Capital forges civic renaissance - The Chronicle

Capital forges civic renaissance, The Chronicle, 3 March

First, the bad news. Since the 1960s, many measures of ‘social capital’ in Australia have waned. On average, we have fewer friends and know fewer neighbours. We are less likely to join organisations, attend church or be part of a union.

Now, the good news. Across Australia, the nation’s capital is also its social capital. Compared with other parts of Australia, Canberrans are more likely to join, volunteer and give. We play more social sport, are more likely to pick up our litter, and are more engaged in community life.

In forging a civic renaissance, Canberra has a lot to teach the rest of Australia.

One of the ways that we foster community life is through our festivals. Festivals showcase many of the latent talents in our community – from dextrous dancers to clever chefs, melodious musicians to stimulating speakers. 

Festivals are also a chance for serendipity. One of the beauties of living in a city of 400,000 is that when you attend a big gathering, you’re bound to run into people you know. That urban village effect helps build social capital – the bonds of trust and reciprocity that keep a society strong.

One further benefit of festivals is that they highlight the value of difference. You might try eating a new Turkish dessert, watch a Chinese dance, or buy an Indian sari. The fact that the Multicultural Festival is Canberra’s biggest community event speaks volumes about our city’s embrace of diversity. In a volatile world, our tolerant values are a source of strength.

Other festivals speak to the nature of our city. Last weekend’s Canberra Show was a reminder that ours really is a bush capital. Sheep no longer graze on Federation Mall, but Canberra is a city with strong rural roots.

The Enlighten festival, now underway, shines a multi-coloured spotlight on Canberra’s best performing artists. In April, we’ll host the National Folk Festival. No surprise that they keep coming back, since the ACT is the only jurisdiction who in 1977 voted for a folk song (Waltzing Matilda) to be our national anthem.

Governments sometimes focus on the economic benefits of our festivals, and there’s no denying they’re a boon for businesses. But it’s the impact on community spirit – on social capital – that really counts. A great way to help build connected communities is for us all to embrace the festival spirit. 

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