Living cities, living art

In London, Antony Gormley’s monumental One and Other project has just kicked off. The empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Street will be occupied by a different member of the public every hour for the day for the next one-hundred days. The 2400 participants are effectively drawn from a hat, meaning that applicants are not decided based on any form of merit or perceived position of privilege. In short, this is an exciting piece of public, democratic art for the 21st century.

There are a number of satisfying aspects of this project that warrant some consideration, particularly for the authorities administrating Australia’s state and territory capital cities. Art is often rightly viewed as an elitist enterprise. What people with an interest in art consider to be “groundbreaking” art is often out of reach of ordinary Australians, by simple virtue of the fact that is housed in galleries, which a large percentage of the population simply do not visit. In contrast, One and Other is free, open to the public twenty-four hours a day, and is has been placed smack bang in the middle of one of the most central thoroughfares and meeting places in Central London. Even people living or working in London without an interest in art or public art projects are likely to stumble across this work during their day-to-day lives and become interested. Furthermore, the sheer volume of people involved in the project will do wonders for the project’s reach. The 2400 people who will stand on the plinth during One and Other’s duration have friends and families.

What a wonderful collision of art and democracy in one of the world’s greatest cities.

Nobody has got the bazooka

As the media breathlessly awaits the anti-climactic results of the G20 conference in London, you really have to pity the poor sods that we have charged with saving the global economy. I don’t think there is a living soul out there who truly believes the cream of the world’s leaders have what it takes to put capitalism back on track, but doubtless we all still hope. It’s a pretty thankless task. It seems that just about every journalist and economic commentator doing the rounds has some advice in hand for the likes of Barack Obama and Gordon Brown and their colleagues, as a pocket full of chaos descends on the square mile. Eminating from about 20 metres from where I emerged from the tube every weekday morning for about a year during 2007/08, the media is beaming in images of blood, death, and stupidity on all sides; the smashing of windows, attacks on police, and the flippant teasing of protesters by office workers.

But wait! There’s more. The Keating watchers among you would no doubt have noted that our beloved former Prime Minister intervention’s into public debate have been rather more rabid and senseless than usual in recent times. The former Member for Blaxland, has emerged once more with some fairly radical advice for President Obama:

“The problem with the Americans is this: that they have a great body of large, systemic banks which are barely solvent or maybe insolvent.

“They have to decide which are insolvent and shut them and for those that are solvent, take them over and recapitalise them.”

“The Japanese took eight years before they put any recapitalised money into banks, foolishly,” he said.”The Americans at least are doing it in year one but nobody has got the bazooka and no one wants to fire all the rockets.”

One suddenly gets a mental image of Messr Keating, bazooka balanced precariously on his shoulder, firing a barrage of rockets into the heart of the dreaded GFC. One wonders what Mr. Keating would have thought about all this latter day nationalisation talk of his twenty years ago, when he was flying the flag of centre-right economic policy in government?

Laura Norder in London

In recent months the British capital has been preoccupied with the issue of knife crime, and after several recent high profile attacks, this form of disgustingly petty crime has even superceded terrorism as Scotland Yard’s top law and order priority. It is tragic considering the circumstances, but also interesting that the global security bug-bear of the past five years has been so swiftly and so unceremoniously relegated to the backseat. One wonders if the global strategists and commentators who have gone dined out in recent years on the challenges posed by Islamic fundamentalism and Al’Qaeda will now turn their hands and minds to crime of a more conventional variety.

Although admittedly I have been lucky to have scarce exposure to it myself, recently I have been provided with direct cause for concern about crime levels in London. Walking home from work the other day I arrived on a street corner in just enough time to see a tall, muscular African man strike a woman with full-force in the face, knocking her to the ground. The man fled the scene with a companion, and myself and a group of startled onlookers approached the woman and called the police. It was unclear what the reason for the assault was, but the woman’s glasses had been shattered by the force of the man’s blow, sending shards of glass into the face and one of her eyes. Fortunately it was not too long before the police and an ambulance arrived, and we believe the attackers were apprehended.

It was a strange experience because it was both shocking and yet, scratching a little deeper, not too surprising. We all see the stories on the nightly news, and read about them in newspapers and magazines. When we are reminded that these stories are real and play havoc with real people’s lives, it disturbs us and provides some food for thought about the real state of society today. In the developed world at least, we may well be living in more civilised societies than ever before, but I sincerely doubt that thought provides any comfort to the random victims of modern society’s vices – who, let’s not kid ourselves – are still out there and all around us. Realistically, only lady luck excludes us from being part of the main story.


Tidy towns, applied globally

One thing I have pondered from time to time whilst living in London is to how the air quality compares to that back in Australia. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the situation might be worse over here, but it is only anecdotal. While obviously London is a much larger and busier city than the likes of either Sydney or Melbourne, it’s probably arguable that the major cities in Australia have much more of a car-centric transport culture than the British capital. During his eight year reign as Mayor for London (which only ended a few months ago), Ken Livingstone made a political point of discouraging commuters from driving their cars into the city, most famously and controversially through the introduction of the London congestion charge.

Mercer Human Resource Consulting have recently released their 2007 Quality of Life Report, which if you are feeling extraordinarily affluent and interested you can purchase for $USD 390. The report compares and ranks 380 cities worldwide with respect to 39 separate criteria across 10 categories. Setting aside for a moment the issues associated with having valuable data like this only available to those willing or able to pay, this seems like a report well worth digesting. Fortunately for freeloaders some high-level summary statistics from the report are available free of charge (including the “Top 50”), from which we can glean the following interesting tidbits in relation to health and sanitation rankings:

  • The top ranked Australian city for health and sanitation for 2007 was Adelaide at 35th.
  • Melbourne and Perth tied for 43rd place, with Brisbane coming in at 47th.
  • Sydney came in at 62nd with London following marginally at 63rd.
  • All Canadian cities part of the survey featured in the top 25.
  • Seven cities in the United States were ranked higher than Australia’s highest rating city.
  • Auckland and Wellington came in ahead of any Australian city in joint 18th place.
  • Glasgow is the only city in the United Kingdom to have made the top 50.

Of course these rankings are apparently calculated from a variety of metrics relating to health and sanitation (e.g. hospital and medical services, water and air quality, etc), and not just air pollution, but these comparative rankings are quite interesting regardless. Also of interest is Mercer’s “quality of living” rankings, where patriotically speaking, we must note, Australia performs significantly better.

ELSEWHERE: More in this story from Forbes, which also has an exposè-style photo from each of the worst 25 ranked cities for health and sanitation. Unsurprisingly, most of the worst 25 cities are from third-world nations without strong public health infrastructure or investment patterns.

Buses from the future

When living in Sydney I did make use of the buses between North Sydney and the CBD quite often and found the service good, although this route is effectively the least onerous test of Sydney’s bus network that one can possibly conceive of. Despite this positive experience, by comparison, I have to conclude that London’s bus network puts Sydney’s bus network to shame. The ubiquitous double-decker red buses that roam the streets of London come surprisingly frequently, with the often complicated maze of available routes and stops quite well explained on signage throughout London and on the excellent Transport For London quango website. Displays at many major bus stops throughout the city provide a countdown of how long it will be until the next bus for each relevant route, and the displays are often pretty well on the money.

Probably the quality I admire most about London’s approach to public transport is that the city is seemingly not satisfied with just “good”. Whatever the quality of the service is at the current time, there seems to be a lot of political will and public pressure to continue to make the system even better, and then, after that, even better. Arguably at least some of this can be contributed to the drive of somewhat controversial lefty mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone.

The latest manifestation of this is the gradual unveiling of an advanced communication system for London’s buses. Sean Dodson explains further in The Guardian, in a report that gives you a teasing taste of the cornucopia of potential avenues for improvement that could be explored for a service so basic, political will and funding allowing. Finland’s awesome public transport system is justifiably provided as a reference to strive towards:

Passengers on routes such as the 148, between Camberwell and Shepherd’s Bush, may have noticed that each time the bus approaches a stop, a recorded voice tells them which one it is, similar to the announcements made on the tube.

Every bus and tram in Helsinki and the surrounding cities of Vaanta and Espoo are being fitted with Linux servers and GPS units. Every bus and tram in the conurbation will not only become a wireless hotspot serving broadband internet throughout the vehicle – for free – but every bus and tram is visible on a Google map (the beta version is at that uses the same real-time passenger information as the controllers in their command centre.

I actually have had the pleasure of catching the buses that Dodson alludes to in London, and the stop announcements have often proved useful for reminding me whereabouts in London I am at various strange times of the day and night. The fact that the announcements are quite frequent may well prove annoying to travellers who catch the same bus everyday, but I suppose as an alternative they could instead be flashed up on the information displays that seem to be present on most of London’s buses. Either way, the ability to know the location of the bus at any given time is a godsend for tourists or those unfamiliar with the city, or even locals who are in a part of town they are not too familiar with. Not to mention folks too intoxicated to pay too much attention to the world outside after a night out.

As for Finland, sounds like science fiction compared to what we are used to, eh? I will actually be visiting Helsinki in May, if all things go according to plan, so I will be able to report back further then on whether the Fins really are the world leaders with regards to public transport.

Things I miss about Australia

Well we are close to a half a day behind Australia over here in London of course, but with January 26th fast approaching I’m feeling somewhat homesick. I think overall Australia Day is probably my favourite holiday on the calendar, and probably means the most to me personally. A sense of good will tends to just pervade the country and people from all walks of life. I know some people don’t like the jingoistic nationalist side of it all – certainly sometimes things can get a bit over the top. But on the other hand, I don’t see anything wrong with exhibiting a touch of pride in the nation either.

In any case, I thought I would put together a quick list of the things I miss about Australia. In no particular order, but having said that, it’s not like I’ve randomised the list either:

  1. Friends and family
  2. The weather and more specifically the sun
  3. Wearing T-shirts (perhaps an addendum to 2)
  4. Driving
  5. Fabian Society seminars
  6. My home
  7. The cacophony of birds in the trees
  8. The lack of an aristocracy in the very British sense of the word.
  9. Kebab rolls – it’s just not the same over here or anywhere in Europe.
  10. Food courts. The concept has apparently not arrived in the London CBD as yet. You need to learn to like sandwiches.
  11. Psuedo-Portugese chicken burger franchises.
  12. 375ml cans of soft drink (as opposed to 330ml)
  13. Drinking tap water (with fluoride). It’s mandatory filtering over here unless you like heavy metals.
  14. The silence on CityRail trains as compared to the constant announcements on the tube. Really!
  15. Playing sport of some description.
  16. Australian accents.
  17. The ABC
  18. Watching the cricket on lazy Summer afternoons.
  19. Plastic banknotes that fit in your wallet.
  20. The abolition of 1 and 2c pieces.

Although it somewhat seems like I am scraping the bottom of the barrel, in reality I’m probably just a bit warped. I could go on for hours. Whatever you get up to on Australia Day, I hope you have a good one.