City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

A while ago, I contributed two ABC Radio National shows to Speechification: documentaries on two Australian cities with two distinct and rich musical histories: Melbourne and Brisbane.

In terms of the genuine ‘musical scene’, Brisbane emerges with one of the richest scenes in the history of Australian cities – a fierce counterpoint to the “boot stamping on a human face forever” school of governance then in play in 1970s Queensland. The Melbourne scene, as recorded in the documentary, is more focused on a particular time and place. Very particular.

The ‘scene’ is distinct from the city’s musical history, which has a longer term arc of course, or the idea of conjuring a city through music, Metropolis Shanghai and Chavez Ravine for example. Or one band’s work in and about particular cities, as with this fantastic rendition of the work of Canberra-and-then-Sydney post-punk outfit, Tactics, for example.

No, the scene is usually a relatively short-lived concentration of artistic activity, but one that kick-starts or exemplifies some wider creative, and usually economic, actvity. Over the years it becomes subject to furious debate and wild claims but there’s something there and something powerful, no matter how intangible.

Richard Florida, and others many others before him, noted the importance of music scenes in cities, despite his focus being too limited by genre and US-focused at that. Florida calls it the ‘audio identity’ of the city, which doesn’t feel quite right given the transient nature of most scenes. Audio identities, perhaps, as cities can lead multiple lives here. (‘Madchester’ is long gone, for instance, though it was a sort of identity at the time, or just after the time. It can co-exist with the city getting a new centre for classical music around the same time, all arguably stemming from cultural patterns discernible from the mid-19thC onwards.)

But Florida gets the gist nonetheless. In an article back in January 2008 (in the Globe and Mail, and on the back of him observing the healthy music scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver) Florida discerns the overwhelmingly metropolitan nature of music, seeing them as classic examples of what Michael Porter would call ‘local clusters in a global economy’.

“Music scenes provide a useful lens through which to better understand why innovation and economic activity continue to cluster in today’s global economy. Their clustering is puzzling because music-making requires little, if anything, in the way of physical input (such as iron ore or coal) to succeed, and they don’t generate economies of scale. Because musical and artistic endeavours require little more than small groups to make their final products, you would think that musicians should be able to live anywhere they want. Music scenes have every reason to "fly apart" and spread our geographically, especially in this age of the Internet and social media. But they don’t. Instead, they concentrate and cluster in specific cities and regions.”

To me, having grown up in scene-rich Sheffield and Manchester, this is all rather obvious. (I was also influenced by doing my MA in Manchester studying creative industries and the city, where my colleagues Adam Brown and Justin O’Connor were more actively researching the music industry and the city specifically, from the early ‘90s onwards.) In those ABC RN documentaries Brisbane and Melbourne have distinct ‘audio identities’ on display – identities which appear to have little in common with the large, successful cities we see today, but in fact were important formative influences on both. There are numerous other examples of transformative scenes from the last few hundred years.

Charlie Gillett once listed these, for example:

  1. San Francisco, 1966-68 (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful
    Dead, Janis Joplin, Steve Miller, Bill Graham’s Fillmore, Tom Donahue’s
    ‘free form radio,’ Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone magazine)
  2. New Orleans, 1900-1910 (Jazz)
  3. Paris, 1987-2004 (Les Negresses Vertes, Mano Negra.)
  4. Liverpool, 1961-63 (Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, Big Three, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, The Silver Beetles)
  5. Memphis, 1951-56 (Johnny Ace, Bobby Bland, Rosco Gordon, Sam Phillips)
  6. Barcelona, 2000-2004 (Ojos de Brujos, Dusminguet, Macaco)
  7. Detroit, 1959-68 (Berry Gordy & Motown, Bob Seger, the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges)
  8. Dakar, 2004 (hip hop, Daara J)
  9. New Orleans, 1955-1956 (Fats Domino, Little Richard)
  10. St Petersburg, 2000-2004 (Leningrad, Markscheider Kunst)

To which I’d add these:

  • Chicago from the mid-50s to the mid-60s (large scale African American migration north creates electric blues);
  • Vienna (early-20th century contemporary composition of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg etc.);
  • Canterbury (early 1970s folk-rock scene);
  • Seattle (early to mid-90s grunge);
  • Manchester (mid-80s to mid-90s, from Joy Division through to the ‘Madchester’ of Happy Mondays, via Smiths, New Order, Stone Roses etc.);
  • Sheffield (early-80s: Heaven 17, Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, ABC etc.).

And you could add in Kothen 1717-1728, London 1962-66, Düsseldorf in the early 70s, Brisbane in the late-70s as above, Liverpool in the late-70s, Chicago House and Detroit Techno during the mid-80s, and probably hundreds more. Canterbury is perhaps the odd-man-out there; the rest are all splendidly urban.

But not only do music scenes, and their study, form vital examples of how creative industries make the city and vice versa, the finding that music scenes are distinctly urban also tells us a wider truth about creativity, technology and cities.

All this ‘soft infrastructure’ – such as cultural industry – is overwhelmingly metropolitan in nature (70% of the UK’s creative employment is metropolitan.) This is only reinforced by information and communications technologies. Contemporary cities are characterised by networks; creative industries are predicated on the most hyper-networked of organisational forms; ICT is enabled by, and in turn enables, networks above all else. So ICT and cities tend to be a good match.

(In fact you could argue, even though I’d certainly class ICT as soft infrastructure, that the very real capital costs and physical outlay of facilitating ICT are even more of a reason for focusing it ever more in cities. Far more so than music.)

Yet there’s still this decentralisation myth about ICT and cities. And it’s alive and well, believe me. There exists a surprisingly robust school of thought that ‘telecommuting’ – and how quaint and Toffler-esque that sounds – will enable human activity to relocate and work in ex-urban or rural locations in usefully significant numbers. Odd, I know, but it’s a constant theme still echoing round the intersection of urban planning, regional policy, and the various ICT industries. It’s around in Australia, with its complex, too-successful cities and superficially limitless spaces in-between, but it’s also abroad in the USA and Britain. It’s perhaps associated with so-called digital immigrants, but it might also exemplify an inability to deal with cities intellectually and emotionally (a desire to look for an answer elsewhere, as intrinsically unsustainable as that may be).

It’s also a misunderstanding about some contemporary working practices – and innovation and creativity – which is better characterised instead by ideas such as ‘nomadism’, as The Economist has it, or other ways of working increasingly influenced by the structures and approaches of the creative industries. (I’m not suggesting everyone enjoys the ability to be nomads in The Economist mould. Many don’t have that luxury, of course. But the knowledge workers envisaged to be telecommuters would certainly fall into this category.)

Those expecting ICT to enable a decentralisation of urban activities fail to recognise this apparently essential truth about cities and technology – that they only reinforce each other, and that both are enablers for something else. Even though I’d be the first to suggest we need to see ‘information as a material’ and that it can be be useful to consider it a medium in its own right, for most of the time it is simply a quiet platform for other things. This analogy with music might be useful to make the point even clearer.

As Florida points out, there’s essentially no physical logistical reason that music scenes are centred on cities. Yet they overwhelmingly are, for the reasons he describes in his article. People go to the city to test their ideas, perform, learn, sell, discuss, share. And they do this physically and digitally, in and around the city. Suggesting that ICT might enable decentralisation instead is focusing on technology at the expense of understanding what people do with it.

It’s somewhat like suggesting that the Fender Stratocaster’s potential availability in a village would mean that music scenes will relocate there. The evidence suggests the opposite, of course. ICT enables distinctly urban activities, and does little – save for a relatively small handful of edge cases – for anything else. It is a means to an end, and that end is generally urban in context. I’d guess the increasingly pervasive nature of ICT – this physical computing – is only likely to reinforce this urbanity.

In his Flight of the Creative Class, Florida also rejects Thomas ‘The World Is Flat’ Friedman’s assertion that technology has levelled the playing field. Whereas Friedman states that “you can innovate without having to emigrate”, Florida instead finds that the world is not flat but “spiky”, consolidating in cities.

“The tallest peaks – the cities and regions that drive the world’s economy – are growing even higher, while the valleys mostly languish.”


(Of course, Florida’s work has been critiqued elsewhere, but the critique does nothing to level this spiky world, instead offering up other cities to disprove Florida’s other theories.)

A little fluidity within the urban growth boundaries – the nomad model – does not equal decentralisation, but a richer, more evenly dispersed city in which the CBD is usefully dissipated over the built fabric. Thus ICT reinforces the city rather than displacing or dispersing it, as it’s an enabler for something else, something deeper – a human instinct and desire for physical connection, expression and exchange, which cities then consolidate in social capital, intellectual capital and cultural capital.

Brisbane and Melbourne in the late-’70s/early-’80s were not cultural backwaters but fertile environments for change, creativity and cultural exploration, as those two documentaries so vividly depict. Both cities still have strong aspects of innovation, perhaps characterised now by other creative industries rather more than distinct music scenes. But just as music scenes locate there, ICT as an enabler for creativity and innovation is only more likely to reinforce these, and other, urban centres. Music scenes, and their history, provide a clue as to why technology-enabled decentralisation will essentially remain an un-helpful myth.

* Lyric taken from the fabulous Go-Betweens track, ‘Lee Remick’.


9 responses to “Journal: “I come from Brisbane, I’m quite plain”* Cities have music scenes and that’s why ICT doesn’t enable decentralisation”

  1. apolaine Avatar

    “Suggesting that ICT might enable decentralisation instead is focusing on technology at the expense of understanding what people do with it” is the key point here, I agree.
    It’s important to remember the corollary, which is that people leave cities for other reasons too. What is different, though, is that some people (like me, working in mainly digital industries) are really able to leave a big city and still benefit from work coming out of them. That wouldn’t have been possible without a decent ICT infrastructure in the small town in Germany in which I live. Being near to an airport and being able to use Germany’s excellent rail network also helps. Australia’s problem is that everything outside of the cities is so damn far away and the infrastructure drops off very quickly, like a technological continental shelf.
    I think the other thing is that your looking at this with a very British/Australian view, countries in which much is centralised around one or two cities. That’s not necessarily true in other countries (not in Germany at least).
    Now, my case is not that I’m telecommuting from a remote urban place – I still live in a town, just a smaller, much more pleasant one than London (or Sydney for that matter – though I still miss the beaches and food). That drop-off I mentioned doesn’t really happen so much here, whereas in the UK and Australia there’s a real shift as soon as you get out of the major cities. Here, smaller towns often have very good infrastructure and really are a viable alternative – the best of both worlds if you like.
    I agree that remote-working (let’s say that rather than telecommuting) won’t decentralise cities. People come to cities for other reasons, not just work, but they leave them for plenty of other reasons too – one of which is that they’re just too crowded. But as it becomes less weird to be working with people over the interweb, I think there is the possibility that smaller towns become less dead because they have the possibility to set themselves up as one of those best-of-both-worlds places.
    Incidentally, what stifled the music scene in Australia was the introduction of another technology: Poker machines. They stripped pubs and bars of their live music.


  2. Dan Hill Avatar

    Fair point about Germany, Andy, it’s one of the very few countries that could make a go of the small towns for a while. But even they may become unsustainable (in the true sense), despite Germany’s supreme infrastructure. I’d hasten a guess that they might not have much of a diversity or flexibility that enables creativity on a broad scale. Florida might get round this by aggregating it up into a mega-region but I think that’s cheating.
    I’d also put you in that “relatively small handful of edge cases” category, Andy, as you’re working in the one industry that is about the technology itself, rather than using it as an enabler. Working over the internet depends on what you’re doing, and most – outside of the new media consultant market – will still actively want the market the crowd delivers (never mind the other attractive things about crowds.)
    Those countries derived from English-speaking cultures do tend to have a problem with cities that other cultures have long grown out of (Baudelaire wrote of the crowd positively a long time ago.) But I’d suggest the likes of Germany are now providing the exception that proves the rule (never quite understand that phrase, but you know what I mean). The shift to cities is global, more than ever. It is the urban age, despite ICT already being near-pervasive.
    Australia is unusual. But structured over about 10 cities, with 3 currently dominant, I see a real opportunity with its model. One of the more highly urbanised nations on earth just needs to devalue the romantic attachment to the country and realise the huge potential of its urbanised form. (The climate and economy will probably do that anyway. Meanwhile, the consistently high placing of its cities in various liveability ranking, despite being such intriguingly flawed creations, indicates the latent possibility here.)
    While London holds sway in the UK, there are also 10-15 other decent-sized British cities of course. Again, the example of music scenes plots them on the map (Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham etc. etc.) The medium-sized city will do just fine there, forming networks of like-minded cities elsewhere as working partners. Connecting via ICT, but from city to city.
    As Simon Jenkins would have it, those cities are the UK’s eco-towns too. Richard Rogers suggests that’s the only model that’s sustainable anyway. Again, Germany is state of the art for that particular kind of development right now (the eco-towns already exist there, in Freiburg etc.), but I’m intrigued – genuinely – to see what happens next there.
    Because, for triple-bottom line sustainability, most small towns are just not diverse or dense enough to provide the necessary flexibility, creativity and innovation. Living close to where you work is a far more likely future even given that ‘where’ might be complicated by the radical topography of network space. ‘Where’ is now multi-modal, mixing physical and digital. And that will require a focusing of population, which seems to be happening. I think this enables dispersal to the edges – that dissolving of the CBD model – but still within physical range of the city, and as digital range expands, physical range may contract to mean that enabled by public transport (thus density), biking and walking.
    (The pokies, we can agree on though. Hateful things. That’s turning around a bit now too, though, and those venues only knocked out a particular kind of rock/pop anyway. Other genres are less disturbed by such moves (e.g. in this case, an example from Sydney of The Necks, The Catholics, Triosk, Preservation label etc.)


  3. Andy Polaine Avatar

    I think the Netherlands and most of Scandinavia do pretty well on the eco-town front too, but I also think there is a cultural aspect to do with class-systems that comes into play here.
    Germany pretty much doesn’t really have a class system, at any rate nothing like the UK where what you do for a living is heavily related to whether your worth speaking to at a party. I’ve witnessed that the upshot of this is people being respected – and thus well-paid and happy – in jobs that would normally be considered drudgery, menial or in-between jobs in the UK. Jobs such as being a waitress, a ticket-collector, shop-assistant, etc. One of the difference this makes is that people are not only pretty satisfied with their jobs, but also that they’re good at them and that also comes from them being respected things to do for a living.
    (I’m getting to a point here, bear with me).
    So this means that small-town jobs – i.e., the stuff that actually runs a place decently – are attractive and worthwhile and it really helps small towns keep a decent infrastructure and culture and prevents that drift towards everything being centred on a few major cities whose streets are mythically paved with gold (the reality being they’re paved with chewing gum).
    The weird thing about Australia is that this should be the case too, given the enormous value they place on being an egalitarian culture, the Fair Go, etc. Except that this is a myth, I feel. I never found Australia particularly egalitarian beyond the fact that it was acceptable to wear shorts, flip-flops (okay ‘thongs’) and a t-shirt almost everywhere. So there is urban Australia and not-urban Australia (not really rural, not really suburban – I’m not sure what to call it).
    I think one of the aspects that contributes to Australia’s unusual position here is that the whole thing is a long way away from anywhere. Even each town is a long way away from the other. Darwin to Adelaide is the same distance as Berlin to Cairo, for example. So that concept of identity (which music has so much of), of working at a distance, of thinking in terms of days instead of hours of driving all contributes to that spikiness. Without wanting to offend those living in some of the beautiful rural parts of Australia or belittle it’s magnificence as a land, it is pretty much a place of coastal fringe dwellers with not a lot in-between.
    By the way, two things I have noticed in Germany in terms of the cultural scene are:
    1. Music and coolness have almost no association like they do in many other countries. Equal joy seems to be had from listening to something cutting-edge cool and from linking arms at a beer festival and singing folk tunes. All without a sense of irony. I think that’s great, sometimes. Sometimes I want to weep with embarrassment.
    2. Alternative comedy never happened here. So the comedy scene is like England (and Australia) from the 70s. Funny accents and silly faces and a jokes about where people come from. (See: weeping with embarrassment again).
    I haven’t yet worked out why that is.


  4. apolaine Avatar

    And another thing…
    Something else that just crossed my mind is that most Australian cities, being coastal, cheat in terms of being urban. Being able to take walk, take a quick bus or bike ride to the beach at the start or end of the day – plus all that sunshine – really puts them in a different category from, say, London or Manchester. There’s less reason to want to live in a smaller city (and ‘telecommute’) if the one you’re in has a built-in, free, holiday destination.


  5. Jarrett Avatar

    A great conversation, and so much to comment on.
    Cities are the foundation of live music, and except for electronica, live music still has an authority across many music genres. I know of few musicians who did not, at some point, rely on playing live, even if some famous ones have since retired to the studio. The free-download trend, of course, seems to be leading to a business model in which touring rather than recording is the real source of the artist’s income.
    I think the relationship between live music and recorded music has an interesting parallel with the relationship of live theatre and film. Live theatre is intrinsically a gathering, and thus intrinsically urban. Film seems to offer us a performance experience that we can have in our home theatre anywhere, but while it has quarantined live theatre it has utterly failed to kill it off. Quite the contrary: In Sydney right now we seem to be besieged with Broadway-scale live shows based on famous films — Last year it was Priscilla; this year Rocky Horror and now Edward Scissorhands. And several of Sydney’s most famous actors (Blanchett, Rush etc) have crucial leadership roles in the live theatre scene.
    Like recorded music, film has tended to gather in major cities for two reasons, (a) the expensive technologies involved and (b) the need for collaboration among large numbers of people. Mac-based media technologies will probably democratise these things somewhat.
    But again, apart from electronica (like Germany, a rule-proving exception) there seems to be a certain quality to the live performance experience that artists are reluctant to let go of. If you’ve done a lot of stage acting, then working on film feels like a perpetual “tech rehearsal.” You have to do the scenes out of sequence, and you are constantly struggling for authenticity as insectile equipment prods you from all sides. So actors who make it big in film often still want to do theatre now and then, despite the sometimes dreary need to attend every single performance. I expect music is the same, and that the performing arts will always be urban for that reason.
    Re the core EU countries as an exception: Let’s remember that Holland is about the size of greater Los Angeles. With the efficiencies of high-speed rail, we are seeing the emergence of extended networked cities that encompass many places that are technically rural. (And of course, strong urban growth boundaries in Europe mean that “rural” places can be much closer to urban cores than in Australia or America.) I would say that if you can go to a show, get out at 10:30, and still get home on public transport, you’re living an urban life regardless of how many sheep you have.
    Great post and discussion.


  6. Andy Polaine Avatar

    The point about the live spectacle is well-made, but I don’t know that it helps the argument about ICT and decentralisation.
    Music and theatre have definitely headed the way of the big, live event. It’s the only possible antidote to time-shifted media consumption. TV, incidentally, has done the same thing. Live TV is really the only trump-card that TV now holds over watching content online or on-the-move. Think: Australian Idol, Big Brother, sports matches, etc., etc. – most of the big drawcards on TV are live events. In that sense its going back to its roots.
    The thing is, though, I don’t really think the live event of theatre or music ‘counts’ in terms of defining urbanism or centralisation. They are one-off things that you make a special trip to go and see whether you live in the countryside or in the inner-city. I don’t see much difference between a Londoner going to a concert at Wembley stadium and someone taking a trip from their tiny village to go and do the same thing.
    What really defines urban cultural life, for me at least, is being constantly surrounded by smaller choices and options to go and see these things. A combo band in a bar, a workshop theatre, etc., etc. Those are the things that are arguably more missing from rural – or non-urban – life. It’s the density of small cultural events that you notice in a major city, a density that matches the population density.
    I suspect there is also a magic number (I’m trying not to use the phrase Tipping Point, but that’s what I mean) here too. I find London suffers from the very thing that aslo makes it good: too many people. Other towns are just ghost towns. I live in a town of about 70,000 people here in Germany and it’s a really good balance – it has a rich cultural life, lots of events in the town (put on by the city, for free, I might add) as well as feeling small enough to feel personal.
    Dan’s right, though, that ICT alone doesn’t enable decentralisation. Decentralisation is a complex interaction of transport, culture, history, migration, industry and so forth. It does enable those wanting to live a decentralised life though – it helps me be that fringe-case or exception to the rule. But in my case I think it’s more of a distinct decision on my part to give up some of the benefits of living in a city in order to reap the quality of life benefits at the other end (something that those of you emigrating to Australia will appreciate).
    One last thought, and one that particularly pertains to Sydney. Many cities aren’t really centralised in themselves. Sydney has no heart, no centre, to speak of, other than the harbour. By that, I actually mean the water itself, not crappy tourist hangouts like Darling Harbour. The best places in Sydney are scattered and often hidden away – there’s no Soho or Shoreditch (or whatever the NYC equivalents are) in Sydney. So in that sense many cities are really made up of separate enclaves, which often defines their separate cultural scenes too. They’re not as centralised as you might expect. Remember, too, that without ICT Australia would be a lot further away than it now seems.


  7. Dan Hill Avatar

    Great stuff Jarrett and Andy, thanks very much.
    Just a minor note on your point about music, Jarrett. The electronica scene – and its myriad bifurcated sub-genres – is intensely urban and intensely performative. As a ‘scene’, it’s extremely live, a lot of the time, whether at the more avant-garde end of it (where it crosses into electro-acoustic experimentation and improvisation) or the more mainstream end (in club culture).
    The analogy with film and theatre is useful too. And both industries, no matter how technical they get, are centred on cities, due to the need for direct and physical interaction with people as part of the creative process (something enhanced by ICT but not replaced by it. It’s additive, right?). Performance is largely in cities too (obviously with theatre; and essentially with film.) Doesn’t matter that we could squirt a film over broadband to a small town in the middle of NSW – people still enjoy the experience of going to the cinema, as part of a night out in the city. None of the time-shifting technologies have really bitten into that yet, just as crowds at football are still very high, despite the ability to watch on-demand. Yes, on-demand shifts consumption, but liveness is not the only thing that’s key. Experiencing a big Eastenders episode is still a ‘near-national event’ in the UK, despite the fact it’s repeated 60 mins later, and is on iPlayer within hours. Radio still has huge live listenership, despite podcasting. That on-demand media consumption will destroy all existing patterns of consumption is a myth up there with decentralisation. (I know you’re not saying that, Andy.)
    But Jarrett, you beat me to the point about the Netherlands effectively being so small as to be a regional economy in itself – not even a mega-region in Florida-speke. Centred on Amsterdam, Rotterdam and a few others, it feels like it would effectively begin to heal into one large conurbation, at least psychologically, with high-speed train contracting the sense of distance and blurring the sheep in-between (like this map of the topography of Europe contracted by high-speed train.) I think city life is a psychological, cultural state as much as it is a geographical one, but it relies on physical connectivity nonetheless.
    Andy, regarding your point about being constantly surrounded by small cultural events, in a city, I think it’s also to do with diversity, range, quality. So it’s not just the quantity of events, but the qualitative differences between them too (through a large diverse population constantly prodded by immigration, trade, and the fluidity of identity as characterised best in Jonathan Raban’s ‘Soft City’. There are other aspects of city life here too – anonymity in a crowd, for instance, that have no equivalent in exurban or rural settings. ‘Personal’, as you put it, has a far wider range of meaning in the city ) So the fabric of city life is quite different in consistency, as well as sheer scale, to that of the 70000 strong German town. It’s why I’d question your assertion that there is a rich cultural life where you live, Andy. I don’t know the place, so I’m speaking out of turn, and you’re clearly far better placed to tell than I (!). But I’d wager that while it’s perhaps strong for a few things, it’s not particularly diverse. Hay on Wye in the UK might have a very strong tradition for literature, due to its festival, but not for much else. So that lack of diversity – due to the lack of a consistency of urban life as well as the scale – will always mitigate against a small town producing much in the way of diverse cultural life. I’m guessing.
    Then again, not all cities automatically produce great culture, just because they’re cities. Those quality of life surveys often have rather lovely but rather dull cities at the top, whereas cities like London, New York, Tokyo, Berlin etc. rarely feature high up the list, despite being cultural powerhouses (or perhaps because they’re cultural powerhouses.) The variegated edginess of those last cities enable rich creativity – the likes of Copenhagen, Toronto, Zurich, Stockholm, Sydney etc. all have their moments culturally – and have made some incredible contributions – but lack the edge of the other cities. Complex.
    It occurs to me that the whole point of Australia is “coastal fringe dwelling with not a lot in between”, as you put it. That’s what makes it majestic, at its best. The depth and diversity of the cities, and the wondrous emptiness of everything else. Bruce Chatwin wrote that it would’ve been a very different country if settled by a different culture to the British, and in particular a culture comfortable with wide open spaces, such as the Russians. But as I’m British, I’m happy with the layout of the country. We just need to exaggerate and intensify that layout even more, I’d guess.
    Finally, I recognise your note on Sydney’s centre, of course. I’s a CBD where the B is rather dominant. That’s changing soon I reckon, due to the small bars legislation which may reinvigorate the centre more than any other urban planning move, but I also rather like the centre like that in a way (working in it every day. It has a sense of thrusting ambition about it, which is part of a city, after all.) But it’s certainly not right, and causes increasing problems of mobility and monoculture. Melbourne balances it far better, with a centre and surrounds which are almost as good as any city anywhere. Brisbane somewhere in-between. So yes, that’s why there’s no Soho (or SoHo) in Sydney. However, I’d say there are a few contenders for Shoreditch, as a city fringe zone, in the likes of Surry Hills, Ultimo, potentially Glebe. They all have similar characteristics, especially Surry Hills.
    So cities are composed of these different networked systems, as you point out. Then there’s diversity of urban form too. The big cities (4m+) can vary from densely focused on a CBD (Sydney) to poly-nodal (LA certainly, London to some extent) to sprawling megalopolis (Tokyo) to emergent system (Lagos et al). The medium-sized cities of around 1.5m can quite often have it just right in terms of quality of life, but perhaps not in consistent creative drive and sheer economic muscle.
    But overall, a city is a centralisation, a densification, whether it’s made of discrete suburbs or not.


  8. Jarrett Avatar

    Yes, I agree. Couple of thoughts.
    We may want to keep that easy phrase “quality of life” in quotation marks. We’re each our own judge of quality and come to the city with different needs. Having said that, all urbanist thinking starts with the quasi-socialist premise that we elites can know what real livability is, especially as guided by signals from the market. The “livability index” tradition has some value in focusing on qualities that are widely desired, and such indexes do tend to pick out cities in the 1-3m range.
    (Not entirely btw, Jeff Humphries up in Brisbane has proposed a club of hyperlivable New World cities in this population range that seem to be converging and can benefit from close collaboration. His list: Perth, Brisbane, Auckland, Portland, and Vancouver.)
    All this suggests that the ideal city, were we to join Plato in imagining one, might be a European-style lattice of centres each no bigger than 3m or so, all covering an area whose diameter is roughly a two hour public transport trip (again I’m thinking of getting home late from a show). So yes, the Netherlands more or less.
    Actually, such a lattice could be an effective form even as it grew to beyond the 2-hour diameter, so long has everyone had several of these centers within their own 2-hour radius of home.
    Again, though, the transport is the key. Sydney’s tragedy is that it has a regionwide lattice of major dense centres — the only such city in Australia in fact. However, the public transport system that links them is so poor that a geniunely urban agenda such as the performing arts can’t risk scattering among these centres (despite much cheaper rents out there).
    Los Angeles is the one city I can think of where highly creative people have always been spread over a huge area, and which has long been a constellation of strong centres, many with distinct cultural identities. Today, Los Angeles is rapidly building rapid transit and further congealing into centres around that system’s nodes. Los Angeles and Holland may converge toward the same ideal form, though Holland will probably still have more room for tulips.


  9. apolaine Avatar

    Sydney’s transport infrastructure does indeed leave a lot to desired and I never really get the feeling that it’s separate cultural centres are all that joined. It’s seems to me to be a much more either/or scenario on an evening out in Sydney than the kind of one place for a show. another for food, another for a drink chain that you’d maybe do in London or Berlin.
    I’d love to see Sydney grow more of a heart (in both senses of the word) – pedestrianising Oxford Street would be a good start.
    Now, just to defend my tiny town a little. I would still argue it’s culturally rich for a small town. It’s obviously not London or Berlin, but compared to, say Ipswich in the UK, that’s nearly double the size, it’s much richer. And more pleasant.
    Now, I would agree it’s probably not as diverse culturally, but that’s what all those other countries nearby in Europe are for ;-). I’m 20 minutes from Strasbourg in France, 45 minutes from Switzerland and about 3 hours from Austria and Italy.
    There’s that transport infrastructure aspect again. Germany is big, but feels small because you can anywhere quite quickly and comfortably. England is small, but going from London to Newcastle feels like an expedition, albeit one equipped with jumbo packets of Walkers crisps and a manky cheeseburger. I don’t find Australian cities all that diverse really – in that sense I find Australia geographically way out of proportion with it’s cultural ‘size’ (which I find small and often stiflingly so, much as I love Australia).
    I think the live event is the thing to focus on here, maybe. We have lots of live stuff here in Offenburg, which is maybe why I find it ‘rich’ compared to some places in the UK (where, I would suggest, there is a much greater TV watching culture – maybe because TV is a lot better there). But whilst broadcast media haven’t died, the way they make their casting broad, as it were, has, er, broadened, and is time-shifted. Of course any of those other media can be a national or international shared experience – YouTube memes are just that.
    But really the live event is about the liveness of it, if that makes sense. Not just being there (because you might be watching/listening to it on TV/Internet/Radio), but the fact that it could all go wrong at any time. That, at least, is always my experience of theatre. I find theatre actually quite a private experience, unlike say a music gig, but it’s the fact that there are real people on stage pretending to be other people pretending there’s nobody watching that is the ‘liveness’.
    Music, on the other hand, which is where this all started, really does benefit from the live audience. Even if you’re right at the back and essentially watching the live act on big telly, the experience is very, very different to watching it on TV. But I think that has a everything to do with the make-up of music and the way musicians play and respond to an audience.
    Another thought is to do with the little brother Syndrome, which both Brisbane and Melbourne (less so) have. That is, they have to try that little bit harder to out-do their bigger sibling(s), but on the other hand are a lot cooler and more relaxed. This kind of competition only really happens with cities over a certain size doesn’t it? I think that affects the creative cultural scene.
    These aren’t really terribly coherent steps of an argument I’m putting forward here, more rambling thoughts now… sorry.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: