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Nancy Napier: What remote Boise can learn from remote Brisbane in Australia

Dear Mayor Dave Bieter, Last year, I visited Brisbane, Australia, and felt like I was in a version of Boise-of-the-Future, if we’re lucky.

I had no idea what Brisbane is like. I’ve seen photos of Australia, probably the same ones you’ve seen — of Ularu (Ayers Rock), koalas, the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney’s Opera House. But then I visited Brisbane.

And what’s so great about it?

First, the setting. Think big blue skies most of the year; think river running through town; think parks, clean streets, people running and biking; and think “university along the river.” Sound like someplace you know?

Now think 3 million people, a river wide and calm enough for a ferry system, stopping at 20-plus spots every 10 minutes. Think pride in city and openness of spirit.

It feels like Boise — a human scale, even in the skyscrapers downtown, and a public market (don’t get me started on how much I love mangos there). To top it off, Brisbane in 2009 was rated the 16th most livable city in the world by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

So yes, things seem pretty good in Brisbane, and I think we could learn from it.

On the first day of my visit, I asked a native why he loved the city. The answer: the weather and the city planning. Huh? When’s the last time I heard that city planning was a reason to love a city?

In Brisbane, city planning — not my field at all — seems deliberate, future-oriented and relatively apolitical. But it started small. The trigger that seemed to start the ball was hosting the Commonwealth Games in 1982. That put the city on the big map, worldwide.

Then people from in and out of Australia swarmed in. They moved for lifestyle: They wanted a “sea change” (to live by the beach) and a “tree change” (to live on a small bit of land). Retirees moved in, and the state government supported key industries (bioscience) and recruited new firms (e.g., Virgin Air).

Boise already does some of this. But one thing we might learn to do better is to view education as an investment or an industry in itself. Flocks of students from abroad go to Brisbane and pay full fare for the privilege. Its universities are top-notch, affordable, safe and connected to the community so that the university, business and government work together to be sure educated people stay and jobs grow. If we want Idaho to move from being No. 1 in the lowest-paid jobs in America, we need a few changes there.

After I gave a talk to Brisbane community leaders, I met a person working in state government who builds connections across universities (what a concept) and within universities (ditto), to find ways that collaboration and innovation can boost industry growth and development — from mining to agriculture, high tech to arts. His other goal: bringing innovation into government, not just into business.

So I got to wondering: Maybe the most remote American city could learn from one of the world’s most remote cities Down Under. I’ll be happy to carry your bags.