I probably should have announced this last week, before I skipped out entirely on writing a blog entry. The excuse was I was in New York. It has been 15 years since I was last there. Last time, it was a three day side trip while visiting friends in DC. I barely remember what we did. I do remember the feel of the place though, the hustle and the bustle. In that sense, coming back year later, the city had somehow changed and not changed. There was still the masses of people, but a certain energy seemed to be missing. It felt quieter, if New York City can be described as quiet. Still, it was a great trip.
I was going to write a blog on it, but then this article crossed my feed.
You read it right – according to the OECD, Canberra is the most livable city in the world.
Not bad for a city that most people have never even heard of. Even amongst highly educated Americans I have to explain where it is (3 hours southwest of Sydney) and how many people live there (350,000).
And it’s inevitably followed by pointing out that despite having lived there more than any other place in the world, I refuse to call it home. It’s not my home town, it’s just been that place where I’ve lived.
Let me explain. Canberra is like a black hole of sorts. People are like stars that pass by it: some miss it entirely, some get caught in its pull and don't escape, falling to its center, and some get caught long enough to glance off its edge, flinging themselves outwards before leaving completely or only returning at some long interval. I hope to be the latter.
You see, for all its charms, Canberra is a soul-crushing black hole of a city. It drags you down, pulls the wool over your eyes, and deadens your existence. But does it in such a way that you are completely contented. Not happy, just contented. There are no extremes of emotion in Canberra. It’s a lot like the town in Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien”:
“I live in a town where you can’t smell a thing,
You watch your feet for cracks in the pavement.”
It’s a meticulously sterile place.
Now to be fair, the OECD are probably justified in their findings. Looking at their metrics, Canberra ticks all the boxes of a livable city. And it’s probably the best place in the world to raise a family. It’s got some positives:
Income: Compared to other cities in Australia, the average income is higher. Largely because of the one industry that is there, the government. You’re either working for them or consulting to them. The money’s easy and plentiful. It’s how I managed to save enough money for grad school.
Jobs: When a left-wing government is in power, the bureaucracy expands, and jobs are created. When a right wing government is in power, the outsourcing of jobs to consultants expands, and jobs are created. Either way, there’s always job growth.
Safety: It’s not that there’s no crime, but compared to other cities of its size, it’s almost utopian. If ten people are killed on the roads in a given year, it’s a terrible year. There are still parts of town that you wouldn’t walk through after dark, but they’re streets, not entire suburbs.
Education: The only other thing besides the government is education. There are four public universities in the city, one of which is the best in the southern hemisphere (and my alma mater). It attracts talent, and generates talent. To give you an idea, I graduated from the “worst” high school in Canberra. My cohort had people who went on to become Cambridge PhDs, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and designers of F1 cars. The level of intellect was astounding, permeating the cafés and pubs.
Cultural Institutions: Canberra is home to the national institutions. The art museum has a collection that rivals any in Europe or the US. I grew up being able to see the works of Monet, Warhol, and Pollock up close. The science museum encouraged a love of technology that has stayed with me to this day.
Environment: It’s known as the “Bush Capital”. Planning regulations mean that few buildings are higher than the treeline, and the inner suburbs teem with old growth gumtrees. Parts of the city are demarcated by tracts of parkland. I would wake up on Saturday mornings and run up into the hills, dodging kangaroos in the fog on the way to some hilltop and views across to the Brindabella mountains.
However, for all these charms, I grew tired of Canberra. It wears down on you, if you’re of a certain mindset. It is not a place for the ambitious, the restless, the dreamer. It’s why so many talented people come there and leave after a few years. They do their time working for the government, grow bored, then agitated, then finally snap and move to Melbourne or Sydney (or overseas). And it’s hard for OECD metrics to capture these sorts of things:
Cost of Living: Well actually the OECD can capture this, and compared to say, Switzerland it’s not too bad. But Melbourne and Sydney are a bit cheaper, and you get to live in Melbourne or Sydney to boot. The extra income makes up for it, but you always feel forced to save money where you can. In all fairness even Connecticut is cheaper.
Jobs: Yeah, they’re plentiful. They’re also boring, lacking challenge or intellectual stimulation. And beyond a certain point, advancement is nigh on impossible. And the job inflation is rampant. According to my job description I was technically a manager. I managed nobody on a regular basis. It was just an inflated title like everyone else’s.
Sterility: True, Canberra’s clean and tidy. True, there’s no traffic (two cars at a traffic light is called peak hour). And this makes it feel dead, soulless. The outer suburbs are generic and bland, the inner suburbs meticulously empty. There is nothing to struggle against, to inspire a belief that we can make things even better. Just complacency.
Wannabe Politicians: With all the government and intellectualism, Canberra attracts a class of policy wonks and aspirant politicians. They’re virulent and vapid, caught up in their ideologies and self-inflated superiority. They look down their nose at you, especially when you say something that challenges their world view even slightly. What's worse, many are hypocritical, happy to work jobs that implement the policies they rail against, just to be part of the political machine.
Boredom: Did I mention the boredom? One quality I didn’t mention about Canberra was the grassroots art scene; small, insular, but energetic and creative. I helped run the opera company; my friends ran the poetry slams. But we created these things because we were bored. The national institutions had little time for supporting home grown art, so we were left to our own devices. But there’s only so much you can do before you have to take your art elsewhere. Our boredom was the catalyst for our exit.
The Long Slow Suicide: But some like the boredom. For them, Canberra is the promised land, a utopia where they don’t have to think, don’t have to challenge themselves in order to become great. They can just cruise on through life, no ups or downs. There was a group of students in my high school like this. I used to hang with them occasionally (At different points I had a crush on two of the girls in the group, and being too shy to ask them out on dates, I would just hang with them in the hope that they would get to like me. It didn’t work.).
They had no aspirations for great things. If you asked them what they wanted to do after high school, they just wanted to get a job with the government and go from there. They saw little need to expand their social circle or their horizons. When I was last in Canberra I spotted them, still hanging out as a group, government ID lanyards around their necks. It’s not that they’re bad people, but they’re not my kind of people.
There were many people like this in Canberra. People who wanted nothing more than a quiet, uneventful life, devoid of challenge. Just turn up to work, do the bare minimum, go home and watch TV, shop at the supermarket on weekends, collect paycheck, and tick off one more week on the way to retirement. Excitement is a new magazine or maybe a board game night with the friends you have known since you were five. The same social group, unchanged, unchanging.
I called it the long slow suicide. Socially acceptable but with the same net result. Doing the bare minimum by evolutionary standards, consume, reproduce, and die. These were the people that Canberra, like a black hole, swallowed entirely. People content to spend their days in a hazy bubble. Mildly proud of civic qualities such as “livability”.
Canberra tries to grab you into the bubble, its lukewarm sensation of comfort. You either acquiesce to the sensation or you run.
I left two years ago, in a desperate attempt not to better my lot or my paycheck, but to better myself. To challenge myself. To run the risk of failure. To learn and to live.
I visited Canberra at Christmas. It’s still livable. Much of the same crowd, in the same places. Though most of my friends have also left, agitated by the boredom.
I’m still hoping never to go back permanently.
In all, I’m reminded of a Latin phrase that Thomas Jefferson was fond of:
"Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem."
Roughly translated: I prefer perilous liberty over quiet servitude.
Canberra, for all its livability, is the epitome of quiet servitude.