Last year, Melbourne, Australia, was named the world’s most liveable city in the Economist magazine’s measure of 140 cities judged on their social, cultural and political qualities. Another pin in Melbourne’s hat in the never-ending Sydney/Melbourne battle. Sydney came in sixth but only by a narrow margin. The system ranks cities out of 100 based on around 30 contributing factors. A deeper look shows that Melbourne ranked at 97.5 and Sydney at 96.1. So while Melbourne naturally likes to fly its flag of most liveable city, perhaps the differences between the two big Australian cities are not that vast.
The main component that pushed Sydney out by such a nominal amount is property prices, something Sydney can’t deny as being a difficult pill to swallow. Melbourne is a big urban hub with a great music, arts and food culture, all things it has been getting an increasing amount of attention for. This focus on Melbourne as the arts hub has meant that recognition of Sydney as a similar cultural hub has been somewhat lacking. Recognition that I believe needs to still be given to Sydney, and increasingly so.
Sydney gets a whole lot of attention, but it’s for her looks most of the time. The harbour, the beaches, the Opera House. For many, it seems that Sydney’s value is only skin deep, a view that really writes off the ins and outs of what Sydney is and can be – Sydney has got the smarts, tucked away underneath her image conscious exterior. The looks versus substance argument has always been used during the age long rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne and is really the lowest common denominator approach. There seems to be a culture of lame one upmanship which fails to recognise the idiosyncrasies of each city while simultaneously recognising that perhaps they’re really not that different from one another. It’s almost not worth sliding into the Sydney versus Melbourne debate, as ultimately it’ll never get resolved. Instead, the focus should be on some of the reasons that Sydney should be getting bigger props than she currently is. Sydney is perhaps one of those rarities, gorgeous and with substance. The international hub of Australia, she is a city of ideas.
The City of Sydney (the inner CBD municipality) has plans, strategies and dreams in big lights. Critics may scoff at the big ideas being put forward by Sydney’s innovative, thought provoking and egalitarian Lord Mayor, Clover Moore. Ideas and talk are cheap, right? Definitely, but I think most Sydney-siders with a genuine interest in the inner workings of our centre city are excited by it all. As the helm of the Australian economy, contributing almost 8% to Australia’s GDP, Sydney has a license to dream and achieve big. Rather than resting on her laurels of nice beaches and harbour – as Sydney has to some extent done for many years – plans and ideas have already started to become reality. The character landscape of inner city Sydney has started to alter even in just the past few years. Amended trading licenses and reductions in the barriers to trade for potential publicans has been one big step toward creating a different eating, drinking and social culture in Sydney.
While Melbourne has been doing small bar culture since the 80s – bars that can hold less than 120 patrons – Sydney only recently changed its licensing Act to allow for similar venues to start popping up around Sydney. The previous culture was for big venues, often owned by larger groups, with licenses for smaller premises simply too expensive to warrant someone opening in a tiny premises which can hold only 40 patrons. Big venues often mean huge groups, alcohol fueled violence and a general air of ‘all the same.’ The 2009 changes have meant that publicans are able to open premises with a lot more ease and less financial backing, while also allowing the creation of more individualised venues.
Jason Scott, co-owner of a number of small bars in Sydney including Shady Pines Saloon has said that “small bars have re-invented the city and everyone is hungry for new bars,” – a sentiment shared by Alex Berentsen, Senior Executive of Retail from Colliers International who says “Sydney has had nothing like this and what it [small bar culture] is doing is opening up the city, with previously unused laneways and alleys now being occupied by patrons wanting to go somewhere different.” I can see how an initial reaction may be to simply say, small bars, so what? On a basic level, yes, they’re licensed venues just like the next, but a deeper look shows that they’ve begun to create a completely varied and different culture not previously seen in Sydney.
Rich Fogarty, founder of Concrete Playground – a site which is dedicated to guiding Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland to its cultural events – was quoted as saying that he felt that Sydney has started to take the cultural and creative upper hand to Melbourne. As a person who has his and his team’s fingers on the pulse, he is a fairly good indicator of some positive changes in Sydney. Despite the excellent contribution made by the small bar revolution, it’s actually not all about the booze. The Lord Mayor has said that, “As Australia’s global city, it is essential we foster creativity and develop our business talents. Our small businesses contribute to the city’s diverse economy and their success signals to the rest of the world we are an innovative and entrepreneurial city.’ The growth of the small bar trend has helped in creating venues that support up and coming talent and artists – as spaces for exhibitions and performances.
What I think the aim is, for which the wheels are already in motion, is to establish Sydney as a thinking city – thinking about its environmental footprint, its development and its cultural, sporting and arts identity. We’re not one-dimensional as a population, and our path of change needs to recognise this. Head of public programs at the Sydney opera House, Ann Mossop knows a lot about creating interesting events, techniques that can be paralleled when establishing an engaging city. A city like Sydney, far from global centres of influence, needs to, as Anne suggests, “perfect an interesting juggling act.” To balance our shining lights and allure with the need to be self sufficient as well, a place that “people want to live and work in, because thinkers and creative entrepreneurs don’t come out of nowhere, they come from families, schools, universities and workplaces.” We need to be outward reaching, while simultaneously acknowledging our specific Sydney traits. Glitz, glamour and beaches will only do so much to attract visitors as well as permanent talent.
Sydney is starting to come out of an almost sheltered existence. As much as many Sydney-siders might consider themselves international individuals, as a city we’ve existed on the allure of the unknown down under, magnificent harbour and friendly people. We’re now looking further afield to international trends and ways of living to ensure we keep some sort of edge. Dare I say it we’re looking to Melbourne to see what they’re doing well, implementing that locally, and maybe even getting better at it.
As Mossop says when describing what makes a successful creative city, “You can’t buy a kit that tells you how to do it, and copies don’t work, but there are definitely some examples where Sydney does this quite well. And strangely, for an intangible process, a building gives us one of the best.” That building being the Opera House. When it was built, the sails of the Opera House challenged and even offended, and it is continuing to do that. The Opera House creates a visual representation of what Sydney is – “confident, courageous, beautiful, innovative and creative.” We as a City need to be un-afraid of the new, which is what our Lord Mayor is doing. She is pushing against the challenges to create a green, global and connected Sydney. While the inner city and municipality (borough) of the City of Sydney is only one piece in the huge cultural and ethnic puzzle that is greater Sydney, it is a key piece. It’s a cornerstone that will hopefully act as an instigator and guide for other municipalities. We’re not there yet perhaps, but I guarantee that Sydney city will become an increasingly exciting, vibrant and challenging city to live in and visit.
By Lara Ihnatowicz
Lara is a freelance writer and photographer based in Sydney, Australia. Passionate about creating awareness of a more informed and responsible way of life, Lara comes from a diverse background including radio and print production. Her work focuses on food, community, urban development and travel.