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.
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.
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).
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.
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.