Gardens & Suburbia

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.

Rethinking mission

At CSBC, we’re rethinking mission. Inspired by GIA’s ‘moved’ campaign, we’re spending five weeks wrestling with what it means to be a missionary community. It’s tall order in a church like ours. We’re a diverse bunch, some of us understandably jaded by approaches to Christian mission we can no longer embrace. Still, we hear the bidding of Jesus to be salt and light in the world and to ‘make disciples of all nations’ and we know mission sits at heart of our identity and calling. So rethinking is a must.

Thankfully, for every cringe-worthy story of mission, there are multiple others that inspire. One I read a few years back comes from the ministry of a Baptist church in a poverty stricken neighbourhood on Chicago’s southside, a community historically beset by struggle and social dysfunction. The pastor James Meeks tells the story of the church’s early life and the role it played in the transformation of its neighbourhood.

Among other things, every summer the congregation took to the streets to pray on every street corner; they provided educational support and job placement services for local gang members wanting a new start; they actively lobbied to see the number of neighbourhood liquor stores reduced; they provided support services to local prostitutes, offering alternative means of income to those who wanted change.  Most notably they targeted the specific block where violence, shootings and prostitution were rife–church members systematically cleaned up the block, painting every front porch, putting in new sod and replanting gardens, and installing lights in front of every home.

Today, nearly 30 years later, Meeks’ church is one of those burgeoning mega churches that has, to a significant degree, lost its local identity. Still, all credit to Meeks and his congregation for an approach to mission that sees salvation as more than preparing souls for heaven.

Two quotes from Meeks worth repeating, one on the nature of the church and the other on the nature of faith.

” … you can’t build a healthy church if it isn’t working to improve an unhealthy community. Many people have built ‘healthy churches’ while the community around them is destitute. How then am I my brother’s keeper? No, in that case, I’m just my own keeper. How can a church see a community week after week and be oblivious to what’s happening in that community? That’s not a healthy church! Our mission is always to build a healthy people, and that automatically means that you are concerned about what else happens on your Jericho road.”

“Faith is like air. You can’t keep air. I tell people, ‘Hold your breath …’ And everybody inhales and holds it. Then I say, ‘For a week.’ They all exhale immediately because they know they can’t keep air for a week. In order to get more you have to release what you have. Likewise when you tie a string around a finger to keep the blood there. You eventually destroy the finger. You can’t keep blood in a certain spot; it has to circulate. Faith is the same. If people just come to church and ‘keep the faith’ but never put it to work in some way, we’d lose it. Faith dies. For our church to flourish, we have to keep finding ways to put our faith to work! Otherwise church would be like training and training for an Olympic meet, but the Olympics never come. I’m the coach, getting people ready for the swimming event, but if I never schedule a meet, the training is futile.”

Blubberland and Suburbia

Last week I rattled on about Elizabeth Farrelly’s Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness.  As the Sydney Morning Herald’s critic of architecture, Farrelly has been a strident (and much maligned) voice calling to account the quality of Australia’s suburban development. Though sometimes overwrought, Farrelly’s words are worth considering.

In Blubberland, Farrelly describes the mutual human longings for enclosure and openness. ‘Humans crave interiority,’ she writes, but that craving is matched by the longing for connection. Ideally, she says, the home offers a protective arena–a refuge for those within–but in times of bewilderment and uncertainty, we’re tempted to withdraw completely into refuge and remain there. Before we know where we are, ‘the refuge becomes a prison’ and we are no longer connected in any meaningful way to anything beyond.

With this in mind, Farrelly is critical of both contemporary suburban homes and the developments in which they’re built.

On the suburban home: when our homes are fronted by two or three car garages with no clear sign of relationship to the street, there is cause for concern. According to Farrelly, such ‘faceless architecture’ offends on three levels: behaviourally, connectively and symbolically: (i) where neighbourhood interaction is discouraged, behaviour is modified ‘equal to foot binding’; (ii) where flow between neighbourhood homes is prohibited, connectivity is broken; (iii) when the expressive and relational persona of the resident is denied, there is an unspoken contempt for public culture that denies humanity itself.

On suburban development: when our new masterplanned–even gated–communities are built around the logic of avoidance, the neighbourhood itself becomes a place of exclusion. And when architecture becomes a tool to this end, it fails: ‘Fear makes us turn things like beauty, materiality, architecture—gifts, if you will, of transcendence—into weapons of exclusion. Exclusion, of course, is the essence of tribal lore; we are us by virtue of being not-them.’

Whatever we make of Farrelly’s criticisms, she has a point. Where community becomes a code word for the exclusion of difference, we should be wary of its promises. Chances are it can’t deliver.

‘… today’s developers flog not houses but homes; not estates but community. Community, though—real community—is not about rules, exclusion and conformism. It can’t be made overnight, and it can’t be sold. It requires common goals, civility and above all that most precious of commodities, time. In a pluralist democracy this kind of cohesion can be hard to come by, but one principle should be non-negotiable: if community means sacrificing pluralism, openheartedness or democracy—in other words, if it enforces conformism, prohibits dissent, or declines to be inclusive—it’s a fake.’


A while back my daughter and I were sitting together on a tram. She was texting; I was reading.  Looking up for a moment she noticed the title of my book, and gave me one of those looks. ‘Seriously Dad,’ she said with something between mild pity and eye-rolling despair, ‘who would read a book about that?’

She’s right. I do make some odd choices, but when I saw this one on the shelf at Hill of Content—one of the most reassuring bookshops in Melbourne—I smiled and slipped out the credit card. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking was first released in 2000. Old news I guess, but it’s such a good book it keeps reappearing.

Perhaps my interest is tied to how much I walk. Willingly. In fact, it’s one of the pleasures of life. No mountain treks, nature trails or anything quite as virtuous. My nightly routine is to simply roam the streets and laneways of the city where I live. For me, walks like these are endlessly fascinating, space to think and breathe. To risk overstatement, it’s life restoring.

Solnit walks too, but just as significantly, she writes beautifully. What’s more, she is passionate about the place of walking in human development, cultural history and in our individual and communal wellbeing. Solnit ranges broadly in her book, from the evolutionary beginnings of bipedalism to the religious significance of pilgrimage and labyrinths. Following the poets and writers of great literature, we begin in the garden and journey beyond to the country lanes and then the mountains and wilderness. And finally we walk the city streets. Along the way we discover walking as creativity, pilgrimage, restoration, celebration, discovery, protest, endurance and achievement, well-being, consumerism and citizenship.

All in all, I was struck again with just how spiritual the act of walking can be.  And it is that for me, as much as any more explicitly religious practice of my life.  I often think of walking as a spiritual discipline of presence: presence to self and presence to place.

Presence to self: there is something about the pace and rhythm of walking that syncs the way I think and feel … slowly!  Solnit says the same: ‘I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.’   For me, walking is a choice to give the mind and heart the space they need to talk to each other.  In a way, it’s a practice of being present to myself, a means of personal awareness and wellbeing.  But its benefits, thankfully, go way beyond me.  What I am able to give to others deepens as a consequence.

Presence to place: for me, walking is also a routine discipline of being present to my neighbourhood … really noticing it.  It’s certainly true that we see places when we walk in a way that we would never see them otherwise.  As Solnit says, when we walk we give ourselves to places and, in turn, they return the favour: ‘when you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.’