James BeattieLamenting the dwindling garden

Sometimes I lament the small size of my inner suburban block but I am usually quick to scold myself. I scold myself because in reality I should consider myself very lucky. Lucky because I have the space that I do and luckier still that I am able to live so close to the city.

1960s & 1970s suburban developments

Such are the petty, selfish gripes of “old suburb” gardeners. The average size of the Australian backyard has steadily dwindled over the last few decades, much like mobile phones have in the same time frame. Where the shrinking mobile phone is widely considered a good and more convenient thing, shrinking backyards are arguably much less so. The once ubiquitous Australian dream of a quarter acre block is no longer the norm and has given way to medium density housing, more hard landscaping, smaller backyards and inevitably smaller gardens.

‘Pete’s Patch’ vegetable garden

When I say “shrinking backyard” many people might come to the conclusion that house allotments are getting smaller, which they are to an extent, but average blocks have shrunk much less than house sizes have grown by comparison. It is more the swelling of house floor sizes that have squeezed out backyards, although smaller land parcels do play a part in the squeeze. You could fit a sixties or seventies house on a modern subdivision block and still have room for a “Pete’s Patch” style vegetable garden, but houses are now so large that gardens have been reduced to courtyards or small green strips along boundaries. One might think that larger houses are needed to accommodate larger families but families, much like backyards, have contracted in the past few decades. So we now have less people living in substantially larger dwellings with substantially smaller backyards, both of which are getting more expensive (Melbourne has one of the least affordable housing rates in the country).

New suburban development

The people who occupy new suburbs on our capital city fringes are not the people who plan them. If the people who lived in new estates were responsible for their planning, or at least had a say in it, I suspect the look of new estates on the city fringes would look markedly different. Have a look at most affordable new estates and you will see houses cobbled together cheek by jowl to the extent that running from one side of an estate to the other along the roof tops, like some hardened Hollywood criminal on the run is entirely possible. Where trees and shrubs once stood between the sides of houses as a screen from the neighbours we now have little room to plant anything. The closeness to neighbours also negates airflow around and between houses, adding to the already increasing urban heat island effect. Were these new estates planned with equal consideration given to both dwelling and surrounding garden space, their liveability and environmental credentials would be improved dramatically. Air condition is now a standard, nay, essential part of new developments in order to cool residents. All the while it gets hotter, less hospitable to plants and less green outside, increasing the need for air conditioning even more. The outside is fast becoming something to be shielded from rather than to go out and immerse oneself in.

Suburban squeeze

When looking at the sprawling new estates in Melbourne a question I often as myself is: have the layouts of new housing developments been driven by social change or are social changes being driven by new style of housing developments? Considering the lack of input people have into the layout of new suburbs I think the answer leans heavily towards the former. The social changes being driven by these new developments are far from inspiring – inward looking, densely packed houses with little room for gardens as a place of quiet repose aren’t exactly going to encourage a feeling of tranquillity. Some people might say that communal green spaces, often very large ones, are found at the heart of most new developments and make up for the lack of individual backyards in those estates. To an extent I agree with this but no matter how large a communal green space is it should never wholly supplant the treasured, often pottered-in garden at home.

Luckily we gardeners are a resilient lot. We have adapted to changes in the past and will continue to do so into the future. I for one wish that we would make more noise along the way, extolling the virtues of home gardens and insist on space to nurture and indulge in such passions. Unfortunately buying in new developments leaves buyers with very little choice. Considering my comparatively generous inner suburban block I have little to complain about, but I would love to see more discussion on the topic at a local planning and state government level. The murky world that is planning and development, however, I won’t hold my breath! I suspect that in the end gardeners will change more rapidly than governmental and bureaucratic processes.

Until next time, happy gardening.

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James Beattie

About James Beattie

James is a horticulturist working in the Melbourne area. His work in the industry has included landscape planting design, hard landscaping, bushland management, garden consulting as well as extensive experience in the horticultural media. He worked for four years as one of the horticultural guns for hire behind the scenes at ABC TV's Gardening Australia program and has been a semi-regular guest on Melbourne's 3CR Gardening Show (855 AM). You can follow his whimsical garden musings at Horticologist

7 thoughts on “Lamenting the dwindling garden

  1. I’ve noticed the same tendency with new housing estates in the UK but it doesn’t seem to have gone quite as far as it has in Australia – each house still has at least some green space that you might call a “garden”. Since moving to Edinburgh, though, I have been impressed by the charms of a compact city in which (continental-style) many people live in apartments with shared gardens and there are parks and open spaces to soften the urban landscape. I suppose there’s little scope for individuality in garden style but it does mean that suburban sprawl is contained and open countryside is never more than a 20-minute drive away. Admittedly, Edinburgh’s “tenements” (=apartments) are rather beautiful 19th century buildings with large rooms, unlike most 20th/21st century blocks of flats. Maybe what we need is better-quality high-density housing and a much more imaginative approach to shared garden spaces?

    • I too think higher density living is a future reality for capital cities in Australia and around the world. There’s no doubt about it. But there seems to be no long term planning vision, at least in Australia. Britain has done some interesting work in urban planning over the last decade. The state of planning here is woeful by comparison.

  2. It is not only in the new subdivisions on the outskirts of the city that gardens are shrinking. I live in an old established bayside suburb some 20 k. from the Melbourne CBD. In this area our council, which claims to be all in favor of sustainability, has forbidden development above three stories anywhere in the city, whilst enthusiastically promoting the subdivision of existing blocks to permit the construction of two, or even three large houses where previously one relatively modest dwelling stood surrounded by garden. The new houses are surrounded by mostly paved courtyards and driveways, which are usually ‘softened’ with a few small clumps of ornamental grasses and some casually placed boulders. Many people wish to live in this previously desirable area, but instead of encouraging the development of pockets of high density apartments and town houses around the major transport nodes in the area, and allowing the rest of the area to retain a lower density of development, the authorities continue to support the wholesale destruction of the very landcape which attracts new residents in the first place!

    • I love your description of “casually placed boulders”. I can see them now.
      In Sydney’s leafy North Shore, there are growing calls to allow terrace house style developments. Current rules are 800sqm minimum block size but the buildings on them are enormous. Terrace housing on say, 275sqm blocks is compact & medium density but with small gardens, providing a good housing alternative for an ageing population that doesn’t fancy a high-rise apartment. The terrace houses of the inner-west are some of the most sought-after properties in Sydney, showing their enduring appeal.
      But of course the main problem seems to be an increasing aversion to being OUTSIDE. You don’t need more or larger rooms inside if you’re happy to be outside. What can we do about that? Maybe only make solar powered computers?

      • Yes, the aversion to being outside mentality is troubling to me.

        “Away and play,” my mother used to say to my brother and I as children, often in her threatening Scottish brogue. She would even resort to locking us out of the house if we chose not to take her sometimes menacing advice. Indoor pursuits are much more the norm these days however.

        Outside space is important, I think, in an increasingly indoor world, but how to encourage people to go out into it? The solution would be to make the outside a more attractive place and that’s where we designers come in. But one needs a back yard or courtyard in the first place!

  3. It is impossible to conceive that those new estates, looking like prison colonies, could be anyone’s dreams, even if one remains inside. Britain is full of them. And all these ugly fences around these “investments”, not homes. It is one of my life disappointments that Britain, the self-perceived cradle of liberty and freedom of expression, is or has become such a uniform country.

    It is an oversimplification but it might be an Anglo-Saxon inheritance, of an own home, however small, being one’s castle and the rest doesn’t really matter. And charming old places, too large for one family home, with character and potential for community living (old factories, stations, mills, maltings) being derelict or are being pulled down.

    I often stumble over accounts by 18th or 19th century English travellers to continental Europe when they could not believe that several families (and of different classes, mind you!) could live in the same house in, say, Vienna. And then the astonishment that they all enjoyed the Prater (a huge public park) together.

  4. Enjoyed your blog, James. I feel the reducing garden sizes are not so much the issue as how often people get out in them. As has been shown , quality not quantity is the name of the garden game. You can grow a lot on a little space if you go vertical, pot , balcony smart etc
    More worrying is the lack of anyone actually spending time in the yards or gardens of new estates these days. In Queensland, we could blame the Sun Cancer messengers, but suspect it is just societal trend to avoid having to , God forbid, speak to someone, like a neighbour!! Maybe it’s an age thing?
    I recently helped a colleague ( in her 30s) redesign her garden at a house she bought in suburban Brisbane and all she wanted was to instantly screen out the neighbours on all sides! I could not convince her that to leave a sight line so she could interact with them occasionaly might be desirable. Sigh.

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