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Who shrank Australians' backyards?

In a piece in The Australian[1] Dec 24, 2015, entitled "Honey, we shrank the backyard," population growth promoter for the property investment sector, Bernard Salt, observes that the block size of ordinary Australian houses has shrunk due to lifestyle changes such as after school organised sport and other after school activities and women working. The backyard, Salt acknowledges, was a “wondrous place” where children used to play in a relatively unstructured space, unobserved by parents, during an unsophisticated era devoid of today's patios and outdoor eating. The conclusion is that, after all, shrinking backyards come with bigger cities, and and a “leaner, cleaner more efficient way of living”.

Why has Bernard Salt written this article?

One must bear in mind that it is the 1950s brick veneer villa that Bernard Salt targets. It appears to be his job to do this and to "evict" the ordinary Australians who live in these houses. He does not target houses such as the luxurious older style mansion where he lives in the comfortable suburb of Camberwell.

I heard him in person, as an invited speaker at a public meeting in Hawthorn about 4 years ago, derisively referring to widows in these houses "rattling around" and that they should move out, or words to this effect. This latest piece specifically refers to the back yards of brick veneer houses.

A.V. Jennings brick veneers with backyards

Many of the Post WW2 brick veneer houses in Melbourne were built by A.V.Jennings when there was an acute housing shortage. According to Jennings, one of the key design features of them was that children could be observed through the kitchen window playing in the backyard. I know this because a friend of mine was related to Jennings by marriage and she reports this is what he used to say about his creations. (This contrasts with Salt's memory or description of children being unobserved.)

The apparent purpose of the middle paragraphs of Salt's article are to paint an unattractive, unsophisticated rather bogan picture of what is being snatched from us, so that we won't want to try to hang on or to grieve too much. In this, Salt appears to draw heavily on Barry Humphries' work so - easy money for him.

Why do families now need two incomes and still can't afford housing?

Regarding Salt's pronouncement that "Mum's at work" and kids are in after-school activities, I would have thought the first would be the cause of the second. They are not independent of each other. Why is Mum at work? Or should I ask, "Why are both parents working and paying others to look after their children after school?" (After school care is not a free service.) Did people suddenly realise what great fun it was to be at work, so much fun that they would deny themselves the ONLY, chance that they would ever get in their lives to spend time with their offspring in the brief period called childhood? I somehow doubt it.

I would suggest that the design of low maintenance outdoor living areas probably reflects time poverty in households where both parents go to work. The trend to smaller blocks for people raising children is not a reflection of lifestyle choice but of economic imperative as housing prices and rents have risen. Both parents working instead of one amounts to a loss to the home of about 10 hours per day, 5 days per week. That is time lost to such activities as maintaining a garden.

Faux evolutionary approach to normalising land confiscation

Salt makes the loss of the backyard sound like an evolutionary process as we find more enticing pursuits outside the home but he doesn't say what those pursuits are. In rubbishing the old back yard, he singles out the incinerator. The incinerator has recently acquired very unattractive connotations both aesthetically and in terms of air pollution and carbon emissions. People are now very sensitive to these issues and Salt's reference to incinerators provides a great example of a way to turn everyone off the notion of ordinary Australians having a bit of land for themselves. I don't think incinerators then were universal, anyway and now we have paper and cardboard recycling. But is this a fair exchange for losing "the back yard" ? Should we be thus punished for past incinerator follies?

Society's gain is expressed as a "leaner, cleaner more efficient way of living." This is, however, unconvincing, as there is nothing in this description that alludes to quality of life or to any actual purpose for our lives, apart from "work".

Who might this article convince? People who have very limited time for reading, the actual victims who are fast losing space and amenity as the population soars and for whom a no regrets article like this might be somewhat comforting.

NOTES

[1] Note that Murdoch's Australian is one face of Murdoch's property dot com, www.realestate.com.au, so it is not surprising that Mr Salt writes for the Australian and for the Herald Sun.

Comments

As a late '49er I was born into a large family and raised in Kew with a small backyard and no room to have a kick of the footy. Our place backed onto the local council yard which became "ours" for footy, cricket or whatever. We later moved into a brick veneer at Lower Templestowe (don't know if A. V. Jennings was the builder) on a corner block with a large back yard, no incinerator.

Backyards are wondrous places whether big, small or otherwise. As a kid I remember different things about both of them, they were both mystical and banal, they kept your secrets (I had a strong imagination, still have) and you could play for hours with or without your siblings and/or friends. Then as we grow up we discover that the backyard isn't big enough and we annex the community. There are those who are still growing up and want to annex anything and everything, but that's another story. Memories of growing up in the backyard are treasures I'll take to the grave, the good and the bad alike some were defining moments in my life, some painful others total rapture.

"Leaner, cleaner more efficient way of living"?? I think Bernard should relax his grip as nothing could be further from the truth. Leaner - obesity is increasing rapidly, our bloated society; cleaner - definitely not, never has the world been more polluted; more efficient way of living - only if we make the effort but most of us don't and there's too many of us to boot. As the article states Salt is writing for Murdoch (he could also be writing for Fairfax) both companies are pro-growth, pro-big population, products of capitalistic absolutism, its what he gets paid to do although his scruples are in the sewer.

Regarding Salt's pronouncement that "Mum's at work" and kids are in after-school activities, I would have thought the first would be the cause of the second. It's also a cyclic argument, that there are no back yards because kids don't have time to play in them, and parents are enslaved to paying off mortgages and costs of living. The demand for housing, and the crushing of our suburbs with high density housing, is manipulated by high population growth. Our lifestyles are being manipulated too, and robbing kids of the lifestyles of past generations.

It's being twisted by Salt as if it's our own choice, and more "efficient" living! Back yards provide valuable play space for kids, and room to move. It's a place for pets, veggie patches, fruit trees, family gatherings, and part of our Australian culture.

The only beneficiaries of the loss of amenities and back yards are the capitalistic owners/investors in property, and real estate industry. The big con is that we are better off, and more prosperous? Our living standards are being made more streamlined, and efficient, by having to do nothing but work, eat and survive. We are seen as no more than rats in a maze, trained to obey orders and forced to fit into a model imposed on us, and not unlike pigs in factory farm, with designer lives from birthing crates to the abattoir- streamlined to the fatal END.