Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

WORDS | What’s so special about Brisbane?

by Linda Carroli

Last night, JMJ and I attended a Brisbane Institute panel discussion titled, ‘What makes Brisbane special’. That’s likely to raise some smirks or quizzical expressions from many. ‘What? Brisbane?’ It’s said the way some people say Brisbane, rhyming with inane or insane. Or perhaps it just provokes a knowing ‘that-kind-of-special’ nod. I always appreciated David Malouf’s description of Brisbane as slatternly, somehow spirited, reckless and dishevelled. That’s the sort of city that you can have some real down and dirty pleasure with. Not and never a big country town – that image is dead – as the GOMA Director, Tony Ellwood, said. We were spared gratuitous use of the nicknames ‘Brisneyland’ and ‘Briz Vegas’.

Having lived in Brisbane for most of my life, I have a love-hate relationship with the place. A colleague recently asked me about Brisbane – she thinks the city is fantastic – and I responded something along the lines of “I really like what the city has become, but I am not sure that we’ll like what it is becoming.” The future is always uncertain – how can we know we’ll enjoy what’s next? There’s some writing on the wall about population growth, natural resources and other trends that will require reshaping the city. What I meant is that policy and plans resound with well-intentioned platitudes, which are then belied by the practice and result. There is a pressing need for broad thinking from the citizenry (laypeople, professionals and experts) who are prepared to open their hearts and minds to possibilities rather than just protect their patch or blanket the city with the same prescriptions that happen everywhere else. Planning and consultation as crowdsourcing.

Brisbane borrows, copies and, in some instances, just steals other cities’ ideas. We have a big screen or two ‘just like Times Square’ and a bespoke contemporary art gallery that is ‘world class’. Often it does so with a twist or adaptation, some concession for our smaller population and a subtropical climate. That cloying at ideas and innovation sometimes makes it feel inauthentic, desperate and playing catch up. Then, there are moments of sheer brilliance, like the Asia Pacific Triennial, which expressed this city’s connectivity to, exchange with and situation in the region.Part of this question of identity is tied to how we speak about the city, how we tell its story. There are many policy statements, such as Smart City, Creative City and Green City, which posit an aspiration or description. Perhaps Brisbane is an Appropriation City or Pastiche City.

While I’m not overt in my civic pride, I was heartened by what was being said about Brisbane. There were many beautiful sentiments expressed about the shape and culture of our city – its exotic subtropical climate and natural beauty – and there were inspiring stories about international success stories growing from ideas seeded in garages. Rosemary Kennedy, from the Centre for Subtropical Design, described it as exotic and sensuous, light and airy, hybrid and humid.

Interestingly and sadly, Indigenous custodianship and presence is absent in our imaginary of our city. What’s special about Brisbane? It’s the enduring, resilient and affirmative cultural legacy of the Jagera and Turrbal peoples who know this place better and more deeply than anyone. So, for JMJ and me, it’s the communities of those clans that make the city special. It resounds with a sense of place though living cultures. A non-distinguishing aspect of this city is that it forgets.

Also sadly, we heard the rather unoriginal gripe about the unsightly sprawling suburbs. I’d expect a slattern to sprawl, somehow unkempt and unruly. But so too the pattern of cities as rippling concentric circles, a grid or radiating roads encourages sprawl. Those patterns are infinitely repeating and continuous. However, I do believe in a more compact and better distributed urban and suburban environment. In any western city most of us live in the suburbs and it’s the suburbs that decide governments. We, as a city, might like to learn to deal with our suburbs more constructively rather than over-investing in every square centimetre of the central business district.

The consolidation-sprawl binary is tired and worn out. The discourse simply produces more of the same. Inner city living is not a virtue just because government has invested in infrastructure there or opportunistic developers build highrise residential towers hugging the riverbanks. There’s a pressing need to think about the city’s structure and shape more complexly than a binarism affords, and there’s more important things to say and do than slag off suburbs and the people who live in them. A binarism closes thought.

There’s more to a city than the five or so kilometres surrounding the CDB. A city is its people and the suburbs are the city, not just the central towers of elite business and residences that dominate the street life below. In the suburbs, there is a hum of life – different kinds of life – sounded in a different key. CEO of Millhouse IAG, David Millhouse grew his international investment and venture capital company out of his suburban garage (that was in Wellington Point, not Brisbane, but close enough).

As I listen to some speakers wax lyrical about inner city living in reclaimed warehouses or renovated workers cottages, as I hear about the sorts of choices available to them in their daily lives, then turn their distain towards the people in suburbs while bemoaning the ‘planned’ medium and high density residential developments to accommodate human influx, I am simply perplexed. What is it about the construction of this discourse that makes it so easy for distain to bubble and brew?

In some suburbs people can’t live in or with their streets because government developed eight lane roads in the middle of them making street life impossible. Government approved concrete box shopping centres, surrounded by massive car parks that create heat, leach the life out of traditional shopping strips. Government approves the architecture and construction that foists sameness on suburban dwellers – big box franchises and fast food chains. It’s not so much what residents want but what they get for living in suburbs.

Other than a few pockets, the inner city seems to have become rather culturally homogenous. The Greeks might own most of West End and the Italians might own chunks of New Farm, but they don’t necessarily live there any more. There may be some residual traditional or generational ties to those places, such as the community centres, businesses, churches and festivals. When I lived in New Farm, I loved hearing Italian spoken in the streets and shops. By the time we moved, I mostly heard it poorly enunciated when someone was ordering from a café menu. Certainly, the poor don’t live in those areas any more with boarding houses and low income housing depleted. So in waxing lyrical about this virtuous cosmospolitan inner city lifestyle that is Brisbane’s signature, JMJ and I speculate if the speakers aren’t just celebrating wealth or another style of smug superiority (with a heavy hint of race or ethnicity).

I’ll admit that I am a suburban dweller and I don’t particularly like it. Now with a more visible and multi-hued cultural diversity, the suburbs are not the white bread places I recall growing up in. And I no longer get spat on when walking down the street, with people hissing ‘go back to where you came from’. I suspect, if media reports are any type of measure, that dubious honour is bestowed on more recent African arrivals and communities. So why is it that we only talk of ‘the’ suburbs, as if this expanse of humanity and geography is a mono-cultural, homogenous mass? Despite this potential vitality, my suburb has a bereft and beset quality about it. Bereft of street life for the reasons already mentioned and strangely disconnected. And beset by roads, traffic and bland development. In conversation with my local parliamentary member, I asked how it could be the result of a vision. She was at a loss too.

As the city repopulates, other parts of the social ecology are depleted or displaced – as ‘Pig City’ author Andrew Stafford observed, one of the casualties has been music venues and practice rooms. This is what David Millhouse described as ‘self-inflicted wounds’. These self-inflicted wounds come from turning on each other too. Perhaps too these are threshold events, when the city is becoming a different kind of system.

Something else is happening here – perhaps an undercurrent of new energies. JMJ and I joke that we’ve started a trend and the suburb is now undergoing a creative industries led revival. In the quiet streets where I walk, some adolescent boys are in the garage working on their band practice. Another time, I see them loading a drum kit into a car. Some young women seem to have opened a fashion studio in an old disused office space. I see them carrying mirrors, bolts of fabric and piles of clothes up and down the stairs, to and from their car. A group of gamers (of the Dungeon & Dragons variety) would meet weekly in a shop in the strip. Can the city continue to disrespect its suburban dwellers and ignore Indigenous people’s stake in it? I tend to think it’s how we live that matters so much more than where we live. If we really seek an imaginary that serves the city, that values its people and that provides a hook for its identity, we might want to think more critically about what and who we omit from the picture and story of our city and its citizenry.


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