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Size matters, but there's far more to a city

Date

Ian Warden

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The deadline for submissions to the Like Canberra project was Christmas Eve and now we can report that among the more than 12,000 reasons collected for liking Canberra was one person's feeling that because Canberra is a small billabong, ''You can be a big fish here.''

One imagines this anonymous respondent was either Andrew Leigh (member for Fraser) or one of the members (minnows in the great scheme of things but Murray cod here in the ACT context) of the Legislative Assembly.

Just to remind you, this ACT government centenary-minded project invited everyone to send in up to five nominations of things they like about Canberra. Centenary folk have reported that people visiting the Like Canberra website nominated more than 12,000 reasons for liking Canberra. Attempts by this probing, investigative, Walkley-seeking columnist to find out some details of what's been harvested have been a little frustrated. Asking for some colourful, quirky submissions, we received a skimpy list of only about 10, with the shy advice that ''This is about as quirky as they get.''

Canadian author Adam Gopnik.

Canadian author Adam Gopnik. Photo: Supplied

None of them, for a connoisseur of quirkiness, seems especially quirky, although the confession that this is a great little billabong in which to become a big fish has a refreshing honesty about it.

One person nominated ''The beer and pork knuckles at the Harmonie German Club'' as a best thing about Canberra, and another rejoiced at the fact that ''public servants buy cheaper and more see-through shirts as they get older.''

In a short statement about a few of the notions submitted, Chief Minister Katy Gallagher took this one, about our invisible air, to be praised of how unpolluted this part of the world is. Gallagher also referred, ominously, to one of the themes of the responses being ''the comfortable size of our city''.

This is ominous because in my considerable experience of decades of pestering people about their feelings for their city (no sooner do I hear someone say they ''love'' or ''like'' Canberra than I poke and prod them for why they feel this way), what they always then drone is some cliched variation on the sentiment ''What I love about Canberra is that I can drive to work in 10 minutes.'' But to say you love a city because it's a place that enables you to get to and from work nicely is like saying you love your partner just because he or she does not snore, thus enabling you to sleep well at nights. Meanwhile, people in other cities of the world, in Rio, say, in New York, Vladivostok, Shanghai, Mexico City, Sydney) love their cities in spite of the fact that they are hellish to commute in. When you really love a city, you love it the way you a love a lover, with all its warts and bad habits commixed with all its metrosexy skills and virtues. Canberrans do not yet, in my experience, have the foggiest idea how to feel and express passion for their city.

Here is writer Adam Gopnik talking about his Montreal in the Massey Lectures being rebroadcast now on ABC Radio National.

''In the course of a lifetime we get to live in a lot of places, if we're lucky, that we can't forget. I've lived in some big-name places, like Paris and New York. But in a lifetime we only ever live in one place that we can't get over [because, there] the rejections have been just too hard, the pains too deep to get over, the pleasures too intense. And Montreal is the place I can never get over. I walk the streets and I remember the intensity of the experiences there.''

Are there Canberrans for whom Canberra is the city they can't get over?

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