So Melbourne has done it. Yesterday edging out Vancouver for the title of World's Most Liveable City by Economist Intelligence Unit. Vancouver, having held the crown for just short of a decade, must be seething. I can see them bristling in their boots. They know they took their finger off the pulse somewhere, and look, another low density, moderately wealthy city slipped in whilst it wasn't looking. Damn.
Apparently Vancouver lost out on account of its congestion. They must have only just narrowly trumped Melbourne. Every Melbournian regularly experiences the wrath of traffic congestion, and the latent joy of being stuck behind a tram on Toorak Road at rush hour. I dare say it is sometimes a more chaotic commute than London. Probably because I'm terrified of the famous Melbourne hook turn; the process of turning left in order to turn right, crossing two lanes and tram lines in the meantime. I tend to do it with my eyes closed, I think that increases my odds of success. It definitely lowers my blood pressure in any case. However, despite its traffic snarls, Melbourne remains a city in which car ownership is not an absolute necessity. The same unfortunately cant be said for many Australian cities, whose gallant attempts to chase the ever reaching outer suburban edges with public transport, simply cant keep pace.
A quick look down the top ten list, and I realise I've had the odd privilege of living in four of them; Melbourne, Vienna, Sydney and Perth. I'm either a good picker, or a bit predictable in retrospect, given that the best scoring cities tend to have similar characteristics; mid sized, relatively wealthy with low crime rates and population density. They, according to the report accompanying the survey, "foster a range of recreational activities without leading to high crime levels or overburdened infrastructure" according to Gulliver of The Economist. Fair enough. In my humble experience, the above four, to varying degrees, all live up to the above mantra, although Vienna was without a doubt the safest city; probably a well chosen gap year destination for a 21 year old with a penchant for travel naivety and misplacing belongings. It looked after me well and wrapped me in fur until I was bundled safely home the next year.
Melbournians, like most Australians, are a little allergic to high rise living, and still strive to be home owners with both feet on the ground. With the cost of new properties rising to almost extortionate limits, inner city apartment living is becoming more commonplace. More often than not, apartments are the only option young professionals or couples have if they prefer not to live on Melbourne's outskirts, where infrastructure options diminish with distance. The Docklands area along the western edge of the city centre is a prime example where Melbourne, like London, Vancouver and Dublin, has undergone a long renaissance of its industrialised port area. Cunning government planning in the early nineties provided the platform for the mushrooming of apartment buildings and relocation of commercial offices, including several retail and banking giants. However Melbournians have been much slower to adopt high rise living than Londoners were to re-populate Canary Wharf. I think people here generally see it as the living equivalent of the morning tube ride up the Northern Line with your head jammed into your neighbour's sweaty armpit. Nevertheless, eventually the people have moved in, and so did the community with it.
Melbourne's centre is a constant moving feast of creative activity and design that most Melbournians are quite outwardly proud of. It is a very inclusive artistic community which draws attention into the city centre with festivals, exhibitions, pop up stalls, and the odd bit of street theatre. Outside of that, they're usually hidden out of sight behind dusty doors, down hobbity laneways, leaving the unsuspecting wandering tourist to stumble upon an enclave of check-shirted writers, photographers or artists quite by accident. Or a coffee house-come-bike repairer. Or a coffee house-come-shoe repairer. Or a coffee house-come-almost anything really. Social enterprises as diverse as 1000 £ Bend and Urban Reforestation provide the locals with the same common core of a public space for interaction, connection and involvement, whether it be for artistic pursuits or urban greening and renewal.
I doubt anyone would have looked in the mirror this morning and thought, "tsk, those canucks..." Usually the finger of Victorian contention is pointed squarely north to Sydney, its sun-drenched nemesis in all things lifestyle, fashion, food and coffee. Sydney knows how to push Melbourne's buttons, and does it with a style and panache which irritates its southern sibling no end. I spent my childhood watching the bickering and ego from afar in Perth, usually with a roll of the eyes and a flick of the wrist, as I tossed my fishing rod out for better fish to catch, batter and fry. Occasionally the odd sporting bet would be wagered between State Premiers to arouse interest from us, usually involving the loser donning something embarrassing. Even at that tender age, it was funny at best, dismissively forgettable at worst.
Despite the bickering, Melbourne and Sydney really are like yin and yang. They are diametrically opposed both pretending to be mutually exclusive. Where Sydney is beach, yachts and cocktails at sundown; all that is terrifically, flamboyantly cool, Melbourne is the dark speakeasy, the hushed tones, all brick walls and velvet. The one speed bike in the hallway, the glimpse of the on-loan Gustav Klimt in the front room. Very few people I know will voluntarily attest to being an equal fan of both. One must be in one camp or the other, it seems. Underneath the banter and bravado however, each really does admire what the other is famous for, and secretly wishes it was part of their city. And, secretly, we all know that the combination of the two together, might just, hypothetically, be the world's greatest city.
And so I'm off to Vancouver in February. How predictable of me.
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