What great cities have that Australia's cities don't

Iconic skyscrapers ... the skyline in Shanghai.
Iconic skyscrapers ... the skyline in Shanghai. Photo: AFP

There's nothing wrong with Australian cities. They're not bad places to live – in fact they're fantastic. But do you sometimes get the feeling that we're missing out, that we're not doing something right?

I got that feeling a few months ago when one of the brightest and most interesting new features of Sydney – a rainbow painted on a road – was torn up amid hand-wringing and blog-comment-whinging about pedestrian safety and politics.

It was a sad event to see one of the few quirky, unique features of the city centre destroyed after a mere couple of months. Where's the fun in that? It got me thinking about some of the great cities of the world, and the things they do that we often don't.

Roadworkers ripping up the rainbow crossing at Taylor Square in Sydney.
Roadworkers ripping up the rainbow crossing at Taylor Square in Sydney. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Public artworks, and features designed with no other purpose than to beautify the city, are something we seem to be sorely lacking at home. And it doesn't have to be that way. Check out Montreal or New York, where a percentage of money poured into the construction of any public building has to be dedicated to beautifying it with art. The result is cities awash with colour and character.

Berlin, too, is a city filled with artwork, with sculptures and installations and street art that just works as part of the city. You can't imagine that a rainbow crossing there would be bulldozed in the night (even it that did recently happen to part of the Berlin Wall).

It's not just art here, but the buildings themselves. Australian cities tend to lack truly interesting architecture. Just look at the entries for James Packer's supposedly "iconic" Barangaroo development and you realise how stunningly boring most of our buildings are.

Spend a day walking through Shanghai or Beijing and you'll see 20 or 30 skyscrapers more deserving of the "iconic" tag. Go to London and see the Gherkin or the Shard and you'll start to understand how a single building can change the face of a city.

Buildings in Australian cities? Not quite.

And think about bicycles – great cities are bike friendly. You're not forced to wear helmets in these great cities because you have the freedom to choose. You also have the freedom to ride in spaces specifically designated for you and your two wheels.

Amsterdam is the obvious example, a city where bikes rule. The same can't exactly be said for Australia, where the most monumental fuss was kicked up about a single bike lane being built in Sydney. It went ahead, but we're still a long way from the cultural shift needed for our cities to be thought of as bike-friendly.

Come to think of it, cars are an issue here, and it's cities with plenty of car-free spaces that are a real pleasure to spend time in.

Will Sydney's George Street become completely pedestrianised? It should be. If you've walked around Copenhagen, or Gothenburg, or Zurich or even parts of Tokyo, you'll know the joy of city spaces that contain no cars. They're places for people to enjoy.

That's not all, of course. There are plenty of other things I'd like to import to our cities, all of which are pipe dreams really, but if there's enough support they could eventually happen.

It would be nice to have better live music scenes (OK, Melbourne, you can sit this one out), like New York or Dublin or Austin or Glasgow. It would be great to be able to go out and just stumble upon a band playing rather than having to seek them out.

It would be nice, too, to be allowed to consume alcohol in public, to be trusted to drink a couple of beers or a glass of wine in a city square and not go completely mental.

A street food scene like Bangkok's would be great, and hawker centres the likes of Singapore's would make amazing additions to our cities. Imagine heading to a place like the Tekka Centre for your lunch today instead of the dodgy old food court downstairs.

It would be fantastic to have fast, reliable public transport here, with simple ticketing systems that people could actually use. It would be nice if taxis weren't so expensive.

As I've said though, to achieve all of those things will require a large cultural shift that could take quite a long time. But we can start somewhere, and we can start small. Like with a rainbow crossing on Oxford street.

What would you like to change about Australian cities? What do great cities overseas have that we don't?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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