What has happened to the Australian backyard?

What has happened to the Australian backyard?

Up until the end of the 1980s, nearly all suburban houses in Australia had large backyards by world standards.  The older type of suburban form is still characterised by backyards of at least 150m2, and they are commonly several times this figure.  They generally have a useful shape and significant coverage of trees.  Plot coverages by house footprints are generally 20-30% with a maximum of 35-40%.

However, in the early 1990s, a dramatic change in Australian suburban form began.  During this period, the provision of large backyards in new construction ceased and the 35-40% figure now represents the minimum, rather than the maximum, plot coverage.  Although some properties may have backyards of 100m2 in area they are normally much smaller than this and are often less than 50m2.  Moreover, the narrowness of the gap between the dwelling and the side and rear boundaries of the plot frequently results in this area being in the form of a thin strip rather than a more useful square shape.  This change has not been subtle or gradual in either space or time.  Two distinct patterns of form are immediately apparent from even a cursory examination of aerial photographs.  The older areas are characterised by open yards and tree cover while, in the newer ones dwellings can be nearly roof-to-roof.

All around change

This change is not something that relates to the backyards alone.  House and street design have also changed as part of the same process.  There has been a trend towards deep, square house plans possessing large internal spaces with little natural light and ventilation.  There is also a trend towards fewer and smaller windows.  The narrow gap around single-storey houses is dominated by high opaque fences.  The frontage is dominated by integral garages.

A common response to this trend is that it must be the result of smaller plot sizes. There is, indeed, a trend to smaller plot sizes in Australia but a closer examination of the data reveals that this not the cause of the phenomenon. The evidence suggests that it is the increase in the dwelling area, rather than the decrease in the plot area, that has been driving the shrinkage of the backyard.  There is no evidence that it has been brought about directly by policies of urban consolidation.  The phenomenon is to be found at all plot sizes.  Most significantly, It is to be found in lower-density outer suburbs located a considerable distance from city centres.  Local policies and planning regulations have not explicitly required small backyards.  However, there has been nothing in them to prevent the reduction in the size of private open space that has occurred.  Requirements for gaps to the sides and rear of properties are generally 1-2m and, where they exist, minimum standards for private open space are tiny compared to the areas of the pre-1990 backyards.

Is this a problem?

Why should this be seen as a problem?  The answer is that the shrinkage of the backyard has reduced the amenity of the property in terms of outlook from the dwelling and facilities for outdoor recreation around the home, especially for young children.  Moreover, the disadvantages go way beyond the lifestyles of the occupants.  The consequent reduction in vegetation, especially tree cover, around the dwelling has led to a loss of biodiversity and an increase in run-off of storm water.  The microclimate becomes hotter and this, in turn, requires more air-conditioning and increased energy use.  Moreover, it represents a permanent change in built form that cannot be corrected later.

Why then are people choosing to live in such houses?  Data on social trends within Australia suggests that the reduction in backyard size has coincided exactly with a trend to substantially longer working hours amongst middle and higher income office workers.  At the same time, the growth in the use of air-conditioning has not only allowed, but also encouraged, an indoor lifestyle.  For people buying a suburban house, the focus has become one of investment in buildings.  A particular house form that maximises floor area at minimum cost has evolved in response.  Little priority is now given to planted space around the house, as it is not seen as an investment.  The dwelling is therefore extended over as much of the plot as is permitted.  These last points remain, for the moment, hypotheses but the questions they raise are ones that cannot be ignored and demand further study and debate.

bookAuthor

Professor Tony Hall, Gfiffith Urban Research Program

For more information: The Life and Death of the Australian Backyard, CSIRO Publishing 2010.  Professor Hall’s book won the 2012 Planning Institute of Australia Award for Excellence in Cutting Edge Research.

Know More: Griffith Urban Research Program

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7 comments

  1. Darragh McCurragh

    “… it is the increase in the dwelling area, rather than the decrease in the plot area …” I think this does not fully capture the intent of the owners’ choices. Rather, everyone thinks in terms of “concrete” being a hedge against inflation as well as some “nest egg” for retirement (often out of similar motives). Since it is often prohibitive to enlarge the “patch” in the same proportion as the houses themselves, what has to give is the backyard etc. Also, the “grid” structure of zoning for urban development just allows for a certain average size (and dimensions, i.e. relationship between lengths and breadths) and thus there are only a few richer people who could break out from that “corset” and still have larger gardens etc. And then there might be another development: people more and more watch TV and computer media … inside and even children hardly climb trees (now three in four urban kids in Europe never climbed a tree, prior to the 1980s, one in four had never FALLEN out of a tree!) and at the same time there is a tendency to partake in outside activities that are in paid-for venues, amusement parks etc.

  2. John Carson

    Professor Tony Hall, I can educate you in the subject you seem so willing to hypothesise about. True the big change did occur in the early 1990s; specifically under the Keating government. Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe introduced the national concept for local governments to approve smaller plot subdivisions to cut infrastructure costs. The concept was narrower streets and limited subdivision access to main traffic thoroughfares. This effectively reduced stormwater, sewerage, power and other development costs. This also accelerated the subdivision of the quarter acre block and the two and three story walkup unit block clusters around public transport hubs. The Queensland government also approved an application by Sanctuary Cove developers on the Gold Coast to build from the side common boundary of the adjoining allotments. Unfortunately, town planners are still crippled by the mindset of the 6 metre setback. In many situations where road widening will never occur, this still rules their thinking when approving building applications. The 6 metre setback for 99% of homes is a wasteland of landscaping tokenism. The most productive use for this area is garages/carport or creating a courtyard concept thereby adding an additional “outdoor room” to the front of the property. This is useful for entertainment, children’s play etc. with the added benefits of privacy as well. Hope this helps.

  3. Joan Bennett

    In Adelaide, it’s not just the yards that are shrinking, but the houses, too. The government are giving permission for developers to tear down a normal sized house and put up two (and sometimes three) houses on the property. Government gets twice the rates and taxes, so why wouldn’t they? We live in a normal sized house and grow veggies in the substantial backyard. The two houses alongside my property hate the fact we do such a healthy thing and think we are weirdos. It’s because folks don’t want to go outside anymore. It’s seen as “eccentric”…

  4. Niree Christison

    We are all suffering from the loss of the back yard and local government have taken a haphazard approach to planning and the long term effects on society: family/children; community well-being and ecologically. I totally disagree with the size of lots today. They have become so miniscule children cannot play outside and enjoy the nature like we did as kids – they do not climb trues (nature deficient and developmental growth), they do not get dirty in the garden everything is so sterile (their immune systems) and boring. Houses are becoming larger on smaller blocks – to the point that if there was an emergency I’m not sure how people could even get to the back portion of the house due to restricted access. As for the 6m setback, I too would like to see it reduced however, for a lot of areas this is where guests park, people stand to chat and it also acts like a buffer zone when vehicles are out of control.

    Local Government on the the Gold Coast appears to be very haphazard & selective (on who can do what and where), with planning. I suggest you visit Ben Lexcen Place, Robina. This was meant to be a residential street with maximum 12 homes – it was sold to us brand new by the Developers (covenants and all). It has one entry one exit and when we bought in 2000 it was meant to be our dream home – soon to become a nightmare. A few years down the track the GCCC had given permission for some 37 units to be build right next to us, then another large group down the other end and to my understanding another 45 are approved. Residents COULD NOT object. It is a pure disgrace! Cars are scattered all over the street (please note this is not an exaggeration), and people look directly into your bedroom windows. All the original residents put together a very strong case and submitted it to Council only to have it completely ignored. So much for the suburban back yard, the rights of residents and town planning! The then Mayor visited when the the units were erected (he was flabbergasted) – he let me know it was past the objection date. I said I know, we had sent one in prior to construction and no one would do anything – we were told they could do nothing!! In actual fact, the builder gave me the building application number as the Council didn’t have it – but no doubt they receive rates etc from all of them. So please consider the idea of appropriate size Lots with houses that become homes with yards – for people to relax and enjoy.
    Family and community well-being must be considered when planning a development or they will end up ghettos with people demonstrating a lot of frustration.
    Bring back the Backyard and celebrate our great country!

  5. Tegan Gentle

    Greed. Purely and simply, most people don’t want a 250-350m2 block but due to price and not a lot of choice get driven to it.

    If they are not selling anything larger at a reasonable price point what other options do people have.

  6. ella

    I am sick and tired of these disgustingly small houses, how are we supposed to breathe? The only other option would be to become a farmer and move to western Australia which is NOT ideal since the government barely funds them and only helps when droughts occur. People in America are NOT facing this issue. and it seems funny to me that this is in fact an issue when most of Australia’s land remains unused. Give people land, let people breathe. Australia stop being greedy.

  7. sheryl Townson

    This is from a group of high school students who are competing in a science/robotics competition and we are wondering
    Professor Tony Hall, if you could help us answer the desirability part of our solution – do people still want backyards but just can not afford them.

    We are a team of 5 lego enthusiasts from North Brisbane, taking part in the
    FIRST Lego League.

    FIRST Lego League (FLL) is an annual, international science and robotics
    competition for children aged 9-16 yrs old. One aspect of this competition
    is to find a solution to a real world problem. We have found a solution to
    the lack of safety and privacy in many public parks.

    We have come to the conclusion of roof-top parks on apartment buildings . The rooftop playground is
    an effective solution as it helps kids/adults to relax and socialize whilst
    also being in a more safe environment, the roof top playgroup is also a safe
    haven for kids as it is only available for those who live there.

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