Why Backyards are Important

 

This doesn’t look like a backyard, but it is. In the jaw droppingly beautiful heritage town of Colmar in eastern France, this is the view from a new rental apartment in a 400 year old building in the heart of town, a whole (compact) apartment rented for less than any little box in the new developments of Fremantle.

Colmar is full of these backyards behind thriving busy shops and streets in the middle of town. Just ten metres from the hectic life on the street, these serene spaces for residents abound. The plastic grass may be a touch too far, but most of the rest is real heritage, a survivor from two world wars, a town so beautful that the Germans, and even the Americans, did not bomb it.

Gerard O’Brien destroyed all the backyards of the Atwell Buildings in High Street with his new glass box, and will do the same with the backyards to the 28 Manning Buildings shops across the road. The inner city backyards of Fremantle, what little remain of them, are precious, and could be Colmar type spaces. In some places like Melbourne they graffiti them and turn them into laneway bars, and Fremantle Council is on an alcohol led recovery so could consider the same.

It is a tragedy that no councillor would listen to the Fremantle Society when we pleaded for the rear of the Manning Building shops to be treated as important spaces that could be turned into something wonderful. Instead, most of the rear buildings, including a level 1a listed building, ironically probably one of the first bicycle factories in Fremantle, will be demolished.

Backyards in the Suburbs

With Fremantle having the second worst tree canopy of any suburb in Western Australia, the fact that council has not even completed a significant tree register yet for private land, and the relentless ‘progressive’ push to increase densities, the leafy backyards of Fremantle suburbs are under threat.

When Professor Tony Hall arrived in Australia from the UK he couldn’t believe how Australians, distracted by their long working week and their desire to ‘invest’ in a large house, were giving up on the sanctity of a leafy backyard. He wrote a book about it- Life and Death of the Australian Backyard (CSIRO 2010).

Because Fremantle Council was embarking then on plans for increased density to encourage cheaper housing, and less green open space, Professor Hall was brought to Fremantle to talk to councillors and staff, but he was met with mainly blank stares. He went back to Queensland, and nowadays one of the chief complaints the Fremantle Society receives are complaints from residents of their amenity being affected by insensitive higher density. His comments apply to established suburbs as well as new housing areas.

In 2009, the Brisbane Times interviewed Professor Hall:

“I’d never seen this before,” Prof Hall told AAP from his office at Queensland’s Griffith University.

“It reflected changes in lifestyle in Australia for the worse.”

In developing outer suburbs across the country, home buyers are purchasing blocks of land to build their own home, he said.

They are encouraged by builders to construct the biggest house then can fit on the lot and the “backyard is not seen as very interesting”.

It is in the builder’s interest to sell floor space, Prof Hall said.

“New names are invented to cover all these rooms that you now have but don’t really have any function (like) activity rooms,” he said.

“You find that the situation is quite dramatic.

“Any aerial photos you find, it really stands out, you get the older suburbs – they’re covered by trees and the newer ones are all just roof-to-roof.”

Prof Hall, wrote a report about his findings for Griffith University’s Urban Research Program, titled Where Have All the Gardens Gone? An Investigation into the Disappearance of Backyards in the Newer Australian Suburb.

He said the trend took hold in the mid-1990s, coinciding with longer working hours.

“People in Australia are now working very long hours (particularly) people in the outer suburbs … (people are) working over 50 hours a week, working weekends, not taking their holidays,” he said.

“People often don’t notice the lack of outlook because they’re not there in the daytime.

“The house is designed as a supposed investment but you can’t enjoy it.”

Shrinking backyards are forcing people indoors, causing a shift in leisure activities and lifestyle choices, he said.

“It’s completely contrary to these stories of real Australia because we’re still maintaining the story of the laid-back, outdoor, casual lifestyle when in fact the reality is moving rapidly in the opposite direction.”

Backyard lovers such as kids and retirees who like “pottering in the garden” are suffering most from the shrinkage, Prof Hall said.

“Children now sit in their bedroom and play computer games.

“Generations of children have grown up without any contact with the natural world.”

There is also an environmental impact.

“There’s a huge ecological function of the planted areas around the house,” Prof Hall said.

This has an impact particularly in the Australian climate.

Big, shady trees are replaced with energy guzzling air-conditioning and rain that would nourish the garden is flushed down the stormwater drain.

Prof Hall said front yards don’t offer the security and privacy of a backyard and for maximum pleasure a backyard should reach at least 100 square metres, though design is more important.

“What is worrying is that the older suburb house with a big backyard is no longer being built in Australia,” he said.

“What is the quality of life in these places? It’s quite frightening really.”

Hampton Road

20 years ago one councillor, who is still on council, wanted to change the name of Hampton Road, because Governor Hampton had been a harsh taskmaster for the convicts, and made them do some work.

Hampton Road then got a dose of money to cripple traffic along it, with $770,000 spent to cut the number of lanes in two, with the thinking that trucks would just go away.

Now there is a group that wants to further attack this important artery of Fremantle, and they have enlisted the support of Councillor Pemberton. Be aware of this group, or else you will wake up one day with another artery strangled.

The Ultimate Advocate

The Fremantle Society asked the other day if you are an advocate  ie do you do something about issues.

Today the Fremantle Society met the ultimate advocate, Sir David Attenborough, at the opening of the most famous antiquarian book fair in the world, the ABA in London.

Sir David, 92, born the same year as the Queen, with whom he has started a tree canopy program in Commonwealth countries, is seen here with Dutch book dealer Frederik Muller.

The well travelled and much loved naturalist was asked when he was coming again to Australia. “I was there in 1957” he said. That was the year of the first ever ABA fair and he missed it because he was diving and filming on the Great Barrier Reef, which he said was ‘the most magical experience of my life.’

Few people have advocated for Planet Earth better than Sir David. To prepare the documentary ‘Life of Birds,’ he travelled 256,000 miles.

J Shed

On Wednesday night at the Fremantle Council monthly meeting, a large crowd advocated for council not to pursue the alcohol fuelled revitalisation of Arthur Head. They didn’t have to travel 256,000 miles to get there, but they must have been disappointed that so little notice of their concerns was taken.

It took just 5 of 13 elected members (remember well their names: Pettitt, Sullivan, Thompson, Fitzhardinge, and Hume) to go against  common sense and the community and have enough votes to give Sunset Events the right to use our A Class reserve to make money.

Rob Campbell

Reminder that the Fremantle History Society event honouring Rob Campbell is on at the Fremantle Arts Centre at 5pm today. A free event, it will include the unveiling of a plaque in his honour, contributed to by the Fremantle Society.