Going back to Galicia: Why: The unlivable city

And yet another rant on going back to Galicia.

Before coming to Australia I read that the three best cities in the world are Sydney, Vancouver and Vienna. I am not sure what “best” means in this context, but one would imagine something like cities with the best quality of living. Well, I’ve never been to Vienna, but I visited Vancouver last year for a few days and, although I didn’t dislike it at all, it didn’t strike any particular chord with me. And after three years in Sydney, I can honestly say that Sydney is simply unlivable for me. And don’t get me wrong: I stress the for me part.

In my experience, people tend to think of Sydney as a beautiful place, and this is the first myth than fell during the last three years. Yes, the geographic location of the harbour is beautiful. But I come from Galicia, country of the thousand harbours (if you want), and Sydney’s is nothing special compared with any of the Galician “rias“. Of course, Sydney is a very well known city (we could talk of city branding here) while Galicia is not, so the Galician “rias” will be unknown to most people in the world. This does not mean that Sydney is superior.

It is also true that Sydney has spent a lot of resources and effort into making the harbourside a beautiful place, with restaurants, cinemas, shopping malls, walkways, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. But this is only a tiny fragment of Sydney. Most of Sydney is boring suburbs, dodgy allyways and noisy main streets, i.e. quite average stuff, far from the shore and with no visible connection to the geographical beauty of the harbour. Furthermore, most of us live in these average places, not between the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Only rich people can afford living in the beautiful part of town; the average citizen lives in an average place. Of course you can go and have a stroll on Circular Quay or Darling Harbour any Saturday evening, but from a city that calls itself one of the three top in the world, I would expect a bit more: that its quality reaches to most of its citizens. And it doesn’t. What is so beautiful and so special in Parramatta, Balmain, Pyrmont or Turramurra?

So, once the myth of Sydney’s beauty had fallen, I could only look for something else, look beyond the physique and into the spirit. But the spirit is hardly enjoyable when distances are huge. Sydney is so big that you end up wasting a lot of time in commuting and moving from one place to the next. I read that Sydney is one of the largest (in extension, not population) cities in the world, if not the largest, sprawling over 100 km from N to S and over 80 km from E to W. Urban sprawl, very well known to North Americans and Australians, is (luckily) not as bad in Europe, and, for me at least, means a severe drop in one’s quality of living. To make things worse, public transport in Sydney is ridiculously poor. Trains cover a tiny fragment of the area (it is so big) and are subject to frequent track works that interrupt service for whole weekends; and buses are slow, a pain to ride and often prone to traffic jams. As urbanists put it, Sydney is a city built for cars. And that brings pollution, noise and waste of time. I was surprised, a few months ago, when a good friend, planning his trip to Spain, asked me if Madrid was as noisy as he had read. I spent a couple of years living in Madrid and I don’t remember, even in the noisiest streets, the chaos and confusion that one often finds in George Street when a couple of buses stop in front of a gaming zone.

Then we have the weather. Most people, both Sydneysiders and foreigners, say they love Sydney’s weather. But I don’t. To start with, summer is a pain, hot and humid. When I talk to somebody who says to love Sydney’s weather and I ask “even the sticky summer?”, they usually answer “well, no, not the sticky summer”. It is like everybody pretends they love it but then, when asked for the details, most people seem not to. Sydney winter is fine, but given the poor standard of housing and the nearly total absence of insulation and heating in houses, it can be too cold, even for a Galician who is used to endure much colder winters, but with the appropriate protection. As my friend Matt once said, Canadians often complain of the cold in Sydney!

Sydney has nice things, of course, like the amazing multiculturalism, the associated variety of food and restaurants, and the fact that nobody stares at you when you speak with a strong accent. Still, it has failed to deliver the expected quality of living. Perhaps it does for others, but for me, it’s been a failure.


1 Response to “Going back to Galicia: Why: The unlivable city”

  1. 1 Nick Culjak 19 June 2005 at 9:04

    Growth in Sydney is not driven by quality long term planning decisions but is in fact driven by developers who are out to make a fast buck. Government authorities and developers have a long history of working hand in glove. The Government is planning up to 500,000 new dwellings in existing suburbs which will make a lot of developers very rich but will put incredible pressure on existing infrastructure. Unless such issues as public transport for Sydney are seriously addressed this city will choke and become unlivable to all except the hyper wealthy.

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