Art critic Robert Nelson says Canberra is an example of how planning, on the rare occasions when it’s done thoroughly, mostly results in something we scorn. He says Canberra is:

“… a place with no sense of community, with an automotive footprint and hardly any people. Though its architect, Walter Burley Griffin, is still respected, Canberra has no urbanistic qualities: it’s an antisocial city in denial of people with feet.”

This is only a brief aside by Nelson (whose main purpose is an apologia for development), but it’s a persistent stereotype of Canberra (though I’ve no idea what Professor Nelson means when he disses Canberra for having “hardly any people”. How can that be regarded as a failing?). It’s reminiscent of the harsh criticisms made by former political speechwriter Martin McKenzie-Murray earlier this year in the Sydney Morning Herald.

But is Canberra really that awful? Or is it yet another case of typecasting that endures because observers don’t update their views? It’s worth looking again at some of the points I discussed once before.

Contrary to Nelson’s charge that it is “a place with no sense of community”, Canberra outstrips other Australian cities in social capital. According to Dr Andrew Leigh, author of Disconnected and now the Labor MP for the seat of Fraser (and opposition frontbencher), Canberrans are more likely to give time and money, engage in the political process, and participate in local sports than residents of Australia’s other major cities.

On virtually every social capital measure, the ACT is at or near the top relative to other states. It has the highest share of charitable donors and the highest volunteering rate. In a given year, 85% of Canberrans give money to other causes, compared with 73% of those in NSW. When it comes to giving time, 38% of Canberrans volunteer in a given year, compared with 33% of Victorians.

Leigh says Canberra’s lead holds even after allowing for differences between jurisdictions in factors like income and education.

He says Canberrans’ generosity is primarily due to short commutes and a conducive physical environment — all those parks, cycleways and neighbourhood shopping centres. I think Canberra’s small population size and high level of car-use are another part of the explanation.

Notwithstanding the “automotive footprint” that Nelson refers to, Canberra is also Australia’s cycling capital. The National Cycling Participation Survey for 2013, published this month, shows that 24.5% of ACT residents polled said they had cycled in the last week. This is much higher than the Australian average of 16.6% and higher than any other state or territory.

The bicycle has by far the highest mode share for the journey to work in Canberra of the major capital cities, too. It was 2.7% in 2011, compared with 1.5% in Melbourne (0.9% in Sydney). This is not a new phenomenon either — Canberra has been well clear of the pack since 1991.

Canberra has two of the entrants — Canberra City and Braddon — on Urbis’ list of the “21 Hippest Suburbs in Australia“. That’s the same number as Brisbane and Perth. These two suburbs have the highest proportions of tertiary-educated and singles of any of the “hippest” suburbs in Australia, suggesting they’re highly unlikely to be dull places to live.

Moreover, they’re in the top decile for population density in this group. Doubters who think Canberra is all quarter-acre blocks should take a tour of Canberra City and adjacent Braddon via Google Maps. Canberra City is rated as a “walker’s paradise” by Walkscore.

* So who’s right — Robert Nelson or Alan Davies? We invite you to write for Crikey on whether Canberra is a hellhole or a great place to live. Send in your entry by 10am Wednesday October 23 and we’ll bring you the best later in the week. Maximum 150 words, and please include your name or a moniker. The most convincing entry wins a Crikey book or DVD. Entries to [email protected] 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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