What makes a city incredible? I don't mean "What are the features of an incredible city?". I mean "What is the dynamic - the unique combination of forces - that had to occur such that this incredible city developed?".
This is what I am wondering as I sit at my harbor side cafe, with a panoramic view of downtown Sydney and the Opera House, to which I am headed for a symphony concert of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.
The fact that I am headed to a symphony concert is astonishing in itself. The fact that the Opera House, in this day and age, is still the undeniable centerpiece of Sydney, and deservedly so, makes me wonder how this all happened.
From talking with some Aussies, it is apparent that the Opera House was not a wildly popular idea when first proposed. The initial $7M budget seemed like a lot for something that was viewed as having a very select audience. The prominence of the site was another issue. Once the design was revealed, reactions were highly polarized, with many finding the design from Danish Architect Jørn Utson to be shocking and non-traditional, and forecasting disaster.
The project was completed 10 years late, and over budget by a factor of 13. This only provided more fodder for the naysayers. But, over time, the Opera House has become one of the most iconic buildings in the world, and Sydney has grown to embrace, enhance, and love this architectural extravagance.
Sydney is centered around a vast harbor, with 66 different bays. Although the harbour is extensive, it is never very wide, so all parts of the city are easily reached, either by bridge or by fast ferry. Great cities all have a center (unlike the sprawling gridlocked tragedies like LA), Sydney's is liquid. This means that there are breathtaking views of everywhere, from just about everywhere. The geography of the harbour yields natural neighborhoods around each inlet or promontory. Each has its own story, set of purposes, and current culture.
Also, like all great cities (wake up, USA) has established extensive downtown parklands and pedestrian malls, where buskers, human statues, stall vendors, and street food carts provide endless color. It is easy to walk (or Lime bike) between central attractions, like the Botanical Gardens or The Rocks, and easy to find marine transport to others, like the oceanfront town of Manly.
I haven't done a lot of research, but it seems to me that Sydney already had to be a special place to undertake the competition, and see through the project, which resulted in the Opera House. Like my own hometown of Toronto, Sydney is a populous, cosmopolitan city within a sparsely populated mostly rural country. Like Toronto, Sydney is in the enviable position of being the headquarters not only most of the prominent businesses of its own country, but the Asian / South Pacific centers of many multi-nationals. In other words, there is lots of money, opportunity, and appeal to Sydney. It has become tremendously cosmopolitan, which combines with Aussie friendliness to make for a welcoming and engaging place for immigrants or visitors.
I've been fortunate to live in great places in my life, and, as I grow older, cities are holding less appeal for me. Sydney is one of a handful of cities that I find vibrant, beautiful, friendly, welcoming and livable. It is audacious for a city this far away from literally everywhere else to even aspire to be a great city. It is inspiring to see that aspiration realized and reinforced.
Ya, so I kinda liked Sydney.