Neon, graffiti, signs, ads: these shouldn't be dirty words in Canberra
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Neon, graffiti, signs, ads: these shouldn't be dirty words in Canberra

I lived in Canberra for a couple of years in the 1980s and loved everything about it (OK, nearly everything: the lack of good bread, distance from the coast and lack of street life all left me wanting). Despite the lack of carbs and surf, at the time I really felt Canberra and what it had to offer was unfairly maligned by the rest of Australia.

I have travelled back many times to Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin's beautifully designed city since leaving in 1987. I love the lake, the million trees they planted, the monuments, the art, the institutions, the lilac bushes, the purple hue of the Brindabellas in the distance.

The 'Enlighten' festival in Canberra in March.

The 'Enlighten' festival in Canberra in March.

So, like many of you, I am proud as punch that Lonely Planet named Canberra its No.3 best city to visit in 2018 – and I particularly love that, in every article, Canberrans are quoted hastening to add that this ranking is higher than any Australian city before it!

"Criminally overlooked, Canberra packs a big punch for a small city," Lonely Planet says. The reasons given include the national treasures found around every corner, alongside new boutique precincts "bulging with gastronomic highlights and cultural must-dos". Suddenly, it seems Canberra is being noticed for all the things a vibrant exciting city offers (including the bread I once craved!).

Deb Cleland poses for a campaign hoping to keep Canberra "nude", or billboard-free.

Deb Cleland poses for a campaign hoping to keep Canberra "nude", or billboard-free.Credit:Lisa Petheran

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Public spaces and how people interact with and traverse them is at the heart of this. Canberra is having its moment in the sun because it is creating more of a sense of place and a bit of joie de vivre, which helps cajole people out of their living rooms, and other cities, into Canberra.

Vibrancy, culture and tolerance seem to me to be in the DNA of cities that work – and it doesn't need to be to the exclusion of nature. Cities are by definition built environments and need what I'd call a modicum of "grunge" breathing life into them. Cities need a mix of the built and the natural environment to co-exist; to create both harmony and friction.

Given all that we know about the recipe for cities that flourish, I am constantly struck by people's opposition to things like graffiti, signs, neon and a night culture. Perhaps it is opposition not to these things themselves but because they are seen to connect public space with private interests?

Worries over the possible effects of this go to a historical division of the commercial from the idea of a civic panacea. The accolades from Lonely Planet debunk this somewhat. It is the heady mix of local business, cultural icons and national treasures that create in Canberra that sense of a city worth visiting. There is no mention of being the bush capital, its sublime city design or its abundant nature. This is not to say those things are unimportant, but that they are no longer the only notable ingredients in Canberra's recipe.

The ACT's biggest billboard ads are at the Canberra Centre, facing traffic on Cooyong Street.

The ACT's biggest billboard ads are at the Canberra Centre, facing traffic on Cooyong Street.Credit:Jeffrey Chan

It is the collaboration between the commercial and the civic that gives an emerging city like Canberra its X-factor. We need to move away from the cliched argument that these two worlds thrive only at the expense of the other, and enjoy both.

Painting ourselves into a corner by insisting that there is a good and a bad instead of a symbiotic relationship at play is useless. Why deny the aesthetic joy that can exist in cities, just because it is not the beauty of a mountain range or a waterfall? Seeking purity through opposition to the rhythm of urban life strips the meaning from the places we call homes. Canberra's natural beauty cannot and should not restrict its ongoing evolution as Australia's capital.

As an optimist, I'd like to believe the best lies ahead of us, in the exploration of these nuances through a more contemporary, open dialogue facilitated by government. Let's move past the binaries and onto better things.

Take out-of-home advertising signs as an example of how this binary thinking can move onto something better. The infrastructure it comes with embeds benefits such as lighting, shelter and general amenity alongside technology for way-finding and community messaging. Some of the most vibrant, interesting and exciting locations in the world have effectively integrated advertising signs to add flair and create a sense of place. Canberra could harness these benefits in ways that promote, rather than destroy, its sense of identity.

Advertising goes hand in hand with a thriving city that is overflowing with possibility.

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Advertising goes hand in hand with a thriving city that is overflowing with possibility. It is not a case of out with the old and in with the new; more a case of respecting the old and building on it by inviting in the new. It's about finding ways to develop regulation that encourages a more thoughtful dialogue between everyone who wants to contribute to Canberra maintaining its mantle as one of the top cities in the world to spend some time in.

Charmaine Moldrich is chief executive of the Outdoor Media Association.