The disappearing Aussie backyard and its emotional, physical and mental toll

The disappearing Aussie backyard and its emotional, physical and mental toll

By Catherine Cashmore
Tuesday, 22 May 2012

It would be easy to outline the physical and emotional effects skyscrapers and the surrounding density of concrete tend to inspire. To start with, when you fly into a city, a wide array of high-rise accommodation and office buildings is immediately indicative of wealth and prestige. Like the axel of a wheel, the concrete jungle is where the power is concentrated – the heartbeat of the city. As many regional areas will attest, capital cities are top on the priority list when it comes to providing amenities, transport facilities, medical centres and so forth.  All too often, those living in the center of it all tend to forget a life exists outside the city boundaries at all.

The crunch always comes down to “sustainably” managing population growth and the quandary of squashing ever-increasing numbers into our growing metropolises. Urban developers seem obsessed with the notion of building high-rise concrete jungles or at the very least, limiting development to apartment living or high-density housing. It may seem like an obvious solution – it certainly does if you’re sitting behind a desk with a calculator in hand, because it’s argued that building high is more economically viable than creating new infrastructure in the outer suburban peripheries. “Happiness economics: clearly doesn’t feature high on the priority list.

I recently read a report on the value buyers place on having a garden. In the study, it’s claimed that some families would spend up to an extra $75,000 to get a private bit of “green” around their properties.  My reading of the findings followed a question I’d be asked by a reporter researching the notion of gardens and their place on a buyer’s priority list. As with all equations, the crunch ends up in the dollars you spend. With land values increasing in inner-urban zones, outdoor spaces are decreasing and the modern preference – even in outer-suburban new estates – is to go low maintenance and build to the boundaries. After all, Australian’s still beat the world record for desiring homes with the largest floor space per capita. For many, a bigger block of land is only used as a key to a bigger and better house.

Yet, probably one of the best Australian “inventions” was the old suburban home, primarily made familiar to those of us who emigrated to the country because of programs such as Home and Away and Kath and Kim. A house in the burbs with an ample backyard for the kids is the foundation of what was once called the great Australian Dream. In fact, the quarter-acre block – which eventually became the  eighth of an acre block – was a great ecologically friendly model, and it all came down to the backyard.  The backyard was used for growing food, disposing of waste, socialising with neighbours, playing and enjoying a good dose of vitamin D from the glorious Aussie sunshine. Considering our modern push to look after the environment, it’s surprising a decent-sized backyard does not feature higher on the priority list with planning authorities, who tend to allow housing in new suburban estates to take up larger footprints leaving no more than a walkway of paved private outdoor space.

It was an early report from the Grattan iInstitute that coined the phrase“The virtues of suburbia may yet turn out to be the saving of our cities”.  In the report, it points out how the foundations of living sustainably from private land surrounding the home have eventually broken down to a form of inner-city dependency on outlets such as Coles and Woollies.  It’s not just the idea that a garden enables families to produce food, collect water from a rain tank, or dispose of rubbish in the compost heap. It’s the fact that backyards promote health benefits that are hard to emulate in a public park (if you’re lucky enough to live near one) and with our busy urban lifestyles, even the local park doesn’t often feature unless you own a dog or have children who make use of the facility.

I shouldn’t need to point out the benefits of a garden.  From a personal perspective, I feel as if I grew up in a garden – I spent more time outdoors than indoors during summer months. Flowers are just about the most beautiful phenomenon nature produces – internationally symbolic of love, sympathy, beauty, celebration and commiseration. The land is where we get our food, but the concrete jungle is where we “grow” children who have no idea if a potato comes from underground or off a tree. Living in a city is dynamic, convenient, exciting and yet without a balance – the pace of inner-city life is exhausting, polluting, frustrating and draining. The health benefits that can be obtained from a private garden –social, physical and mental – would be too numerous to list.

It’s been argued on many an occasion that buyers prefer apartment living.  Apparently the ageing population want to downsize, there are increasing numbers of single-person households, and the persistent desire to live in the inner-urban localities all equates to a ‘new Australian dream’ no longer founded in a detached dwelling. However, aside from the additional costs selling and buying can impose, there’s good reason why many older baby boomers choose to hold on stubbornly to their detached family homes.  According to a report ‘Project New Home’commissioned by the Grattan Institute mid-last year researching Australian’s “housing preferences.” Even taking into account changing lifestyles, detached homes are the preferred option of our buying market, whether old or young. The report outlines:

“Associations with small spaces are still predominantly negative – with ‘the average’ apartment representing the most challenging end of the spectrum.  Although there is a realisation that available land is shrinking and we, as a community, need to be ‘smart’ about housing options of the future – there are strong rational and emotional drivers that still fuel the preference for detached housing…

“Owning a fully detached home is expected (particularly for families), it is part of building a life, something that is earnt and relished and the best property option

– Outside of the pull to detached houses are the push factors away from attached homes of which ‘neighbours’ is the major barrier.”

In short – an apartment may be where we start, but it’s not where most want to end up.  Aside from the convenience of being close to an inner-urban locality, concerns with neighbours, owner’s corporations, privacy, lack of outdoor space and so forth, put a large majority of maturing buyers off the idea all together. The apartment market is viewed as a place where most people rent or stay for a temporary period of time – generally not considered suitable for family life.  It’s probably for this reason, along with pressures of affordability, that the major part of Victoria’s growth has been evidenced in fringe localities such as Wyndham, Melton and Whittlesea. However even in these areas, such is the price of land, when it comes to building, buyers push to the extremes of development. If you can squash a four-bedroom house on a block rather than comfortably fitting a three-bedroom home, it seems a better investment idea to do so (it certainly does to developers who can charge more for the former).  The bigger the house, the more the on-sale value – land is only valuable in many investor’s eyes if you can build on it.

One of the benefits of increased density (it’s argued) has been the notion that it reduces pollution from people commuting across town to access jobs and other facilities.  However there’s little evidence to support this, although living closer to the city may encourage increased use of public transport, our car dependent life styles and inefficient public transport systems, ensure traffic congestion and urban pollution continue to rise.  Not only this, but any notion that apartment buildings are environmentally friendly has been put to bed by many organizations such as “Sustainable Population Australia” who have reported;

“Studies have shown that high-rise housing increases per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30% due to a total reliance on power, switches and being unable to enjoy the natural cooling of shady trees and living sustainability. Department of Planning and EnergyAustralia study (NSW) and the ACF Consumption Atlas show high-rise buildings emit more greenhouse gases per dwelling and per person than smaller blocks of flats, townhouses or detached homes”

Of course, Harry Triguboff managing director of property group Meriton, states that:  

“Councils think that people care whether there are tall buildings or lower buildings. People who buy the apartments prefer taller buildings because they allow more light and afford views and are cheaper to run than lower ones – which require more lofts, more stairwells, and more security, all adding to the upkeep.”

This is predictable, but quite astonishing.  The costs of running high-rise buildings alone are tremendous when you take into account features such as lifts,  electric security gates, lighting, heating of common areas and so forth – not to mention the footprint incurred from so many individual apartments each running a separate fridge, air-conditioner and plasma TV. I’ve not been through one yet that boasts a solar panel to reduce electricity costs. To have the luxury of light and a view adds to the expense and yet there is rarely a guarantee the view won’t be built out.

All of this is evidenced the stark difference in the yearly owners’ corporation fees of high-rise verses low-rise, which can add up to thousands.  Furthermore, to keep development costs down, a balcony is becoming somewhat of a dying luxury.  The above quote of $75,000 extra for a garden is a little over what the average buyer would shell out for the luxury of a medium-sized balcony on one of these inner-city apartments.  A wide expanse of heat-producing concrete increases the environmental footprint.  However all this aside, as the original design of the “garden city” proves you can have high-density housing on a smaller footprint of land and still retain lawn space around the buildings, thereby maintaining the streetscape and environmental benefits.  However, it does require double-storey living.

We’re lucky in Australia because early planners had the foresight to provide abundant park land in each inner-suburban locality.  It’s still possible to look out over our cities and take in an abundance of “green”.  However, for how long is debatable – London, which has an estimated population of around 8 million (a number that metro Melbourne is prospected to achieve around 2050) used to hold the reputation of “of being one of the world’s greenest cities because of its extensive public parks and gardens. However a recent report by the London Wildlife Trusthas shown Londoners are paving over gardens to avoid maintenance costs associated with gardening in some cases using the area as an extra parking lot at – according to the study – an “alarming” pace.  According to the report “an area of vegetated garden equivalent to 21 times the size of Hyde park was lost between 1998 and 2006” simply through the demise of the private backyard.

This kind of transition is not limited to London – it’s a worldwide phenomenon.  Modern lifestyles don’t leave time to tend a garden or grow food – after all, it’s argued that Australia has the world’s hardest workers – tending a garden is therefore a luxury reserved for those who are retired. In his excellent publication “The Death of the Australian Back Yard” Tony Hall argues that the change from backyard culture has “has not been subtle or gradual in either space of time”.  It’s an excellent paper and well worth a read.  In it he demonstrates, through time-lapsed aerial shots, how our living preferences have altered.  Even though there’s still evidence of healthy interest from much of the population in gardening, it’s the renovation shows that dominate the media and keep the focus on the interior.  A low maintenance garden is a selling point in a modern home; a big back yard is simply an area holding development potential.

The loss or demise of the domestic backyard has an effect far beyond that of the individual household.  Issues such as the loss of biodiversity in plant species, the loss of areas of land in which to soak up rainfall, not to mention the role gardens play in micro climate control and combating carbon dioxide and various other pollutants permeating the air.

Whilet there is no doubt the push towards urban consolidation is an inevitable consequence of our population growth and changing cultural shift, we’re certainly not healthier for it – and many would argue that neither are we happier for it. First home buyers have increasingly limited choices when it comes to housing options, and for those that do settle in inner urban areas – as a recent report from the Grattan Institute entitled‘social cities’ highlights – there’s a  worrying increase in social isolation and loneliness due to residential seclusion. It’s impossible to improve the situation without active communication with local residents.  Therefore, power needs to be placed in community hands to decide what’s needed in each locality – whether it be a communal garden, ‘pocket park’, games room, or some other form of meeting place. High density planning should have a requirement to make room for some form of freely accessible social interaction.

While gardens may be looked upon as high maintenance and a private area of green space may not be in vogue or high on developer’s priority list, it is down to our urban planners to ensure we don’t lose the joy of an area of green lawn and maturing trees all together.  Australia has an abundance of land for everyone to spread out and enjoy the joys of nature if only more effort and expense was dedicated to the development of industry, transport arterials, and growth in the smaller “satellite” cities and regional centers.  As it stands at present, we’re losing a part of Australian culture that cultivated an ingrown appreciate of “the land”.

Catherine Cashmore is a market analyst with extensive experience in all aspects relating to property acquisition.

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