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.”

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