this (con­fined city) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Bar­bara Baker

Brisbane. “The best coun­try town in Aus­tralia,” my dad used to say; and so, af­ter a stint in south­west Queens­land in the early 1950s, in­stead of re­turn­ing to the Sydney crush he set­tled his young fam­ily in “Brizzie”.

Earth clos­ets stood like sen­try boxes in sub­ur­ban back­yards. Not all streets were fully bi­tu­minised. We swayed and lurched on trams that ran along ar­te­rial roads to the CBD — the ma­jor shop­ping hub — and halted the traf­fic at ev­ery stop. Com­muters caught steam trains in­fa­mous for their soot. The near­est surf was a pil­grim­age away. But we had pala­tial city cine­mas; two pop­u­lar cof­fee lounges; we had the Ekka agri­cul­tural show, with an arena large enough for the young Queen’s vis­its, for Cor­pus Christi cel­e­bra­tions, for Billy Gra­ham’s pros­e­lytis­ing.

Some­times in­ter­na­tional artists per­formed in the City Hall or Fes­ti­val Hall, when the box­ing ring was dis­man­tled. We had Cloud­land, with its mar­vel­lous sprung floor, where the young danced and dated. The best coun­try town in Aus­tralia, in­deed.

But all that was 60 years ago, and no one would want to go back­wards. To­day, so­phisti- cated, quasi-cos­mopoli­tan, we call our­selves River City or, lu­di­crously, “Brisve­gas”. We have fine venues; we breed in­ter­na­tional achiev­ers. And so on.

Why, then, am I suf­fer­ing dis­con­nec­tion with the city? Why a feel­ing of dis­ap­point­ment and ill-ease? Am I an age­ing cur­mud­geon who can’t ac­cept change? Can’t cope with the in­creased pres­sures of a pop­u­la­tion that has al­most quadru­pled since 1954 — and brought a vi­brant, cre­ative so­ci­ety?

Last week I read Tim Winton’s Is­land Home and I recog­nised “what oft [I] thought but ne’er so well ex­pressed”, the phys­i­cal­ity of be­ing Aus­tralian: to love the arc of our end­less sky, the stab of dis­tance, the foam of aqua­ma­rine surf, the glare off tawny pad­docks and olive-blue hills. I knew in­stantly what is irk­ing me about Brisbane: the city has lost its sense of space.

We sub­di­vide our blocks and re­place trees with bricks. A river trip on a City Cat presents more glass than grass. We are con­vert­ing our streets into park­ing lots. Clus­ters of high-rise apart­ments mush­room in their own shad­ows. Con­crete and bi­tu­men rib­bon ag­gres­sively through land­scapes. I feel claus­tro­pho­bic.

And as I watch Brisbane grow (or go), I also grieve to see the op­por­tu­ni­ties squan­dered to build a unique city, if only to at­tract tourist dol­lars. Adopt­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble build­ing prac­tices, we could have cre­ated a model me­trop­o­lis with­out reliance on en­ergy-eat­ing, tem­per­a­ture-rais­ing de­vices. And we in­sist on build­ing densely on a flood­plain; bless the vol­un­teers who clear up af­ter each dis­as­ter.

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