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Work/Life: It’s Fast, but is it Liveable?

I’ve just returned from bouncing around like an email peddling Viagra …. NY, Philly, Texas, Eugene, Seattle and finally IOWA, where I rode across the state with 10,000 others on RAGBRAI. Including Lance, who, at all times, seemed to be riding his bike just outside my field of vision. Try as might I could not track him down. Since I probably couldn’t tell him from a bar of soap I was looking for a jersey that said ‘Hi I’m Lance’ front and back but I don’t think he was wearing it that week.

I’ve just returned from bouncing around like an email peddling Viagra …. NY, Philly, Texas, Eugene, Seattle and finally IOWA, where I rode across the state with 10,000 others on RAGBRAI. Including Lance, who, at all times, seemed to be riding his bike just outside my field of vision. Try as might I could not track him down. Since I probably couldn’t tell him from a bar of soap I was looking for a jersey that said ‘Hi I’m Lance’ front and back but I don’t think he was wearing it that week.

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Over 40% of riders hailed from IOWA. It is great to see people lovin’ their own state, in this day and age of ‘I’m here I want to be there’.

Which brings me to FASTCOMPANY.com’s Fast Cities report, where I discover my hometown Sydney was praised as being their 3rd favorite, after London and Paris. Here’s the ranking.

Well, having lived in the fast, medium and slow lanes – literally – for the past 20 years (Australia, Ireland, Costa Rica, USA, in boomtown and boonietown in all four countries) as well as loitered with intent in countless others, I have to wonder what kind of criteria these ethnographers languishing on Noguchi sofas in glassy towers call ‘liveable’. In my mind, Sydney is not that liveable. Beaches and beer and sun bleached blonde do not a liveable place make.

Hey, I like Noguchi too, but for me, ‘liveable’ means you and your family can live in a reasonable space, a reasonable walkable or mass-transitable distance from your workplace, afford good food a reasonable distance from where you happen to be standing, and not come home at the end of the day feeling like you’re going to strangle someone. It should simply feel easy. There should be a good deli, a good supermarket and a good video store close by, according to an old friend Philip Putnam.

Sydney is one of the most congested and poorly designed cities you could ever imagine, because it wasn’t designed – it was colonized, spilling outwards in all directions like a detonated carton of Yoplait, just like most sprawl towns. It does have lots of coastline, a bit like a Lays Ruffle (or Krinkle Kut chip to Aussies) with lots of ins and outs so more water’s edge is available to more people. But for the very wealthy. I don’t call that liveable, when just a few can suck on the seedless slice of the watermelon.

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Sydney’s real estate is NY-ridiculous. You have to go out in sprawl to get anything larger and cleaner than a cockroach infested broom cupboard. I struggled to buy my shoebox of an apartment off my ex, just so my mother would have a place to live for the rest of her life and not feel like she was left on a mountain to be snacked on by dingos. And so I wouldn’t follow suit. I got very little for what I paid. I can’t even have a sofa and my poledancing pole in there at the same time (just had to throw that in). Along with neighbors who wouldn’t know if I was dead inside even if there was a terrible smell. In poor countries, they do know when their brethren are dead, contrary to what you might think. They don’t spend their time insulated from bad smells behind glass and concrete.

It has no storage and a parking space that would be a delight for experts in jamming square pegs into round holes. Oh yes, there’s a view, facing due west so that you fry in summer unless you plunge the place into darkness. But I am thankful it is somewhere my mother and I can rest my weary head, as long as I can continue to afford the dues. It’s a sliver of Australia I hope I can offer to my many Bike Friday host families who have been so generous to me.

It’s hard to park anywhere in Sydney, so the streets are constantly jammed, and roads in and the rivers of concrete are paved with rivers of duco. There is good food and good beaches if you can bother doing battle with the traffic to get there.

A lot of these ‘foreshore developments’ and ‘gentrifications’ you see in big towns are just huge cookie cutter concrete and glass fabrications designed to make you feel like you’re as far above soil as possible. Hands up who’s bored s***less with the generic ‘Pier 1’ concept? Why not just leave the gloriously rotting pier as it is?

Why do you think that old suburbs with old architecture suffocating under ivy are still in much demand? I don’t know where all this obsession with minimalism and hard shiny surfaces comes from but if I see another wall of brushed steel or a granite countertop with a Gaggenau oven I think I’ll scream.

Sydney is culturally a little subdued. I think it’s because Aussies would rather be out on the beach rather than dreaming up new and strange ways with a blowtorch and recycled steel. They call it multicultural, and are many cultures there of course, it doesn’t mean they really like and embrace each other. They tolerate each other. Just because people like some chicken chow mein with fried rice doesn’t mean they welcome Asians with open arms. They’d rather keep the stir fry and send them home. That’s because the environment isn’t that easy to live in. Compression brings out the worst in people. Why do you think there was that eruption of racial violence on the beaches a while ago? Anyone who wants to tell me to ‘go back to my own country’ should defer to the Aborigines who got here first, and to my ancestors who rowed a godforsaken boat out from China in the late 1800’s, just 100 years after the First Fleet dropped anchor and started the whole mess.

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The local bicycle advocacy groups do their darndest to make bike lanes, but you can only do so much when a lane is x wide. Putting a shoulder or bike lane y makes it x-y = z wide. Z is about the hit and run distance.

A human scale place does not have to mean you have to live in a backwater ringing with the roar of lawnmowers/leafblowers Saturday (please god banish lawns and lawnmowers), pancakes rather than powershakes for breakfast and reading the Sunday paper in bed rather than on a blackberry while roaring off to the latest open house.

No matter what kind of job you do, if you have to battle with a tough, soulless environment getting there, being there and getting back it wears you down, you end up having to spend money on the quadrinity of therapy, alcohol, Prozac or television shopping to let off steam. Or spend a disproportionate amount of time in artifical environments like expensive gyms and sushi bars, before you’re diagnosed with gout.

Yes, I’d like to live with more ‘smart people like me’, but if you can’t actually get to meet them because you can’t find a way to connect with them except on email …

Let me give you some comparisons of easy vs hard.

Sydney does not feel easy. Melbourne is easy; Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth are even easier.

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New York City does not feel easy. Chicago feels easy, and buoyant to boot. (I am staying in a house which is 2 miles from town, the young owners are not from the Trump family and there’s plenty of space inside and out, and between parked cars).

London does not feel easy. Edinburgh feel way easier, and more fun.

Come ON! Paris is not easy!

I just flashed back to my time in Mexico. The internet cafe was in a small private garage a couple of doors down. When the roller door went up, and mama was there rocking her baby with both PC’s switched on, hot tortilla chips in the bowl beside the blinking router, I reported in for business. And it felt easy…

About the author

Lynette Chiang is an award-winning copywriter, brand evangelist, social media community manager, filmmaker, solo world bicycle adventurer and inventor of useful things. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Harvard University curriculums, the New York Times Book Review, FastCompany and the relationship marketing business press.

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