that this is a ‘Canberra thing’ – surely moving anywhere new is hard as an adult. That said, I know when I’ve lived in other cities or even countries, it hasn’t been hard for me to find things like events, clubs and groups to connect with. Yes, that approach relies on me being confident and outgoing enough to proactively engage with those opportunities, but I’m wondering if those sorts of networks are easy to find here.

In my own social circles, I am only friends with people who have grown up in Canberra, other than a few mates I met at university and who stayed to make their lives here after graduating. So I can admit that I’m not really open to new friendships, in that I don’t do any social activities where I would meet cohorts of strangers.

Is Canberra a uniquely insular community, making it harder to move to and integrate into our city? Or is making friends as an adult always hard, regardless of where you are? What’s it actually like moving here as an adult?

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I am a Canberra native but I left as soon as I could and only re-settled here, with a family in tow, after over a decade elsewhere. I would say 90% of my friends fall into the immigrant category rather than being native. Yes, Canberra can be pretty cliquy but it operates on different levels and I now appreciate that if you know what you are genuinely interested in (as opposed to what your school friends are doing) it is a great place to meet people compared with Sydney. If you have kids you meet a lot of people through the school and there are a zillion sporting and other clubs here which reminds me I have to get to one now.

I think it does depend a bit on your personality.
My wife and I moved here for work 35 years ago. We are both introverted and we don’t have a large network of friends; even after 35 years.

Not growing up here meant that we didn’t have the opportunity to form those life long friendships and when you factor in the transient nature of Canberra with us being an Introverts, it’s no wonder really that we feel a bit lonely at times.

That said, I used to work with people who had similar backgrounds, with the exception of them being extroverts. Seemingly, thousands of friends.

Moved back here a few months ago after 30 years & finding it difficult. Tried to join the bushwalking club on a hike. They knew I was coming and left without me. Tried again on another day and couldn’t get anyone to return a message with the details. Tried to join Spanish classes and wanted a “try before you buy” meeting and was declined. Pay the whole amount prior to joining or you can’t join. Joined an art group, the people are friendly but that’s it, no go for a coffee after or anything like that. I have a friend here who works in the health sector who says she hears the comment that Canberra is difficult from new arrivals all the time.

daveinhackett2:31 pm 01 Sep 22

Young kids in daycare/preschool can open up opportunities for social interaction (with other parents). Also as this is your first Spring here beware of swooping magpies if you do find yourselves out walking!

Jeremy Jones1:46 pm 01 Sep 22

I grapple with this question often. Moved here in Jan. with my partner and 2 young children. We’ve found it a bit isolating and hard to build new close friendships – but how much of that is Canberra-specific, vs. a struggle we’d face in any new place (especially with our kids limiting the ways in which we can get out-and-about to meet new folks)? I do think it’s a bit easier in more dense, walkable cities, where you have more random interactions with your community.

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