Many of us will have gazed into our futures and seen ourselves, one day, on our own block of land, house at one end, pool at the other, kids running around on the lawn between the two; maybe a shed.
But our backyards are shrinking, victims of our denser cities and our love of larger houses. There’s little room for a barbecue now, let alone backyard cricket.
“The Australian backyard is, in a very literal sense, under threat. It’s become accessible to only those that can afford it,” said Dr Tony Matthews, an urban and environmental planner at Griffith University.
Last month, entrepreneur and noted population growth sceptic, Dick Smith lamented the loss of a staple of his youth.
“For middle class and working people, it was definitely better back then because families could afford a backyard,” he told he told Sydney publication The Beast.
“We were free-range kids whereas now kids … end up living as battery hens and that’s a real pity.”
Smith’s solution to stop the garden being a goner is to throttle back on immigration. Whether it would do the trick is debatable.
But, the property industry says the love of the large garden is “nostalgic” and the reality is people are very willing to trade their private space for better public amenities.
Dr Matthews said the backyard has become ingrained in the Australian psyche.
“The great Australian backyard is part of the larger psychological package called the Australian dream. It’s a detached house on a quarter acre block with its own back and, ideally, front garden; it’s the castle,” he told news.com.au.
“If we continue to densify in cities there will be a cost associated with that and that will be a decline in access to large backyards.”
But it’s not just a nice to have; there are real health benefits to gardens. Kids can get off the couch and safely run amok in the garden. While suburbs with proper gardens, and trees, are cooler than densely packed fence-to-fence developments with barely any space between homes.
However, there’s also a price. Bigger blocks house fewer people. That means, in all likelihood, you have to walk further to public transport, jobs and services; the commute as you pass big block after big block is longer and more painful.
DO WE EVEN CARE ABOUT GARDENS ANYMORE?
A recent report by industry group the Property Council of Australia (PCA) concluded our country’s huge land mass, low population and relative affluence had created the perfect conditions for our urban sprawl.
This sprawl is to blame for Australia’s capitals having urban densities far below many similar sized cities, and more akin to US cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix.
But do we care that the backyard is becoming more of a slither? Maybe not.
In 2016, researchers at Swinburne University asked 2000 people in Melbourne and Sydney’s middle ring suburbs, the older suburbs beyond the inner city where larger gardens traditionally occur, to describe the home they aspired to.
Nearly 60 per cent of residents favoured a detached house and yard. That’s quite a substantial number. But it’s also a huge drop from the 90 per cent who wanted a big backyard in the early 1990s.
“In the space of one generation, attitudes have shifted significantly toward embracing higher-density living,” wrote Swinburne’s Professor Peter Newton in The Conversation.
PEOPLE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR BIG GARDENS
When given an alternative option of medium density housing with less space but in a good location and easy access to public transport, jobs and services, 48 per cent of those residents said that would be enough for them to forsake the gargantuan garden.
Granted, the exact same number of people would still opt for a backyard even if the pay-off was being in a more car dependent suburb, but there’s little doubt the garden consensus is crumbling.
Dr Matthews told news.com.au that as much as the backyard was falling victim to developers, we were also giving them up quite willingly.
“Traditionally, the Australian suburban house was quite small. What people have done is increase the size of the house by building on the garden space.
“People are busier and don’t have two hours to cut the lawn or plant up beds like they might have in the past, while children are still active but that activity is now more structured, like sports training, so they use gardens less.”
Last month, The Victorian Government launched a planning document setting out the proposed guidelines for residential developments in Melbourne for the next 30 years.
There would be no limits on the amount of dwellings that could be built on a block. But each would have a minimum level of garden space of between 25 and 35 per cent of the total footprint of the property.
“It’s incredibly important that people have the opportunity to have valuable open space where they can recreate, where their children can play, where they can relax,” Planning Minister Richard Wynne at the time.
Sounds generous, but as critics have pointed out, that minimum is still massively below the blocks of old. Up until the end of the 1980s, the classic suburban backyard was at least 150 sqm with the house covering often only a third of the land.
Jane Fitzgerald, the PCA’s NSW executive director, told news.com.au Australian cities scored well globally on lifestyle factors but when it came to the every day toil, of congestion and access to amenities, we were down the ladder.
The solution in the middle ring didn’t mean high rise residential towers on every street, but perhaps more around six to eight floors high.
“What we need to be striking for is high amenity, low rise, medium density, transport connected, high quality places.”
But Ms Fitzgerald questioned if there was still the ingrained attachment to the backyard.
“I don’t think the great Australian dream is dead, but I think it’s different now. Sure, when Generation Y get to 40 they might want a quarter acre block but that choice is being delayed by most people and what they are doing now is choosing apartment living.
“They still want open space but they might rather have a communal garden outdoor on the roof,” she said.
“We need to look to the future and we can be nostalgic (about big gardens) but, at end of day, the property industry responds to demand. They don’t build things people don’t want — that’s just bad business.”
Dr Matthews agreed that the attachment to the garden might now be in the past, particularly if we have a park kitted out with barbecues, playground, weekend markets and the like down the road.
“We can give up private open space if we have good quality public open space but to have no access to either would be very suboptimal”.