Graffiti spotted in South Brisbane, March 2015 (photo by Mark Plunkett)

I spent last week in inner city Brisbane in the company of two visitors from that nirvana of urbanism: Portland, Oregon. What made it an especially interesting experience was one of the Portlanders is a former Brisbanite who hadn’t been back for around 25 years.

Alain de Botton thinks he’s already summed up the essence of Brisbane (see Is Alain de Botton right: is Brisbane ugly?) so I’m going to content myself with passing on a few observations about the physical and design-related changes that’ve taken place in inner Brisbane over the last 30 or so years.

Top of mind is inner Brisbane’s evident fascination with coffee. It seems to have a remarkably high density of coffee shops for its size and status; it’s hard to walk more than 20 metres without stumbling upon yet another entrepreneur who’s found a hole in the wall big enough to install an espresso machine.

It’s great to pause in the middle of a pedestrian bridge and sip a long black while gazing up the river, but you have to wonder if there’s anyone back in the office doing the boring work. Surely they can’t all be out networking? (1)

On a more serious note, the big thing that strikes anyone returning to Brisbane after a long absence is surely the sheer scale of physical and demographic change in the inner city and especially in the city centre.

I can’t know for certain if it’s objectively true, but it sure looks like Brisbane’s changed physically to a greater extent than either Sydney or Melbourne (and they’ve hardly stood still over the last 20-30 years).

Up until the late 1980s Brisbane was solid and boring; it was like the country town talented young people looking for excitement and opportunity can’t wait to escape. New graduates would stuff their togs in their port and be off to Sydney or Melbourne as soon as their last exam was over.

But towards the end of the decade Brisbane’s CBD and inner city began to change in earnest (locals give Expo 88 a key causal role). Gentrification of inner city suburbs accelerated, restaurants and cafes pushed traditional shops out of strip shopping centres, brownfield sites were redeveloped for high density housing, and the city made a determined effort to capitalise on its greatest asset, the serpentine Brisbane River.

Brisbane City Council’s excellent CityCat service is a good example of how the city has finally come to appreciate the river. Where once there was the occasional high rise residential tower in St Lucia and New Farm, today there’s a near continuous run of riverside apartment complexes from the University of Qld right through to Hamilton with supporting walking and cycling paths.

One way to view these change is in the familiar terms of “two cities” – the growing divide in  Australia’s major cities between the inner city enclave of “haves” and the much larger population of “have nots” in the middle and (especially) outer suburbs.

Thanks in part to the regressive urban renewal programs of the Keating years, relatively wealthy inner city residents now have ready access to the abundant amenities of the inner city. The suburbanites, in comparison, have moderate to low incomes and poorer access to infrastructure, services and amenities.

Another perspective, though, is to focus on the many improvements made to the public realm in the city centre over the last 20-30 years e.g. Southbank (the peoples’ five star hotel), Queen St pedestrian mall (looking a bit haggard now), the stunning Roma Street Parkland, pedestrian and cyclist bridges over the river, the cultural precinct (including the wonderful GOMA), Grey St redevelopment, and much more. (2)

One of the most impressive initiatives presumably cost relatively little; integrating QUT’s Gardens Point campus and the City Botanic Gardens by simply removing the old fence (hopefully the cast iron was reused elsewhere). The change improves both.

Brisbane used to be a city that was short on quality civic facilities and virtually devoid of any sense of positive urban design. While I don’t doubt there’ve been failures (e.g. CityCycle) it seems clear that Brisbanites now place a much higher value on the quality of the public realm, at least in the inner city. (3)

I think it’s instructive to note that most of these improvements are the direct result of public interventions to shape the way the city developed. They’ve channelled private and public investment in ways that’ve mostly improved the city centre for all residents of the region. (4)

Despite the enormous strides Brisbane’s made, I don’t think the Portland visitors were knocked out by the place. They didn’t see those cottages and vines tumbling down the hills of Paddington as being quite as distinctive as I do, but then I’m probably not objective on this point; I grew up in Brisbane.

They liked Brisbane well enough but I think it seemed a bit generic to them and lacking a distinctive character. They conveyed the idea in that polite manner Americans have that it looked a little like clean US cities (inner city Houston was mentioned!). (5)

Anyone who’s actually seen Portland might be wondering just where these visitors get off but I think they’re talking about the culture of a place; Portland’s character isn’t defined so much by its natural or human made attributes as by its reputation for tolerance and weirdness: it’s “the place young people go to retire”.

Cities that lack a strong defining attribute like a significant legacy of outstanding historic buildings or a natural feature such as a gobsmacking harbour (Sydney’s got both!) might have to work harder to build a characteristic culture if they want to attract visitors or at least be recognised as special in some way.

Inner Brisbane could really benefit from the full suite of progressive values and policies of a leader like the Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, Clover Moore. Architects and planners are inclined to think in physical terms but a distinctive culture is more likely to be the result of a broad range of policies; the designed environment will typically be one manifestation rather than the root cause.

Trouble is the City of Brisbane doesn’t have the kind of electorate that would vote for someone a bit off-centre like Ms Moore; after all, former National Liberal Premier Campbell Newman was Lord Mayor of Brisbane from 2004-2011.

It makes me wonder if this conservatism could in part be the downside of being the largest local government authority in Australia. The City of Brisbane has a population of over a million and covers 770 sq km. The City of Sydney has a population of circa 170,000 and covers just 25 sq km.

If the City of Brisbane only covered (say) a 5 km radius from the city centre (80 sq km and circa 250,000 population), it might well return a council more inclined to implement policies that would create a more distinctive central Brisbane (e.g. see Do political values help explain high cycling levels?). Whatever benefit that conferred on residents would of course need to be evaluated against the foregone advantages of size.

Then again, perhaps being distinctive is something that’s of more interest to Portlanders; it mightn’t matter a jot to the great majority of Brisbanites.

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  1. Maybe they’re exchanging computer files on USB sticks; Queenslanders are alleged to be Australia’s most enthusiastic illegal downloaders!
  2. In 2012 Brisbane scored a Special Mention for urban renewal in the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize.
  3. Although that might not’ve been true prior to the post war boom. Back in earlier periods the city seemed to take great pride in its public places.
  4. The new state government needs to move on addressing looming constraints on access to the city centre by rail.
  5. We tend to think sprawl, but inner city Houston isn’t too bad.
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