I don’t have a backyard. Nor do I want one. Not for me the blokey back shed and the weekly round with the lawn mower. No, my sixth floor city balcony suits me just fine. But from the reaction of friends and acquaintances, I’m routinely reminded that my housing choice, while fascinating to some, is viewed with narrow-eyed suspicion by others. Inner-city vertical neighbourhoods like mine may well have sprouted left, right and centre, but they’re still marginal. As cultural commentator Bernard Salt says, the backyard barbecue is still ‘the main game’ when it comes to understanding mainstream Australia.
It’s true. Suburbia’s mythological ‘quarter acre block’ continues to host some of our deepest and most ingrained social longings. Though recent versions may well have shrunk, the suburban backyard is still gathered up in our cultural expectations of the good and decent life.
A great read on all of this is Peter Timm’s Australia’s Quarter Acre: The Story of the Ordinary Suburban Garden. It’s been out for a few years now, but it remains a fascinating defense of the suburban backyard at a time when suburbia and its sprawl is under considerable attack. Timms wants to say that while there is much to be critiqued about contemporary suburban forms, there is much about the suburban garden that is worth maintaining.
Timms begins by tracing the origins of our infatuation with the suburban block and the numerous ways we’ve invested meaning in it. Through both backyard and front, Timms traces the subsequent changes to the Australian way of life and the ways we function privately and communally. He argues that despite the changes, our suburban gardens are still embedded with values important to what’s good about our way of life. Along the way he calls into question ‘the homogenising, rationalist approach to urban consolidation’ that, he says, ‘fails to take into account the subtleties and varieties of human experience’ embodied in the backyard.
It’s evident Timms does not have much respect for apartment dwellers like me. Nor much hope. He is critical of the move to consolidation and bemoans the local development of ‘the sort of housing estates that blight the outskirts of Seoul and Beijing, where thousands of identical high-rise apartment blocks line up in military formation … and where one’s only contact with the natural world is a half-dead ficus in a plastic tub on the balcony.’
While my ficus is doing quite nicely thank you, I am happy to concede that Timms main argument is not really to do with me or my balcony. In the end, Timms is a great believer in what the suburban garden represents. He grieves the gradual internalizing of suburban life as residents retreat within, primping their gardens only as displays of status or expressions of urban lifestyle.
Timms calls politicians, architects and urban planners to take suburbia more seriously as an environment to be nurtured for the best that it can be rather than simply a ‘plague’ that has to be stopped. Given that it now covers some 70,000 square kilometres Australia wide and shows no sign of abating, ‘perhaps it is time we started to treat suburbia as something more than the vast accumulation of little private Edens spreading like a plague, and to realize [its] environmental and productive potential.’
All in all, this is a fine book. If you have any interest at all in gardens, suburbia, or even a potted ficus, this one’s worth a read.