Outdoor space in the city
The population is growing and gardens are shrinking, so where will the children play?
STICKYBEAK over the back fence of a typical new home – in an inner or outer suburb – and you’ll likely see this: a patio, paved and covered, with an in-built barbeque and outdoor heating. You’ll spot neat, ornamental shrubs and tidy stone gardens in narrow beds by the fence. And, if you peer down the side, you’ll spy a retractable washing line.
As our cities expand, a vast change is occurring; not only in the landscape, but also in the way we engage with outdoor space, both private and public.
Andrew Whitson, the Victorian general manager of Stockland, says that as a developer, he’s observed a clear trend towards smaller gardens in new homes.
“People still want some outdoor space and they want it to be functional and useful. But we’re all becoming time poor and we don’t want a large area to maintain. The days of dad spending the weekend out in the garden are changing,” he says.
“From what people are buying, we’re seeing that people love al fresco entertainment areas and I don’t see that changing.”
Mr Whitson says that although yards are much smaller, they’re more carefully designed. “We’re seeing fewer large trees planted and more manicured, low-maintenance areas, with paving, weather protection and heating, so they can be used year round.”
While he’s sanguine about the change, Griffith University academic Professor Tony Hall is worried about its implications. In a book published last year, called The Life and Death of the Australian Backyard, Prof Hall lamented the downsides for the community at large, including the loss of biodiversity and natural drainage, hotter cityscapes and the health impact of more indoor, passive pastimes, especially for children.
Using aerial photographs of developments around the country, he analysed the difference in backyards between older and newer subdivisions. He found that before the 1990s, suburban homes typically took up less than one-third of their lot. Newer houses, however, were much larger – covering up to two-thirds of the land.
In Victoria, the planning framework contains standards for private outdoor space in all kinds of dwellings. For detached homes and ground floor apartments, the minimum area is 40 square metres, depending on the block size. According to Prof Hall, until the last two decades, our suburban backyards were between four and ten times larger than that.
Like Mr Whitson, Prof Hall attributes “the disappearance of the backyard” to wider social changes. “Substantial sections of the population now work extended hours and have long commute times,” he writes. “Functionally, the house is seen as a place to wash and sleep… more as a financial investment than as a place to be enjoyed.”
To halt the shift to smaller backyards, he argues that planning codes should specify rear setbacks and maximum plot coverage of just over one-third.
Craig Czarny, from planning and design consultancy Hansen Partnership, agrees that the shifting balance between indoor and outdoor space has major repercussions for the way we live.
“It could mean that families spend more time inside, with children playing on their PlayStations and not spending as much time amongst nature. That has various implications for health and wellbeing,” he says.
“But you could also argue that the less space there is for private gardens, the more people will gravitate towards public spaces. I live in the inner city and I don’t have a large garden, so my children and I spend our time at the park.”
He draws on the Dutch concept of woonerf – a kind of street where pedestrians and cyclists have priority over cars. “It’s the idea that our streets are communal spaces. Yes, we share them with cars, but they are also parklands, pathways and play spaces,” he says. “As a denser city, we need to be more aware of living our lives more communally.”
Mr Czarny says the notion of the quarter acre block, so often described as intrinsic to Australian identity, actually only goes back two generations. Enabled by cheap oil and the rise of the motorcar, it too will change.
“Whilst many people will lament the loss of the private garden, the implication is that we should begin to use public space more effectively,” he says.
Recently, the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council completed the first ever survey of Melbourne’s publicly owned land. Its report revealed that the city’s public open space varies widely between municipalities: Glen Eira and Stonnington have the smallest proportion, while Nillumbik and Cardinia boast the most.
The report found that while our parks, squares and fields make a vital contribution to the city’s liveability, the amount of open space per capita will decrease over time as population grows. This will happen everywhere, but most significantly in established suburbs.
Mr Czarny says we can face the problem in two ways: by improving the quality of the outdoor areas we have, and also, by transforming utilitarian spaces, such as rooftops, decks and walkways.
“For example, we’re seeing gardens and tennis courts established on the roofs of commercial buildings, in areas formerly inhabited by air conditioning plants,” he says.
Children playing on the roof
IN the rooftop garden at The Harbour Family and Children’s Centre, at Docklands, a toddler in a yellow t-shirt is waist deep in a clump of greenery, tugging at the fronds.
The centre’s manager, Michelle Gujer, from Gowrie Victoria, approaches the boy. “Are you looking for Hoppy?” she asks. He nods, clearly chuffed to be in the thick of the garden, if somewhat perplexed as to the rabbit’s whereabouts.
“Young children learn through sensory play,” Ms Gujer explains. “So he’s really showing you exactly what this place is all about.
“The natural environment draws out their curiosity. It’s extremely important for children to be able to explore without the restriction of a confined space, especially for families who live in the inner city.”
At ground level, this part of Docklands is a dusty construction site, populated by cranes and beeping trucks. But on the roof, the air is rumbling with children’s chatter instead. Little people are marching to and fro, making mud pies, investigating the rocks along the dry creek bed and sitting beneath improbably large trees.
He says that although it can be complex to establish parks on roofs, he expects them to become more prominent as the city densifies.
“We need to have these kind of facilities close by, so we don’t lose touch with nature,” he says. “An important part of this project is to help children to understand natural processes and systems. We wanted to allow for as many play experiences as possible, with all kinds of materials and vegetation.”