Economy

Why the death of the backyard is taking a physical and mental toll: Cashmore

Engel Schmidl /

It would be easy to outline the physical and emotional effects skyscrapers and the surrounding density of concrete tend to inspire.

To start with, when you fly into a city, a wide array of high-rise accommodation and office buildings is immediately indicative of wealth and prestige. Like the axel of a wheel, the concrete jungle is where the power is concentrated – the heartbeat of the city. As many regional areas will attest, capital cities are top on the priority list when it comes to providing amenities, transport facilities, medical centres and so forth.  All too often, those living in the center of it all tend to forget a life exists outside the city boundaries at all.

The crunch always comes down to “sustainably” managing population growth and the quandary of squashing ever-increasing numbers into our growing metropolises. Urban developers seem obsessed with the notion of building high-rise concrete jungles or at the very least, limiting development to apartment living or high-density housing. It may seem like an obvious solution – it certainly does if you’re sitting behind a desk with a calculator in hand, because it’s argued that building high is more economically viable than creating new infrastructure in the outer suburban peripheries. “Happiness economics: clearly doesn’t feature high on the priority list.

I recently read a report on the value buyers place on having a garden. In the study, it’s claimed that some families would spend up to an extra $75,000 to get a private bit of “green” around their properties.  My reading of the findings followed a question I’d be asked by a reporter researching the notion of gardens and their place on a buyer’s priority list. As with all equations, the crunch ends up in the dollars you spend. With land values increasing in inner-urban zones, outdoor spaces are decreasing and the modern preference – even in outer-suburban new estates – is to go low maintenance and build to the boundaries. After all, Australian’s still beat the world record for desiring homes with the largest floor space per capita. For many, a bigger block of land is only used as a key to a bigger and better house.

Yet, probably one of the best Australian “inventions” was the old suburban home, primarily made familiar to those of us who emigrated to the country because of programs such as Home and Away and Kath and Kim. A house in the burbs with an ample backyard for the kids is the foundation of what was once called the great Australian Dream. In fact, the quarter-acre block – which eventually became the  eighth of an acre block – was a great ecologically friendly model, and it all came down to the backyard.  The backyard was used for growing food, disposing of waste, socialising with neighbours, playing and enjoying a good dose of vitamin D from the glorious Aussie sunshine. Considering our modern push to look after the environment, it’s surprising a decent-sized backyard does not feature higher on the priority list with planning authorities, who tend to allow housing in new suburban estates to take up larger footprints leaving no more than a walkway of paved private outdoor space.

It was an early report from the Grattan Institute that coined the phrase “The virtues of suburbia may yet turn out to be the saving of our cities”.  In the report, it points out how the foundations of living sustainably from private land surrounding the home have eventually broken down to a form of inner-city dependency on outlets such as Coles and Woolies.

It’s not just the idea that a garden enables families to produce food, collect water from a rain tank, or dispose of rubbish in the compost heap. It’s the fact that backyards promote health benefits that are hard to emulate in a public park (if you’re lucky enough to live near one) and with our busy urban lifestyles, even the local park doesn’t often feature unless you own a dog or have children who make use of the facility.

I shouldn’t need to point out the benefits of a garden. From a personal perspective, I feel as if I grew up in a garden – I spent more time outdoors than indoors during summer months. The land is where we get our food, but the concrete jungle is where we “grow” children who have no idea if a potato comes from underground or off a tree. Living in a city is dynamic, convenient, exciting and yet without a balance – the pace of inner-city life is exhausting, polluting, frustrating and draining. The health benefits that can be obtained from a private garden –social, physical and mental – would be too numerous to list.

It’s been argued on many an occasion that buyers prefer apartment living. Apparently the ageing population want to downsize, there are increasing numbers of single-person households, and the persistent desire to live in the inner-urban localities all equates to a ‘new Australian dream’ no longer founded in a detached dwelling. However, aside from the additional costs selling and buying can impose, there’s good reason why many older baby boomers choose to hold on stubbornly to their detached family homes.  According to a report ‘Project New Home’ commissioned by the Grattan Institute mid-last year researching Australian’s “housing preferences.” Even taking into account changing lifestyles, detached homes are the preferred option of our buying market, whether old or young. The report outlines:

“Associations with small spaces are still predominantly negative – with ‘the average’ apartment representing the most challenging end of the spectrum.  Although there is a realisation that available land is shrinking and we, as a community, need to be ‘smart’ about housing options of the future – there are strong rational and emotional drivers that still fuel the preference for detached housing…

“Owning a fully detached home is expected (particularly for families), it is part of building a life, something that is earnt and relished and the best property option

– Outside of the pull to detached houses are the push factors away from attached homes of which ‘neighbours’ is the major barrier.”

In short – an apartment may be where we start, but it’s not where most want to end up.  Aside from the convenience of being close to an inner-urban locality, concerns with neighbours, owner’s corporations, privacy, lack of outdoor space and so forth, put a large majority of maturing buyers off the idea all together. The apartment market is viewed as a place where most people rent or stay for a temporary period of time – generally not considered suitable for family life.  It’s probably for this reason, along with pressures of affordability, that the major part of Victoria’s growth has been evidenced in fringe localities such as Wyndham, Melton and Whittlesea. However even in these areas, such is the price of land, when it comes to building, buyers push to the extremes of development. If you can squash a four-bedroom house on a block rather than comfortably fitting a three-bedroom home, it seems a better investment idea to do so (it certainly does to developers who can charge more for the former).  The bigger the house, the more the on-sale value – land is only valuable in many investor’s eyes if you can build on it.

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