I mentioned a few weeks ago that our kids recently demolished our Hills Hoist. Now, where that piece of iconic Australian yard furniture once stood, there’s just a big patch of brown dirt. Whenever I look at it I feel tempted to host a bonfire. Or to quote from The Castle, “I dug another hole. It’s filling up with water.” Both of these images fill me with a uniquely Australian nostalgia for an era that is fading away. I wonder if a backyard will be as much a feature of Australian life for the next generation of children as it was for us.
Apartments can’t be all bad. People in cities all over the world live in them, right? But they need to be accompanied by communal outdoor spaces. I imagine that not having your own garden could be good for fostering community if it forces people out of their own secluded yards into more common spaces, such as parks, gardens, bushland and beaches. Or even just out onto the street for a breath of fresh air. Even so, our cities are changing and I don’t think there has been enough public discussion on whether this is how Australians want to live. In my suburb there is a busy six-lane road that leads into the city. All along this road new mid-rise developments are popping up. In the majority of these developments, there is no land allocated for green space. This has to be fundamentally changing our lifestyle and the way our children will be brought up.
Dick Smith has been vocal on this issue. Last year he was quoted in the Manly Daily as saying, “At the moment in Terrey Hills we have free-range kids that live in houses with backyards. Now what they are going to force on us is battery kids living in high-rises.” According to Tony Hall, author of The Life and Death of the Australian Backyard, the Australian backyard is disappearing faster in the outer suburbs where huge homes take up a larger proportion of their land blocks. In inner suburbs, new prestige developments are often incorporating green spaces or waterfront areas into their designs.
But regardless of how much green space is allocated in a development, living in apartments must still limit the access a kid has to the outdoors. Mum still has to get stuff done, so the family can’t spend their entire day roaming the streets or picnicking in communal gardens. And when Mum is busy washing up or cooking or folding laundry, an enclosed, safe yard, in view of the house allows children to play outside or to move between inside and outside spaces while the mundane stuff of life goes on. Outdoor activities aren’t restricted to special supervised trips or limited by how much free-time the parent has available.
I love my backyard. It’s not landscaped, manicured or even very well-maintained but I am hopelessly attached to it. I remember planting every plant in it. I remember all the fun times we’ve had – the barbeques, bonfires and outdoor movie nights. All of my daughter’s five birthdays have been celebrated in that backyard. If we ever get kicked out of our house (we’re only renting) I am going to grieve losing my backyard. We probably should have bought an apartment or town house by now but I can’t imagine my kids growing up without a backyard. I love that when the cousins are over and they’re all getting ratty I can just send them outside and they soon settle down.
In the past few years, I’ve made a real effort to make the backyard a fun and interesting place. Yes there’s all the usual paraphenalia like a swingset, sandpit, fort and trampoline (all picked up second hand!) but I’ve also tried to involve the kids in growing and picking vegetables, tending to plants and enjoying the wildlife like the tawny frogmouth who often sits in the tree outside our kitchen window. I love the way that it’s constantly growing and changing to reflect the changing state of our family. And in a week of rain, a backyard allows you to just pop outside if the sun briefly pokes it’s head out from behind a cloud. Lately with the sunny Sydney days, I’ve enjoyed just peacefully pottering around in the garden while my baby gurgles in the baby swing. For adults, a backyard is a refuge from the madness and pace of our busy lives, a place to be still. For children it’s a safe, contained space where they can climb, play, have adventures and enjoy a little bit of freedom without an adult being always on their heels. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I hope that my grandchildren and great grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same indoor/outdoor Aussie lifestyle we had as kids.
Did you grow up with a backyard? How much did it meant to you? Do your kids have a backyard? Have you ever lived in a city where apartments are the norm? How is the lifestyle different? What are some of the positives of apartment living?