I keep wondering why European cities seem so full of stuff – cultural, consumerist, the lot – compared with Australia. Why is it that Adelaide feels so empty compared with Stockholm when they have very similar populations? Why is it that Stockholm has a wonderful public transport system and Adelaide’s sucks? Why is it, if tripadvisor is a useful guide, that there are 1358 restaurant listings for Adelaide, 1976 for Stockholm. That’s the easiest thing to attempt to measure, but I imagine that everything would be pretty similar – cinemas, theatres, music venues. The lot.
I wandered around Stockholm thinking it felt like Australia – by which I mean Adelaide and Melbourne – and nothing like Australia. English being an important language helped create that illusion, no doubt. But also, if in a smaller way than in Australia, Stockholm has that coffee shop feel that makes Melbourne in particular, but Adelaide too, special.
The differences between them are two-fold. One is that Stockholm is geographically much smaller than Adelaide. Same population, but mainly in apartments. Australia can’t, alas, have it all ways. It can’t have a population living in houses with gardens, and have that sense of built-up urban liveliness and have a great public transport system. The last two come from living in tiny areas with no gardens. The other thing is that Europe’s both small and decentralised. A theatre group, a musician (etc) can cruise around Europe dropping in at many different viable venues. Australia is a long way away from anything and each city is a long way away from – anything.
I love coming back to Australia, but I’m now put out by the way it takes an hour to get from one inner city side of the city to another. Paris and London – let alone the teensy places like Edinburgh, Dublin, Seville – are completely walkable. I don’t mean the ‘burbs’ but the inner parts, the parts tourists want to go to. That just isn’t possible in Australia. So whereas the moment you stop off a plane in Australia, you are struck by the flatness of it all, due to the low density living, and flatness means emptiness, places like Stockholm seem cozy. I imagine even when it’s six foot deep in snow it still feels cozy.
And maybe that makes it easier to go to things too. In Australia people are driven by a car subservient mentality – if they can’t drive, they won’t go. In Europe you don’t need to think like that. You walk to the theatre, you hop on a tram to the opera. The place in Australia that best emulates this is the inner city of Melbourne. Readily usable public transport for the inner suburbs, based on a tram system, and lo – a thriving live culture scene. You can go to the theatre every night in Melbourne and not be stretched for what to see. In Adelaide there is almost no live culture, no music, no theatre and lo – no public transport either. Maybe as the extraordinary transformation continues to take place which is converting the city centre into a high density residential area, this will change. But since I understand a lot of that population to be overseas students, then again, maybe not. There is certainly a developing vibrancy in the city centre in Adelaide which I haven’t seen since my childhood days there.
Let’s drive home the point with a few stats.
South Australia is almost 100,000 sq km, which covers the size of several small European countries: say Holland and Denmark, or Holland and Switzerland – I say several because you could throw in those countries that are the size of Melbourne. But most of the land is at best semi-arid and other than its capital, no town larger than 25,000 people. Almost all South Australians live in Adelaide. The density of population in Stockholm is going on for 5000/km. In Adelaide it isn’t even 700/km. In Melbourne, 430/km. Interesting that Melbourne nonetheless has a thriving innercity. Adelaide is over 600 kms to the next city, with nothing in between. In Europe there’d be whole countries set in those distances, with nice cities of a viable size for the support of live culture. And the distance from Adelaide to the next country? Thousands of kms. The tyranny of distance. It’s hard to imagine anything ever beating it.
The average size of farms in South Australia is over 500 hectares. To put that into a figure you might understand at the moment, that is maybe 600 FIFA regulation soccer grounds. The average size of a farm in Switzerland is 17 hectares and in Sweden 37. The biggest farm in South Australia (also in the world) is over 23,000 sq km. On the list of sizes of European countries it would come in at the same place as European Turkey, ahead of Slovenia and Montenegro. Turkey has 74M people, though I don’t know how many live in ‘European Turkey’. Slovenia has 2M people. Montenegro has 650K people. The population of Anna Creek station? About eight. Not 8M or 8K. Just – eight. Are you getting the message yet???? Australia is EMPTY!!! Of course, it is also incapable of sustaining these populations. Except for camels, that is.