Many a Melburnian arrives home after an overseas adventure sporting, among other things, a perfunctory reaction to the ‘liveability’ of their own hometown. Visiting cities in other places usually confirms one’s prejudice about how stuffed Melbourne is, or it leads to overly illustrious praise.
The great thing for me about the time I’ve spent travelling over the past few weeks, is that most of it has been in cities. Small cities, big cities, and one or two mega-cities, for good measure. I travelled most recently to indulge my curiosity and study of urban planning, and experienced these places in a way quite unlike the tourists I encountered. My interest was not in seeing the sights and visiting attractions, but in experiencing each city at the street level – the spaces between the things to see – was what I hoped to better understand.
In Frieburg I looked at cooperative housing developments that sought to meet and exceed the (German) Passivhaus standard for energy efficiency. I found that largely, the people of Freiberg view things like solar and wind energy integration and energy efficiency as enticing challenges, and not as a threat to their standard of living. But of course, they are different.
In Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, I watched as people pedalled from place to place on their impossibly elegant, upright bikes. Wearing only a segregated bike lane for protection, most were unaware that where I come from, we wear a helmet law which offers no protection at all.
In Prague I saw that conserving heritage buildings is mostly a nonpartisan cause, which poses both problems and opportunities for the city and it’s people. I saw that built heritage is something to be celebrated; if not by locals, then by the visitors who like to look at it and take pictures.
In Copenhagen I saw that a long term strategy of preserving public open spaces (green belts and wedges) is reason to codify urban growth boundaries, and not to scrap them. I also saw segregated bike lanes – but I may have already mentioned this.
In Barcelona, Dublin, London and other places I saw bike share systems that were, well, very much in use. Tourists, families, workers, professionals and kids all zipping about as though there’s nothing to it. I mentioned bike lanes earlier, but did I mention the helmet law thing?
I saw lots of other things too; Ildefons Cerdà’s layout for the less old parts of Barcelona; the docklands redevelopments of Malmö, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Dublin and London (we’re not the only ones to do it poorly); and the phoenix city* that is Bilbao. Ghery’s art house isn’t all there is to see there, I’m very pleased to report.
So when I flew back in to Melbourne earlier this week, I felt that my city had some serious explaining to do. Arriving home to the wild wet of winter, what could she possibly say to justify herself in the face of such formidable competition?
Turns out she said nothing. She didn’t have to say a word.
*Pheonix City is a phrase borrowed from the 2010 book by Anne Power, Jörg Plöger and Astrid Winkler titled ‘Phoenix cities: The fall and rise of great industrial cities’ (The Policy Press).