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When debating the merits of cities, we are accustomed to lauding the remarkable and deriding the awful. 

But what about the middling condition; can we learn lessons from those cities that are neither fantastic nor terrible, just, well, “myeh”? 

Could Adelaide’s growing reputation for urban dullness offer instructive pointers for other cities? Here is part one …

The Crapelaide internet meme emerged some years ago and added to a long-running body of national mockery directed at the City of Churches.

Everyone knows the jokes.

The sarcastic title image is regularly recycled with a refreshed date after every Adelaide earth tremor.

The best thing to come out of Adelaide is the road to Melbourne.

Adelaide’s problem is they didn’t build it close enough to a major city.

Even with Daylight Saving, the time in Adelaide is 1985.

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A recent beer advertisement sought to equate a less-than-extraordinary interstate beverage with Adelaide’s “proudly ordinary” national reputation. 

Stories on the ABC’s Gardening Australia regularly report from within state capitals – but rarely from central Adelaide (apart from its nearby Botanic Gardens).

The ABC’s culinary satire “Aftertaste” lampooned the professional failure of a famous but disgraced chef as proved by his ignominious return to his Adelaide roots. 

One comment on a recent The Fifth Estate review of South Australia’s environmental and planning initiates asked, “why do they need more people in Adelaide?”; another observed that a “house and garden is what people want”.

Low popular estimation of Adelaide is not quite unanimous. Barry Humphries’ recent “Ode to Adelaide” offered praise, though from his glinting smirk and flightless doggerel, it is hard to dismiss the suspicion that even he is taking-the-piss.

Popular national disdain is even acknowledged in the city’s own self-regard. 

While tourism advertisements for New South Wales and Victoria regularly highlight the urban delights of their respective capitals, South Australia’s is mostly absent. 

Recalling the truism that marketing is a tax levied for selling a bad product, there is a sheepish recognition of Adelaide’s shortcomings in the try-hard title of the Glamadelaide website, as though the city’s qualities wouldn’t otherwise be acknowledged. 

For instance, there doesn’t appear to be a “Glamelbourne” equivalent, presumably because none is needed.

Yet other locals recognise the brand-recognition “cut-through” of Adelaide’s poor self-image, hoping to find wider markets for distinctly South Australian products based around the s***Adelaide meme.

However, most Adelaideans are understandably shy of dumping on their hometown. When all too frequently confronted with its chronic urban disappointments, they typically avoid expressions of frank dismay, preferring damnation through faint praise or deflection, by timidly pointing to their city’s charms. 

This is reflected in Adelaide’s mostly supine press, which tends to amplify the city’s achievements, even when meagre. Keep the spirit up, chaps, it could be worse!!!

It is also evident in promotions that evince the cheesy thigh-squirming poise of a forced wide smile; consider 10 awesome reasons to live in Adelaide, 25 great reasons…, 13 reasons why Adelaide is the best…, the top 5 reasons…, and the official Move to South Australia.

As we have seen, visitors have no such misgivings.

Whose view should we prefer and why?

But first, it is necessary to understand what is not contested. 

Most of Adelaide is indeed great!!!

The Fifth Estate regularly reports on the state’s – not the city’s – sustainability and planning achievements and challenges.

Visitors and locals would agree that much of greater Adelaide is excellent. 

It is notoriously comfortable to live in; its suburbs are the equal of all other capital cities, differing from them mainly in climate-response, topography and building materials.

Adelaide’s population is just as smart and progressive as anywhere else in Australia. It counts Nobel Prize winners amongst its historical figures. Its universities are regularly listed in the top 500 worldwide. Three international architecture firms originated in Adelaide; its arts and craft scenes are nationally recognised; the list of achievements goes on and on…

Perception the heart of insight

So why the sniggering disdain for the place?

It can only be that there are parts of Adelaide so noticeably ho-hum that they significantly outweigh its many other qualities.

Identifying where, how and why these conditions arise can provide useful lessons for other cities keen to avoid the same reputation.

Setting aside petty interstate rivalry, visitor and local perceptions of the same place originate within different analytical frames of reference. 

Firstly, visitors tend to notice what they directly encounter; the physical manifestations of a place, such as its city centre. 

In contrast, a city’s inhabitants – insiders – develop greater affection for a place over time from the greater social depth they develop as residents. 

Secondly, informed outsiders necessarily appraise what they encounter against other cities they are more familiar with. 

This contrasts with residents’ perceptions, which tend to measure present and possible future conditions primarily against those that preceded them. 

Thus, what the former might describe as a shortcoming – eg: “Crapelaide” – the latter might perceive as an improvement – even “Radelaide”.

Hence, when attempting to make sense of a place, particularly its urban qualities, visitor perceptions are valuable not so much for their conclusions but for the method by which they are devised; namely, appraisals arising from comparative analysis between cities is more informative than analysis within cities.

But we like Adelaide regardless!!!

But why is a visitor’s evaluation important at all if a city’s inhabitants are content with its existing conditions? 

One part of the answer is that contentment is usually fleeting. Most cities are subject to change, whether through decline or rapid transformation. 

Another reason is that urban change is both constant and rarely uncontentious. For example, when change is proposed or occurs but is perceived as lopsided, favouring one cohort to the disadvantage of others, it disrupts the long established and accepted bargains between classes of individuals that underpin contentment.

Yet, even corrosive change rarely confers no broad benefit whatsoever (armed conflict being one obvious exception). That is why those promoting or accepting change usually over-emphasise the benefits and dismiss the downsides – and those that highlight them.

This is why trying to evaluate the fundamental merit of these changes within the conceptual confines of “before” versus “after” is fraught.

Comparisons against examples elsewhere that share similar attributes facilitates a much better judgement of merit.

However, this method offers an additional benefit – it enables ascription of responsibility; who or what is to be congratulated or blamed for causing or accepting change and why. 

So, is it “Crapelaide”, “Sadelaide”, “Naffelaide”, “Myeh-delaide” “Happelaide”, “Radelaide”, “Fabulaide” or “Spectaculaide”?

At this point, the reader may fear being invited down a convoluted rabbit-hole of arcane and preachy urban analysis. 

Thankfully, this fear is groundless. The proposed method is much more direct, democratic – and fun!

By placing local examples alongside others from elsewhere the reader will be asked to reflect on Adelaide examples and then to decide on relative merit. 

Using a grading system adapted from the “Crapelaide” meme, the reader will be invited to answer the question, where do you think the example would fit on the spectrum Crapelaide, Sadelaide, Naffelaide, Myeh-delaide, Happilaide, Radelaide, Fabulaide or Spectaculaide?

In the next instalment, let’s apply this method – and its crude metric – to a couple of recent Adelaide developments and commence exploring what that analysis reveals about the place…

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Mike Brown

Originally from Adelaide, Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.
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  1. Mike, Glad you are in government and not actually doing something to improve our built environment. Have another staff meeting and a muffin.
    After working in the Adelaide CBD, I’ll be at my agricultural property 30min away enjoying nature. I imagine you will be still in traffic for a few more hours.
    Look forward to lambasting your next installment.

    1. Dont think Mike is in gov but i know for a fact he’s an Adelaidian… no-one else would dare

  2. Well, reading that was a waste of 3 minutes. I note that Adelaide’s death toll from the pandemic is somewhat less than Sydney and Melbourne, but sadly I still want to throw up when confronted by a Sydney or Melbourne’s shoulder to shoulder street crowd, all jostling to buy a bottle of vino at 3 times the Adelaidian price, to drown their mortgage stress sorrows.

  3. I grew up overseas and for a time in Melbourne, and actually like Adelaide and its environs. Despite Adelaide’s many talented architects and fine buildings, with a few notable exceptions its largest projects are copied, often directly, from the other capital cities. We have become a sort of cultural colony, so it is worth perhaps looking a bit more closely at what is wrong with Australia rather than Adelaide alone. The developers of the worst of Adelaide’s projects have little interest in place, culture or community, just in good returns. Adelaide’s supposed mediocrity is thus an Australia-wide problem, born of an ingrained cultural cringe, corporate ‘state capture’ and its neo-liberal priorities, where all citizens are supposed to welcome bad development and poor planning for ‘economic’ reasons. I inwardly groan whenever I hear the parochial nonsense you recount in your article. Trying to defend Sydney should be much harder than it appears to be.