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Cities judged by the way we treat each other

MAYOR'S OPINION -- The phrase "Marvellous Melbourne" was coined in the 1880s and had much to do with the city's new-found wealth and reputation as a pragmatic place to do business. But there was always more to it than that:

the golden thread of strong civic values and a shared purpose beyond commerce, politics and money-making was our real strength.

Early on we built places of worship and learning, charities and mutual societies, an emerald ring of parks and gardens – all of these were the expression of a society aspiring to something greater than self-interest.

Our city had, and still has, a reputation for culture and civility – subtle elements of our famous "liveability". Melburnians are generally kind and respectful towards each other, even at the football.

Lately, I've sensed the sands might be shifting. Is there a self-absorbed carelessness creeping in? Are manners and respect slipping? Some of those basics we used to take for granted – street etiquette for example – might be in need of a reboot.

When I walk around the city streets, I see cigarette butts tossed thoughtlessly on footpaths and planter boxes or into gutters where they wash into our river; rubbish left behind on seats and tables; blobs of chewing gum staining the pavement. Some people urinate in our famous laneways.

Too many of us have our heads down staring at phones and show little regard for others walking the other way, or even cars and trams. On Swanston Street last week, I saw a customer sweep his arm across an outdoor cafe table, brushing the previous diner's leftovers onto the footpath. When I asked why he did that, he said the city street cleaners would take care of it.

Citizens giving and receiving respect is the ideal for any city.

This week we saw a new low: vandals filmed themselves spraying paint all over the street art and paving in Hosier Lane, spoiling a favourite location for tourists and artists. Crappy graffiti is not art, it's vandalism and an eyesore – I'd like to know where to send the bill.

My message for 2020 is this: let's lift our gaze and our game. Let's take better care of our city and show some pride. We really do need to appreciate and hold onto our "Melbourneness" as we grow into Australia's biggest metropolis and a global city. This means being thoughtful in small and big ways. Sixteen million discarded butts a year are 16 million too many. Take care of your butts. Throwing rubbish on the ground – when there's a bin 20 metres away – is thoughtless in any language.

Keeping left on a crowded footpath is a quaint but practical notion. Our population is growing at an unprecedented rate and our footpaths are carrying nearly a million people every day. That means if we stick to the left – and watch where we're walking rather than our screen – we can all get where we're going without aggravation. It's a simple thing to do.

At a deeper level, a good-hearted community is judged by the way we treat each other.

We are a proudly diverse city. Many cultures, faiths, pastimes, lifestyles and workplaces blend together. Melburnians are known for being more than just tolerant, we've made an art form of being inclusive and celebrating our differences. Everyone belongs here, everyone is welcome.

Although far from our shores, the coronavirus outbreak is testing our mettle. I am disappointed to hear reports of prejudice and misinformation circulating in our community. Our health authorities have been very clear that the risk in Melbourne right now is low and taking care of basic hygiene will help keep it that way. If the expert advice changes, we will inform the public. We have a large population of international students who have chosen to study in our city universities. Many are presently on campus and far from home. A smile, a conversation, even a cup of tea or home-cooked meal could make a big difference in helping them feel included, less lonely and more connected to our generous community.

To paraphrase Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, civility is the condition of patient co-operation between strangers. Citizens giving and receiving respect is the ideal for any city.

As a resolution for the new decade ahead, I am very politely asking that Melburnians be more mindful of each other and proud of the marvelous city we share.

Sally Capp is lord mayor of Melbourne.

This opinion piece first appeared on February 12, 2020 in Brisbane Times.


For more on how incivility and toxic culture kills community & what to do about it, read Save Your City. Available in two editions:

(1) Local Government Exclusive Edition with forward by George B. Cuff & workbook,

(2) Citizen's Edition with forward by Sam Chaise.



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