No matter how mundane a city’s origins, urban concentrations can have magical consequences. So says the great urban economist Edward Glaeser.
He points out that the Romans settled on an island in the Seine because it was a good spot to protect themselves against unfriendly Gauls. Two thousand years later we have Paris, one of the greatest centres of cultural and economic innovation on the planet.
Here in Australia, our cities are mere infants compared to Paris but, like cities pretty much everywhere, ours face an immense array of challenges. We are among the most urbanised of nations with three out of every four Australians living in cities. And though we might be good at farming and mining, it is our cities that generate 80 per cent of our wealth.
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I just returned from almost three weeks in Hong Kong. It is a city that I fell in love with some five years ago when I worked there with Oxfam Hong Kong.
There is a great deal that Australia’s major cities could learn from Hong Kong: it is a city that promotes and rewards efficiency, cleanliness and creativity – aspects that we often neglect.
This is clearly evident in the integrated design of the public transport system that is regular, clean, safe and on time. (Please note NSW State Rail Authority: the definition of ‘on time’ does not change at regular intervals but is kind of set). For example, last Saturday I missed a bus – my irritation was subdued when I informed the next one was ‘four minutes’ away. We can compare this to the two-hour gap between busses on the 370 route between Leichhardt and Coogee which I was faced with only a week later: and this is in the eastern suburbs if Sydney – the best served public transport corridor.
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At the outset I declare that I am unashamedly pro-bike. Cycling is a great sport, a clean form of transport, and has undoubted health benefits for those who regularly ride.
Most years the annual “pollie pedal” route is through my electorate – as was the case this year. Had I not been heavily pregnant, I would have ridden with the team again (albeit for a short distance).
But I have to say: what’s the deal with designated bike lanes?
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If Melbourne was a person she would have been sent to Trinny and Susannah by now.
It wouldn’t be her idea of course - it’s one of those shows she would sneer at - but her loved ones would have given her that little encouraging nudge.
She’d go and be full of fake bravado, giving as much lip at Catherine Deveny on Logies night, bragging about her coffee, her restaurants, her laneways and festivals.
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Former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, has long been a champion of better architecture and planning. Most recently, he caused a stir by describing our national capital as “a great mistake”.
Keating also lamented the bulldozing of much of Melbourne’s heritage in the 1970s, but even had a shot at some of the Victorian buildings that remained.
“I used to call it Whorehouse Rococo and Bordello Baroque”, he said. And he teased Australia’s “heritage mafia” for making a crust out of pretending that old buildings are of significance.
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The environmental policy of “planned retreat” pioneered by the excellent folks at the Byron Bay Council has created a handy precedent for those who find themselves locked in reluctant weekend battle with the forces of nature.
That group of people - often referred to as “husbands” - now has at its disposal a noble excuse for refusing to trim the edges, sweep up the lawn clippings or take out the vegetable scraps.
The next time you get a death stare because you’re entering your third hour on the couch in front of Fox Sports, the handy zen-like rationale is that you’re not bludging but walking lightly on this earth.
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