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The Rise of Canberra Pride

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Too political, too cold, too boring—Canberra has borne the brunt of criticism for most of its life—until it turned 100, and learned to love itself. We chart the rise of the city’s self-esteem.

Our first hundred years as a city saw us maligned and largely misunderstood by the rest of the country. Labelled too cold, political, round-about-y, and boring for much of our existence, we carried the burden of scorn.

But with our centenary in 2013, the tide began to turn. Even if the rest of the country didn’t celebrate our existence, we decided to party. And somehow, it caught on.

In the years following our big 100-year bash, Canberra shrugged off its stodgy reputation and forged an edgy persona. Our restaurants began to win acclaim, our coffee was deemed superior, our bands were Hottest 100-worthy, and our citizens began to make creative waves across the country. People wanted to come and spend time under our clear blue skies. And the best bit? By that stage, we didn’t seem to care. We were becoming comfortable in our own skin.

The last few years have seen Canberrans develop a collective sense of pride. And if you could immortalise that massive psychological shift in one image it would be a bus shelter.

Yes. A concrete bus shelter.

Credit: Trevor Dickinson

When British artist Trevor Dickinson, in 2015, sketched our unique “bunker” bus shelters (designed by Clem Cummings and erected on thoroughfares caross the city during the 1970s) we were finally secure enough as a city to see the beauty in our quirky and mundane.

Who knew that such a nondescript local municipal service would go viral?

Julie Nichols did. She played a seminal role in elevating our local iconography into a tourism drawcard—not to mention an economic powerhouse which injects more than $15 million into the city coffers each year though Canberra’s Handmade Market.

Dismayed by the city’s lack of creative gathering and commercial spaces during her second posting to the capital in 2007, Julie saw a gap in the market. Having left the Air Force to explore her own creative side through millinery, she used somewhat military precision to exploit that gap.

When Handmade Market was young

The first Handmade Market took place opened in 2008 with just 35 stallholders in the Albert Hall with a mission to celebrate local. Cut to 10 years later and these same markets —now permanently housed at EPIC—draw 120,000 people a year.

Along the way, demand for “Canberra-made” grew to the point where Julie and friend Rachel Evagelou decided to partner up in a full-time shop. Shop Handmade celebrated what few had celebrated before—our iconic culture, geography and society. Merchandise was self-referential and often tongue-in-cheek, including the popular line of “Canberra doesn’t suck’ lollies. But we were finally big enough to embrace it.

Julie remembers well the fuss over the humble bus shelter. Trevor brought in a sample mug—he’d made eight of them and wondered whether they’d sell.

“A few weeks later we sold 800. In the end those things nearly killed us.”

Trevor recalls taking in Canberra’s scenery with unfamiliar eyes.

“As a Londoner, I actually thought the bus shelters looked friendly and a little cute—the Canberra equivalent of the British red phone boxes. I think people thought at first I was taking the piss.

“But then there was this wave of love for them—and a pride. They are part of what makes Canberra distinctly Canberra. And I love that they have become so symbolic of the city.”

While Shop Handmade has since closed, Handmade Markets grows steadily bigger—this year featuring nearly 300 artists and craftspeople.

“We really have come a long way as a city,” says Julie.

“Fifteen years ago those of us that lived here were accepting that Canberra was Canberra but we still loved it. Ten years ago we started to say, ‘It’s not too bad. It’s not actually as bad as we thought’. Then within the last five years everyone else has gone, ‘My God! Canberra is cool!’.”

Someone with a direct hand in amplifying this message is Canberra lad turned ad agency wunderkind Jamie Wilson. Growing up in Tuggeranong, Jamie always had faith that the city had untapped cosmopolitan potential beyond its boring Public Service town label. It was almost serendipitous that he would rise to become the creative force behind the now familiar CBR “re-brand” of the capital—a $2.6 million campaign which labelled us “Confident. Bold. Ready”.

Funded by the ACT government as an ongoing legacy of the 2013 Centenary year, Jamie’s ad agency Coordinate worked with Content Group to shift the tired perceptions of the city.

It might have been slammed in The Canberra Times as a waste of money when it was first unveiled, but the CBR label has settled in to become a succinct and successful piece of marketing. So much so that it just received another $2.15 million in June’s ACT Budget to continue for another four years.

The CBR concept came to Jamie on a flight, when he was looking at airport abbreviations. “We were on the cusp of becoming an international city—I thought to myself, ‘why don’t we have our own airport code abbreviation?’”.

He worked with designer Javier Steel to refine the concept and unlike many a failed PR campaign—think the 1973 campaign “Hi! Come And Join Us in Canberra! A week in the life of 3 young girls in Canberra – a typist, a stenographer and a secretary,”—the CBR tag seemed to encapsulate both where we were, and where we were going.

But while Jamie is proud of CBR, he believes Canberra’s confidence was enhanced by the branding, not because of it.

“Looking back I think it just gave people permission to think about Canberra in a new light and to give us confidence to tell our story. We had already started to feel proud of our city, and we had so many good stories to tell, but this gave us a bit of a push along.”

And of course, it was accompanied by a glorious cinematic promotional video Canberra: The World’s Most Liveable City” that must have given even the most dogged Canberra-bashers a dose of the feels.

Directed by award-winning Screencraft filmmaker Michael Fardell, the three-minutes of imagery released in 2015 showed the world our very best attributes. And then it won a Silver Dolphin award at Cannes.

“That project was absolutely a labour of love for everyone who worked on it. We went so far above and beyond over the two weeks of shooting. Because we all love Canberra and we wanted to kick it out of the park,” recalls Michael.

Set in slow and dreamy motion to The Church’s Under the Milky Way, written by Canberra’s Steve Kilbey, sung by Canberra artist Chanel Cole, and arranged by local music producer Magnifik, the clip featured every local wonder: from the Grand Staircase at the Nishi Building, to a giant truffle, a handful of Bogong moths and a beautiful black horse, Winnie, who reared up in the Canberra Stadium to symbolise our Brumbies.

Michael, a born-and-bred Canberran, who cut his professional teeth in Sydney before returning with his wife Justine to raise their family and establish Screencraft, said the video has been viewed more than 100,000 times.

“It was a turning point for the city, I think, and it was a turning point for us professionally. It was also a real privilege—to package this city up in a bow and present it to the people.”

A less produced, and more organic promotional effort, also saw Canberra pride gain traction when VisitCanberra orchestrated what was then a very “new” take on viral marketing.

Using social media to drive commentary about the national capital, VisitCanberra director Jonathon Kobus recalls the Human Brochure of 2014 and 100 Humans campaign in 2015 exposed Canberra to unfiltered, real‑time commentary—using both interstate influencers and locals to unearth and rate aspects of Canberra life via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

“Yes it was a bit of a risk in terms of social media back then, as it was a way to generate authentic views on what people thought about Canberra. We couldn’t control those messages and there was the chance that people wouldn’t like the city, but even five years ago we were confident that the destination would stand up for itself. In fact, in most cases, the experiences people had in Canberra exceeded their expectations.”

These campaigns also won national tourism awards. Subsequently, our tourism numbers are a good reason for pride.

Over the past 10 years, international visitor numbers have risen by 58 per cent, while interstate visitors have increased by 41 per cent.

If you ask Jonathon and Jamie what’s next for the city, they agree that sustainable growth and quality drawcard development are the key to our ongoing success—think more NewActon and Braddon.

Jamie would love to see the investment in an international‑standard Convention Centre, while Jonathon sees the prioritised Canberra Theatre development as a logical next step.

But some see the benefits of Canberra in its current state—small, creative and committed.

SAFIA. Credit: WILK.

One of our most successful musical exports, SAFIA, says coming from Canberra has been a blessing in disguise.

Unearthed by Triple J in 2013, Ben Woolner-Kirkham, Michael Bell and Harry Sayers have made the Hottest 100 four years in a row, including three singles in last year’s countdown. They’ve opened for Lorde across the country and their smooth indie electronica has won over concert-goers at headline shows across the UK, US and Europe.

But Canberra remains home to this day.

According to Ben, a band like SAFIA may not have made it out of Canberra 10 years ago—much less continued to base itself in the capital.

“We have truly come to love the city for a multitude of reasons. In all of our experiences, we have found the people in most facets of the community to be extremely friendly, open and supportive.

“For us, working in what would be considered a quite small creative community in Canberra has been a blessing in disguise. It has meant we have been able to build really strong and supportive relationships with all types of different creatives—from filmmakers and artists to app designers and event organisers.”

Ben reasons that “because these communities are still relatively small in Canberra it means that those who choose to seriously pursue them are doing it out of sheer passion and determination and that makes co-existing and collaborating extremely rewarding.”

The key message here might be not to become so proud that we take any of it for granted.

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