Postcard from an asphalt Ikea

It is hard to believe smart bohemians of the early twentieth-century had a mental image of Australia like the image many of us now have of Sweden or Denmark. In a dog-eat-dog world, this newly federated nation and trade-union stronghold on the other side of Asia somewhere, promised to be an ongoing project in social justice. I remember a documentary about Walter and Marion Griffin that told how this utopian image of Australia was what had attracted them to design Canberra and relocate here.

Australia is a big place though. The description I have just given was perfectly true for Newcastle, my home town. At the time of federation it was growing ferociously as a coal port and steel manufacturing base. My father was a steel worker—faithful to the union, of course. But down here in Tasmania, where I have lived for two and half years now, power still resided with a nineteenth-century aristocracy of farm owners. Their wealth wasn’t built on industrial entrepreneurialism, but good old forced labour, as was happening in America in the mid 1800s as well, in that case on the back of slave labour. They even built the same houses. Here is one Rafael and I stopped at during a ride yesterday evening:

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You see the different social structures etched on the ground in the way that land has been organised and in the way Newcastle and Tasmanian cities are governed. What follows is pure speculation, so if you think I’m drawing too long a bow I welcome your comments.

Newcastle, the union stronghold (if not now, then traditionally), has compulsory local elections. It doesn’t matter if you’re disenfranchised, lazy, or worked-off-your-feet, your outlook will be represented by elected officials on your local council, who you only voted for because, of the available candidates who you were forced into a school hall to choose from, they didn’t remind you too much of your boss.

Local governments in Tasmania (the aristocratic state), are the result of non-compulsory postal votes. Local governments represent the will of those who dutifully read the candidates’ bios and can be bothered taking their completed forms to their nearest post box.

Newcastle’s socially progressive rules about voting are patently manifest at public events. Fireworks displays, festivals, and open air concerts are always free entry. If they weren’t, those lazy outliers would punish all incumbents the next time they were dragged from their tellies and made to vote. In Tasmania, events such as these are invariably fenced and prohibitively costly to enter. Press a Tasmanian for a some rationale for the fencing and their own willingness to pay to get onto a street, and they will happily tell you the entry fee is a “bogan tax”, designed to exclude those fowl mouthed working class scum, you know, who harvest their crops.

To my mind, this is reason enough to cut Tasmania out of the commonwealth. They take $1.50 in commonwealth revenue for every $1 they contribute through taxes, and harbour attitudes our unionist ancestors, in mainland industrial cities, would have greeted with molotov cocktails.

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At least the fences that go up around this time of year in Tasmania are only temporary. The socially exclusionary road network is forever. Residential subdivisions are built with no connecting pedestrian lane ways, forcing people into cars to make trips that may be a stone’s throw as the crow flies. Footpaths are used as places to park, I don’t mean occasionally, I mean as a matter course. What you call a footpath, in Tasmania they call a place to park half your car. If you come here you will have to accept it, and walk on the carriageway.

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I’ve lived in some shit dumps in my time. Take Singapore where in many places you can’t cross the road, but have to use the underground shopping arcades that are intensionally designed to make you get lost and buy your next meal in a food court 4 levels under the ground. Or what about New York where I spent a semester in 2006. Former Mayor Bloomberg speaks as though he invented investment in public space with fancy slogans like “the virtuous cycle“. When I was there, there was nothing, no bubblers, no public toilets, no cycle tracks, nothing. In black neighbourhoods, that’s still the case. Wherever you go, one-way streets and laws against cycling on pavements ensure free-riders on bikes spend their lives being hounded by police.

Still, I’ve never lived in such a measly dump as Tasmania. I attribute a lot of the problems to voluntary local elections, a rule I presume would hark back to squatter times. The standout manifestation of these class-biased elections, from my point of view as a cyclist, is a non-permeable urban fabric that punishes those of us who don’t take a car each time we leave home.

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It’s really quite maddening. Your kid’s school could be so close that you hear basketballs in the playground, yet getting there with no pedestrian lane way means a two or three kilometre trip. Dutiful citizens, the kind who go to the trouble to vote even though they don’t have to, aren’t often bothered by this. Like good little puppets they put their kids in their cars and drive them two miles to a school that is so close they can hear the PA.

I studied maps google before I moved here, so had an inkling as to what I was getting myself into. But it is not until you have lived in an asphalt Ikea that you truly understand how habit forming it is. It forces virtually everyone into the habit of driving. Only 18% of Tasmanian kids age 12-15 (see page 12) get their required dose of one hour per day of physical activity, a problem that could certainly be helped by stamping out pavement parking and establishing lane way connections.

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Let’s just say, my time here has helped me internalise some lessons I had previously only known from the text books. I’m grateful for that opportunity. It has also given me a new appreciation of my working class, socially flat hometown, and how its blue collar politics is nicely echoed in its built fabric that remains permeable to non-dutiful sods like myself, who prefer walking and cycling.      

2 Comments

  1. nikdow says:

    For Christmas I visited family in Traralgon, Gippsland, Victoria. I took my folding bicycle and used it to get to and from the house which is in a cul-de-sac area, extending over what would have been multiple developments, very well connected with lanes, wide spaces at the back of houses with paved connections in and out of areas, connecting with the major roads.

    Certainly it was very low density, not only are the houses single story but the space between them is huge. But for moving around by bicycle there were lots of ways of avoiding main roads.

    The nearest playground, where we took the kids, was a short walk away, we got there via a strip of parkland behind the houses, itself about one house-block in width, never on a footpath next to a road, crossing no car-driveways. The playground was visible from several directions over a long distance – well supervised. Given the low-density, the space has been used well.

    I should add, for those who don’t know it, Traralgon is in the heartland of Victoria’s coal belt, where most of the electricity is generated, an industrial area of country towns. So a similar social basis to Newcastle.

  2. Luis G says:

    What I find interesting about the photo of Launceston’s CBD is that all the car parks are not even half full. Yet whenever I’ve asked people over there about their thoughts on their city’s main issues, all they do is complaint about the lack of parking. They don’t care if Lonnie’s CBD is basically just a big half-empty car yard, they still ‘need’ more!

    Hobart is not that different either. People think they’re entitled to free parking right at the door of their destination, wherever and whenever they go.

    From my experience, Tasmanians are a friendly bunch, but they have this odd and intense fixation with parking I haven’t encountered anywhere else.

    Sort of like Americans and their assault weapons.

    And I suppose the RACT is like their NRA?

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