Canberra: Deathly dull at 100?

Aerial view of Canberra

Australia's capital city turns 100 this weekend, but Canberra, like so many other purpose-built capitals around the world, is still struggling to convince outsiders that it has more to offer than political hot air, says Madeleine Morris.

"Canberra: Why wait for death?" was Bill Bryson's blistering judgement in his 2000 travelogue Down Under. "Pyongyang without the dystopia," was the verdict of the Economist in 2009.

If Sydney is brash and bold, and Melbourne is cool and classy, then Canberra, at least in the Australian public imagination, is dull and devoid of soul.

"Canberra: it's not that bad" is the caption on a well-known car licence plate in the capital city. Talk about damning with faint praise.

"My friend put it well - Canberra is like going to grandma's house," says Jenna Clarke, life and entertainment editor of the Canberra Times. "Other Australian cities are doing brash, creative things but here everything is wrapped in plastic. It doesn't mean it's bad. Canberra is just very mature and knows what it's doing."

Start Quote

Every Friday at 5pm there is a traffic jam of cars full of people going to Sydney for the weekend”

End Quote Andrew Ure, former resident

Poor old Canberra. Few cities do well when they begin as a compromise.

After Australia became a federation in 1901, Melbourne and Sydney couldn't agree on which of the two would host Australia's new parliament. After years of bickering, a middle way was found - a tiny rural community 300km (186 miles) south-west of Sydney would be the national capital.

Following the example of Washington DC, it would be situated in a specially designated capital territory, so no state could hold sway over federal politicians.

An international competition was held to choose the best design for the brand new city. Chicago husband and wife architects Walter and Marion Griffin won and construction of their bold geometric pattern featuring circles, triangles and hexagons eventually began in 1913.

Six not remotely boring facts about Canberra

Kangaroo snoozing
  • Australian Capital Territory, where Canberra is located, is Australia's only jurisdiction where making hardcore porn films is legal
  • It has some of the most lax cannabis laws in Australia
  • One theory is its name comes from the local Aboriginal word for "woman's cleavage" because it's nestled between two hills
  • Pronounced with only two syllables, Can-bra - calling it Can-beh-ra will mark you out at a tourist
  • Other names suggested for Australia's capital included Olympus, Paradise, Shakespeare, Kangaremu and Sydmeladperho
  • Since The Lodge became the prime minister's official residence in 1927, every PM has lived there except John Howard

A century later, Canberra is home to Australia's upper and lower houses of parliament, the High Court, the National Gallery, a large number of government departments and the country's military training academies. Its 350,000 residents live in seven distinct districts, each with its own commercial centre.

The effect of the Griffins' quirky design is that each district is separated by leafy scrub, allowing Canberrans to have a perpetual feeling of being surrounded by the bush. It also, its detractors say, means inhabitants struggle to get the communal feel that unites a city.

Like many other purpose-built administrative capitals - Brazil's Brasilia, Burma's Naypyidaw, Pakistan's Islamabad - its high-design layout hasn't managed to capture the heart and soul of the country it rules.

"Administrative capitals are normally a feature of federation, such as in Brazil, Australia and the US," says Professor Peter McDonald of the Australian National University, a well-known demographer and long-time Canberra resident.

"I think in that kind of circumstance, it is a bit of a negative for new administrative cities because they're part of a federal system - each of the states has its own centre and each of the states is more interested in its own centre."

Some former residents are less kind.

"It's this beacon of mediocrity where everything it does it does to be reasonable. It's a pantheon of being ordinary," says Andrew Ure, a former public servant who called Canberra home for six years before escaping to a public relations job in Sydney.

"It should be awesome because it's full of young, smart people. You'd think they could stay there but there's just nothing there for them. So every Friday at 5pm there is a traffic jam of cars full of people going to Sydney for the weekend."

A lack of nightlife is one of the most common complaints made about Canberra. Ure talks incredulously of once having a glass of wine literally taken out of his hand at 8pm on a Tuesday because the bar owner wanted to close.

Black Mountain in Canberra Escape to the hills: Black Mountain is close to the city centre

There are certainly world-class food and drink options to be found, but some have their quirks, says Jenna Clarke of the Canberra Times.

"What I'm struggling to comprehend is some of the operating hours of cafes. You go to some places and the kitchen will close at 2pm and won't open until 5pm. But the food is worth waiting for, and bars do open all hours."

Why do Canberrans flock to Sydney?

Youngsters enjoying a concert in Sydney
  • Sydney is home to several festivals - the biggest is the annual Sydney Festival every January
  • About 4.5m people live in Sydney - 20% of Australia's population - and 350,000 in Canberra
  • Sydney annually ranks highly in lists of the world's most liveable cities, such as seventh on EIU's Global Liveability Report for 2012

Canberra is fine if you have young children and "you're happy being quiet", maintains Ure. "But for me, the drive when I left Canberra was the greatest drive of my life."

Canberra does seem to have trouble convincing professionals to move there, despite high pay and world-class services.

At the emergency department of the city's second largest public hospital, Calvary, an estimated 70-75% of the doctors don't live in the city or its surrounds, including the department head who regularly commutes four hours by plane from his family home in Perth.

But Canberra is using its centennial celebrations to mount a fightback.

"We think we are at least the equal of any other city in Australia and we'd like to be seen that way, rather than in the disparaging terms of an artificial city, or a city that isn't normal," says Jeremy Lasek, the executive director of Canberra's centenary celebrations.

An impressive programme of cultural and sporting events is already underway, and Lasek says the city is expecting record visitor numbers in 2013.

"People are curious and they're coming. A lot of the criticism comes from people who have not been here for 10 years or more. Some have never been here."

The coat of arms above the entrance to Canberra's Parliament House

The most annoying thing about living in Canberra is "dealing with Canberra-bashers", agrees Kylie Bates, who works in international sports development and lived in the city for six years.

"It's frustrating to have to defend the city you have chosen to live in, even if the best defence you can muster up is, 'It's not that bad!'"

She cites a new generation of hipster cafes and bars and a new energy brought on by the centenary as evidence the city is, after 100 years, maturing into more than just the home of politicians and public servants.

"It's like Canberra has a new dress code and a relaxed vibe to go with it. Given the prevalence of fleeces, denim and public service security passes a few years ago, it's an aesthetic, if not original, improvement."

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