CityWatch, Aug 25, 2009
Vol 7 Issue 68
Two weeks into my Australian Walkabout, I'm wandering the wilds of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, following the storylines of my family and connecting with the history of my country. I am, after all, an Australian by birth and an Angelino by choice.
It's apparent I've arrived just in the nick of time. This continent is populated by a stubborn bunch, all clinging to silly traditions and I've got my work cut out if I'm going to impart the wisdom of Los Angeles to my Rellies Down Under.
For example, here are five areas where Melbourne is simply upside down on its approach to some common opportunities:
1) In Melbourne, a city of 4 million people, they're completely unschooled in the fine art of moving motor vehicles. Boasting the world's most extensive Tram Network, supported by a significant Train System, complemented by an efficient Bus System, Melbourne has the audacity to throw cyclists and pedestrians into the mix, positioning motor vehicles at the bottom of the food chain. The fact that their scheme works brilliantly, efficiently, safely, and effectively is completely irrelevant as is the bustling street life and thriving economic environment.
The simple fact that the people of Melbourne would dare to challenge the primacy of the single occupant motor vehicle with such impunity and, of course, success, clearly demonstrates that Melbourne is no match for Los Angeles when it comes to mobility.
2) Melbourne simply fails to get in touch with its hugeness. Los Angeles and Melbourne are so similar in population and in size that they could be fraternal twins! The difference is this, Los Angeles is more mature and has grown comfortable with the fact that it's "built-out."
LA's leadership resists innovation, claiming that the city is simply too big and too cumbersome to manage, let alone change. Rarely does a departmental meeting take place without the twin paradigms of mediocrity (LA is a battleship that can't be turned quickly and true progress occurs slowly and in small increments) being advanced as excuses for inactivity and mediocrity.
Melbourne, on the other hand, has streets and buildings older than Australia, yet it embraces change and innovation as if there were no limits to progress. Dangerous stuff, this Heritage Preservation coupled with Urban Re-Purposing, topped off with parks and bike lanes and traffic circles and shared streets and traffic calming and all sorts of impossibilities!
If Melbourne continues to fix streets, sweep sidewalks, treat residents with respect and act with the municipal dexterity of a small village, it can only serve to destroy LA's excuse for stagnation. "We're just too big!"
3) Melbourne completely misses out on political opportunities by focusing on practical solutions. In addition to the many significant environmental challenges any large city faces, Melbourne finds itself in the 13th year of a severe drought. Water is in such short supply, crop irrigation has actually been threatened and bush fires have ravaged communities with tremendous loss of life and property.
Rather than pursue LA style "big-picture" political solutions that advance careers and enrich city coffers, Melbourne thinks little.
Everybody is Melbourne is an environmental steward and the resulting "swarm" of solutions includes smokers not butting in the gutter (to avoid rainwater runoff contamination) to residential rainwater collection. (my Rural Uncle brags that his tanks have sustained him for the last six months)
Water "polling" has become a point of pride and my Urban Aunt shared her water records with us, competing against her history and her goals to reduce her water usage. Toilets have half-flush features, water reclamation is routine, peer pressure drives conservation and the public good is evidently of greater value than personal excess.
Through it all, Melbourne maintains parks with drought resistant native plants, uses creative and natural ground cover and plants trees at a speed that seems designed to be the metric equivalent of San Antonio's Million Tree Campaign. (I'm betting they're planting at a rate 2.2 times that of LA!)
At the end of a hard day of environmental stewardship, Melbourne residents return home to power outlets that are turned off when not in use, to rooms that are not heated or cooled unless occupied and to lighting that is low energy and heavy-metal free.
This practical approach flies in the face of the LA Municipal model which relies on consumption in order to fund the city machine. Melbourne has so much to learn from LA, including the simple fact that there's money to be made by encouraging bad behavior!
Imagine if Melbourne invested in muni parking lots, sold more gas, used more power, consumed more water, polluted more air, produced more trash! Why, it would be a filthy rich city with a balanced budget, just like Los Angeles!'
4) Melbourne claims English as the native tongue but conversations are sprinkled with colloquialisms that require a bit of translation. For example, "living wage" means a basic wage that is suitable for...well...living on. "Affordable housing" refers to housing that is accessible and affordable to those earning a "living wage." Servers in restaurants blush when tipped, after all, they've "already been paid quite nicely, thank you!"
This honesty in communication, while refreshing, deprives the City leadership of the wiggle-room that the Los Angeles style of double-speak provides. Left unchecked, this Melbourne style of “Strine" could result in an expectation that "public servants" actually serve the public! Where's the political future in that?
5) Aussies love their sports. But they take it a little too far! They love to play, they love to watch and they love to gamble. They are so competitive, they turn everything into a challenge and they always know the score.
"The Eureka is the tallest residential building in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Star is the largest observation wheel in the Southern Hemisphere, the Melbourne Cricket Ground has the largest retractable roof in the Southern Hemisphere."
This competitive spirit starts to get old, especially when everybody turns into a scorekeeper. The Transit authority posts their goals and performance numbers at the stations. The local authorities post their budgets and follow up with an accounting of the funds. Public Works leaves the price tag on their projects for all to see.
Melbourne would do well to relax a little, to learn from the leadership of Los Angeles who embrace a "softer" style of accountability based on intentions and motivations and efforts.
The Aussie approach translates into a style of governance that is so much more performance based with acute sensitivity to evaluation based on the numbers.
From Town Hall to the Train Station to public works, those involved in serving the public can tell you how they're doing based on the numbers. Where's the future in that?
In conclusion, I acknowledge that my Walkabout is not quite traditional, after all, it would typically take place in the outback, not in City Centre Boutique Hotels. Sustenance would most likely be bush tucker, not family reunion feasts. But who am I to get hung up on ritual when the real opportunity is to immerse myself in the journey of discovery and to explore the elements of Greatness that abound literally everywhere I walk.
As I wander, I recognize much that connects me with my past and I realize much more that will shape my future in Los Angeles. The Aussies are experiencing many of the same challenges and opportunities but their actions are a little different and this is the inspiration and connection that gives my Walkabout meaning.
In deference to my loved ones in Melbourne and in keeping with the spirit of a true blue Walkabout, I pass up opportunities for validation in favor of inspiration and I focus on my journey Down Under.
So it is that I find myself reconnecting to my people, my history and to the spirit of greatness that accepts no excuses and knows no limits.
(Stephen Box’ birthplace is Australia. He and his wife Enci have made Los Angeles their home. Box is a transportation advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Stephen@ThirdEyeCreative.net) Photo credits: StreetsBlog.com. ◘