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3 January 2020

Perth must create a unique identity

Opinion piece by UDIA WA CEO Tanya Steinbeck published in The West Australian on Friday January 3.

Authenticity and keeping things “real” is a personal challenge for all of us in an increasingly digital world where we seek instant acceptance and endless ways to compare ourselves to others’ success.

This personal challenge is also relevant for Perth as a city, as we look to develop a clear identity and value proposition for our capital, without consistently comparing ourselves to other places.

According to many stakeholders in the development and planning industry we are in desperate need for a vision for Perth that clearly articulates the attributes of our city and what we have to offer. Put simply, who are we?

How do we, as a city, differentiate ourselves from our Eastern States and even global competitors in order to attract more residents, more investment, more tourists, and more students in order to ensure our economy is sustainable in the long term and employment opportunities keep growing?

Importantly, along with attracting new people to our shores, as permanent residents of Perth, how do we still retain the elements of what makes our city one of the most liveable and beautiful cities in the world and not lose ourselves as we inevitably grow? Identity itself is a complex concept, it applies both to us as individuals but also to our community or society as a collective. It is never fixed, it evolves as we evolve as people and as a population.

An identity crisis is a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in expected aims or role in our society.

Perth is growing up. From a city that was more like a big country town, to the beneficiary of the resources boom and the investment and growth that came with it, we are now asking ourselves who are we beyond the boom? Diversification of our economy is essential, and we now need to look beyond the mining and resources sectors which have been such a strong part of our identity, to the bigger picture.

Just as our self-identity as an individual forms the basis of our self-esteem, this can also apply to cities. Perth is still in adolescence and when we are in those years of our life, the way we see ourselves can change in response to peers, family, and school. Our self-identities shape our perceptions of belonging, one of our basic human needs and critically important when we are considering the planning and design of our urban environment.

In an era of Keeping up with the Kardashians, social media and influencers, our self-identity is constantly being questioned as we are subtly influenced around what our lives “should” look like.

Overall, western society is becoming increasingly homogenised. When our cities become more and more alike, our neighbourhoods standardised, the more we crave authenticity and harder we try to stand out.

I think our planning system needs to take the lead against the homogenisation of our city, to avoid getting lost in a sea of sameness and leverage the natural and diverse beauty of not only its Aboriginal and colonial heritage and landscape, but all its people. Planning by the people, for the people — it’s a trend that’s catching on. Just look at the Town Team Movement that is taking community-driven planning and placemaking to another level.

In the era of social media and digital connectivity, the role of citizens owning and helping to create our physical spaces becomes even more critical as more of us interact via a device rather than face to face.

It is the people, the need for belonging, for connection and how we interact with each other that creates authentic and bespoke places that cannot be manufactured or replicated. We don’t want to live in a copycat city.

We need to leverage the best Perth has to offer, of great diversity in its people, its natural environment, its beauty.

Grow our city, spaces and places that bring people together to connect, interact and to belong.

Without the need for Facebook or Instagram. We Perth people have done very well at keeping this place a secret. Now it’s time to share it with the world.