The Tragedy of Suburbia

16 01 2013

‘The tragedy of suburbia’ TED talk by James Howard Kunstler

In James Howard Kunstler’s view, public spaces should be inspired centres of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what currently exists in America is a nation of places not worth caring about.

In this humorous but very serious talk Kunstler suggests we take a hard look at what our cities have become. Although this critic is aimed at American cities there are some lessons worth noting for us here in Australia.

Grass is Greener

16 01 2013

When it comes to the places that we live, I think the majority of us suffer from the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. No matter where we live, we are so quick to judge our Cities; to focus on what is wrong with them; to put them down.

When it comes to Mandurah for example, having lived here most of my life, I will happily admit there are plenty of things that we can focus on that will improve the place; things like its vibrancy and identity, building a sustainable, dynamic culture and the like (not to mention those pesky mosquitoes!). Having spent five weeks travelling America though, I am more convinced than ever that we have the perfect canvas for a truly unique City right here in front of us.

The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from my USA adventure is that cities are built for people. We, as the people who live here, have the opportunity to shape the way our City grows in to the future, and the decisions that we make as a community today will have significant impact on the type of place we live in 10, 50, 100 years time. This is why we need to talk more about our collective visions for the future, and not just let things role out around us.

New York, New York

16 01 2013

What better way to finish a five week investigation of vibrant Cities than a week in the City that never sleeps, New York. Even after the devastation of hurricane Sandy, the buzz of this place could be felt from the Moon- but, who’d want to live here!

Dirty, overcrowded subways, traffic jams that never end, New Yorkers stuck in an ever-moving rat race, poverty stricken suburbs badly hidden behind all the glitz and glamour of the main square… This place is over- indulgence on steroids.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to travel through, albeit only for a few days. Some ice skating in Central Park, a few good Broadway shows and visits to the monuments. It’s been a stack of fun, and a great way to finish things up over here, but what I take from New York is a not a lesson on what helps make a City a great place to be, rather something to avoid. The fundamental lesson, and an important thing for Mandurah to keep in mind as it grows and evolves into the future, is not letting being bigger overshadow the needs of our community, the ingredient that gives our City it’s heart.

Of course, I’m not drawing comparisons between the hussle and bussle of New York to any future version of Mandurah, but I believe the lesson is still an important one. That our community’s vision for building a future for Mandurah with vibrancy and personality needs to be built around a commitment to staying true to our unique heritage, our people and our strengths. Any push for vibrancy or identity that is built around just being ‘bigger and better than before’ will fail.

The Most Magical Place on Earth…

16 01 2013

When you think of Disney World, coined as the most magical place on Earth, you think of fun, adventure and childhood dreams. It’s a place where, no matter the age you are before you enter the park, your eight year old inner child comes to life as you enter through the gates and get your first glance at the Magical Castle that preluded all of your favourite childhood films. The smell of sugar and popcorn fills the air, and happy people of all walks of life wander around with a smile plastered from ear to ear (although I did notice the parents smiles slowly fading as the day wore on).

As we hit up the roller coasters, participated in street parades, chased our favourite characters through the streets for photos, and ate our fair share of fairy floss, it was impossible not to get caught up in the magic of it all. Yep, if Disney World was a City (and less face it, its economy probably matches that of a small country), it would be the happiest City in the world.

This got me thinking about home, and what it takes to create that vibe that makes people happy. The things that people love about their cities are often in addition to what we need in our cities. The road systems and the rubbish collections in Disney Land are important, and without them the place would be a disaster, but these things aren’t the reason for that fun-filled vibe, and the same goes for cities I think. This creates a challenge, but for me it emphasises the importance of having strong community events, a focus on tourism and creating opportunities for people to enjoy themselves, balanced with the focus on providing good services to the community.

In the words of the Dennis Danuto, the lawyer from The Castle, “it’s just… the vibe of the thing”.

Yawn…. Sameness Syndrome

16 01 2013

For the most part, like most people I find Cities to be fairly repetitive. You could be in San Francisco, LA, Sydney, Melbourne… what’s the real difference? Don’t get me wrong, Cities like these are great places to be, but what sets them apart from each other? Hames Sharley Director Michelle Cramer talks about the Australian Sameness Syndrome, claiming that most of our Cities at home suffer from a lack of unique identity, and I think it’s fair to extend this idea to some Cities here in the States, and in some respects to Mandurah too.

In the past week we’ve travelled through a number of areas where the personality of the Cities have been so apparent that you can taste and touch it. A horse ranch in Texas, where we realised any dreams of becoming a cowboy are probably a bit farfetched, Beal street in Memphis to visit the King (Elvis), and the most unique of all, the birth place of Jazz, New Orleans, with a culture so contagious that we didn’t want to leave.

Local cuisines, sharing their local stories using arts and music, putting emphasis on what makes them unique rather than trying to simply attract people by being the same but better than the place next door. These are the things that create this sense of place and personality that make these unique places such great places to be.

In all of this I find myself convinced that we have all the materials at our disposal to built a strong, unique personality of our own in Mandurah. If we challenge this idea of sameness, it shouldn’t matter how close we are to Perth, or whether we are a university town or not, people will continue to want to live and play in Mandurah simply because it’s a great place to be.

Engaging People with Environment the key to Sustainability

16 01 2013

Sustainability in the USA is, in many ways, a complete contradiction. On one hand, the old school, not so green thinking of the 20th century is deeply ingrained into American culture, with their disconnected, industrial cities, and their obsession with everything BIG (big cars, big houses, big Mac’s…). On the other hand though, their focus on eco-innovations, and a growing ‘green’ trend can be seen popping up all over.

So with all this contradiction, and the fact that Mandurah punches above its weight in it’s focus on sustainability, (as we should- it’s our most valuable asset!), what can we learn from the Americans?

We spent the week trekking through incredible National Parks, admiring spectacular views, and enjoying a change of pace from the cities we’d visited earlier (not to mention trying to work off an American diet).

First was a seven hour hike to the top of Yosemite Falls in the Yosemite National Park. The views were unreal, and the hard slog definitely worth it, but only a warm up act for our next adventure.

The Grand Canyon- one of the great natural wonders of the world. Having witnessed this mind blowing phenomena, and trekked through its walls, it was a striking reminder to me just how remarkable the natural world is, and how important it is to do our bit to look after things.

The thing is though, I didn’t need to travel thousands of kilometres to see natural wonders. Our Estuary, the thrombolites, the Yalgorup… We are surrounded by incredible environmental assets, and we are lucky to have them.

What the Americans have taught me this week is that to help people to appreciate the environment, we need to engage them in it. Walk trails, information plaques and tours all help people to appreciate our surroundings, and can inspire people to do their bit more effectively than science.

Vibrant Cities Crusade

16 01 2013

My partner Monique and I, along with our local Mandurah friends Caris and Brandon, are on a five week adventure with Uncle Sam, on a crusade through the United States, starting in California and working our WA West, to discover the meaning to vibrant cities, and to learn some tips to bring home with us to help shape Mandurah’s personality, culture end identity in the future.

One of the first things we noticed is that, while the USA isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, they certainly ‘get’ the word vibrancy. On every corner of these larger than life cities, cities like Los Angeles, Hollywood and San Francisco, we were entertained by talented (and not so talented) buskers, or summoned by a fortune teller claiming to know our deepest secrets. We were offered funky looking street food (whether it was edible or not though is probably a different matter :p) while we admired the views of Alcaztraz or the Hollywood walk of fame. You can see, touch and smell the personality of these Cities; their diversity and culture oozing from every street.

So far, while being blown away by what this country has to offer on so many fronts, we have often compared our experiences to home, and find ourselves commenting on what makes our micro- metropolis such a great place to be. The reality is, we have a perfect canvas for building a fun, vibrant City, with unique personality and a culture and identity of its own: and what the Americans have taught me so far is that it isn’t big economies or large populations that makes a place a great place to be. It’s the small things, a collective vision and some large ambition.