After a 20-year love affair with East Gippsland, 2020 is the year — through fate (the landlord selling our inner-city townhouse), fortune (rather the lack of, as Covid-19 might have it) and family (the deadline of our son starting school in 2021) — we seized the window to try a tree change.
Little did we know that our ‘escape to the country’ would be exactly that: a pandemic-induced dash down the Princes Highway to avoid lockdown in Melbourne, our once-beloved, culture-filled, contemporary and creative metropolis.
But as the burnt bush sprouted bright green foliage from the autumn rains, inspiration for a renewed life in Gippsland was omnipresent.
Having closely watched the bushfires as our cousins defended their three burning farms outside of Bairnsdale, there was a sense of jumping out of the frying pan (Melbourne in a pandemic) and into the fire… recovery zone. But as the burnt bush sprouted bright green foliage from the autumn rains, inspiration for a renewed life in Gippsland was omnipresent.
The rapidly evolving global health and economic disaster took grip with lockdown, but when comparing it to the natural disaster that we are reminded of every day on the farm at Clifton Creek, a small town ravaged by the January fires, the pandemic was like a strange dream.
Especially as we waded through the administration of our relocation: kindergarten enrolments, small business grants and the JobKeeper minefield.
As for many people, Easter 2020 wasn’t anything like the typical annual long weekend we’d enjoyed at the farm of years past. But what a difference space makes! When my head was going to explode from the magnitude of tasks in nearly every facet of our life, I would put on my runners and pound the gravel tracks of the cattle farm, taking in the rural autumnal sunsets and finding certainty in the one decision I’d been able to make this year, before COVID started dictating terms: Gippsland was where we were meant to be.
Our move to East Gippsland was not a considered migration, more a coincidentally timed whim, fortuitously resulting in great refuge and rejuvenation. How grateful we were to be able to enjoy many freedoms afforded to the region, much longer than family and friends in Melbourne. Yet, it didn’t stop my Gippsland friends asking me, “Do you miss the city? We can’t imagine Madeleine without Melbourne”. And, to be fair, it was my home for 30 years. My parents, siblings and nephews all lived within five kilometres of us, and my business was built off the back of Melbourne’s major arts, cultural and sporting events. I truly love Melbourne.
Before COVID started dictating terms: Gippsland was where we were meant to be.
But I have no doubt that this was the right choice for us, and will be the choice of many more, as they reflect on smashing through the glass boundary, the suburban city limits (despite them being enforced in Lockdown 2.0), like never before.
So, the silver lining of the pandemic is that I believe this new normal will see a city vs. regional mindset dissipate, replaced by mutual respect, empathy and collaboration. Previous business barriers, like geography, proximity, talent and density of population have reduced, providing our regions with an opportunity and competitive advantage like never before.
Innovation, creativity and technology are not the exclusive domain of cities. In fact, real estate prices over the past two decades have almost squeezed the lifeblood out of many vibrant parts of Melbourne with live music venues shutting down due to noise complaints, street art being deemed vandalism, licensing regulations preventing new hospitality ventures from opening and outrageous rents becoming prohibitive for artists and students thanks to Airbnb, etc.
Cities around the world have been drowning under their own weight for some time now. The pandemic has merely exposed their fragility, and now I have friends desperately trying to return from London, New York, Barcelona and Milan after spending the best part of a decade trying to build a successful career in these cutthroat ‘creative power cities’.
So while I miss pre-COVID Melbourne, it is no longer that city and will remain forever changed. Fortunately, what will never change is the resilience and footloose nature of creativity. Creativity knows no boundaries, does not discriminate or rely on locality, and is one of the most effective levers to rebuild economies and communities.
Whilst we all have concerns about our future, another thing I am certain of is that fortune favours the brave, and after drought, fire and a pandemic, the bravery of Victorians on the farm, the firefront or the front line of our health system is inspiring. Now we stand united, with the powers of community, compassion, creativity and collaboration to problem solve the biggest economic and public relations challenge our state has ever faced.
With creativity sprouting across Gippsland, the regions and behind the closed doors of our beloved capital city, innovation will sprout like the eucalyptus in the charred bush and we will repair and rebuild Victoria together.
Madeleine Preece is the owner of Neonormal (www.neonormal.com.au), an independent brand experience agency and co-founder, alongside Russel Howcroft and Rhys Hayes, of a state-wide innovation and creativity festival launching in 2021. The festival will reopen, reinvent and relaunch Victoria as a global innovation and creativity hub. Stay tuned for details.