Our garden suburbs are part of what made – and continues to make – Adelaide a great place to live. Today, that way of life which has been ours for generations is under threat.
Public opinion surveys show that most Australian families, including single people, prefer living in a detached house with garden rather than an attached flat. And we’re not talking about quarter-acre blocks here, but mostly modest-sized allotments.
Millions of migrants have come to Australia on the promise of a better quality of life. A suburban house and garden for raising a family are a crucial part of this promise. The late historian Hugh Stretton wrote about the freedoms and benefits which Australia’s low-density housing provides. It is ideal for raising families, growing fruit and flowers, barbecues and entertaining, pursuing hobbies and men’s sheds; privacy, silence and solitude – as much as you want.
This housing was historically provided on an egalitarian basis. Rich and poor lived mostly in detached houses with front and backyards.
Today there is much concern within and outside government about the spread of our cities. Urban sprawl is the result of substantial population growth, fewer residents in each dwelling and the preference of most people for a detached house on its own block of land. This has pushed our leaders toward imposing a strategy of densification on our inner suburbs.
For some 30 years now, planners and politicians have imposed a policy of urban consolidation on Australian cities in an effort to combat the rate of urban sprawl. Residents opposed to the demolition of their neighbourhoods have grappled with developers and planning bureaucrats intent on dumbing down their suburbs through infill housing which often sits poorly with existing residential character and amenity.
Adelaide residents have had residential sub-divisions foisted on them – the hammerhead and battle-axe land divisions where new units are crammed into existing back-gardens. Many beautiful houses and gardens have been bulldozed in the process, as has perfectly sound housing.
Now residents have been told that they are to have 3-12-storey flats shoe-horned around AAMI Stadium, at Bowden, in St Clair Reserve, around the Linear Park and the Parklands, about shopping centres and along the coast, and around busy polluted major arterial roads. While there may be space in existing suburbs for more infill development, this should not come at the cost of nearby residents’ quality of life. The welfare of residents in new infill dwellings should also be considered.
Planner Kevin O’Leary has pointed to research showing that people living on major arterial roads suffer higher rates of ill-health due to air pollution. One wonders why the health of future generations of apartment-dwellers on main roads is of so little concern to state planning bureaucrats and politicians.
The current mantra that residential density must be pushed up as one approaches the city centre serves the political and economic interests of the city centre. But Adelaide saw large suburban shopping centres built in the 1970s and, consequently, fewer people now shop in the city. We should encourage this decentralisation within Adelaide so that people live more closely to where they shop and work.
Only 15 per cent of South Australian employees work in the city centre. Many suburban-dwellers work in other suburbs. There are no sound planning reasons for building dense, 12-storey tower blocks in the inner suburbs, which are some of our most beautiful and historic areas. These towers will quickly become eyesores on the landscape. We are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the British post-war housing redevelopment schemes – packing poorer people into multi-storey flats brings a range of social problems.
The issue of a sustainable population needs to be put on the political agenda, as non-stop population growth is not a viable long-term option. Thanks mainly to immigration, Australia has the highest rate of population growth in the Western world (close to an extra 400,000 people a year). Migrants are mostly hard-working and lovely people and have contributed much to our society, but lowering our high rate of immigration to more sustainable levels is essential to protect our welfare state and the quality of life of our citizens.
Part of the demand for new housing could be catered for by a policy of decentralisation within and outside our cities. Directing services and facilities to regional towns and encouraging job creation in them could help reduce city pressures. The Barnett Government in Western Australia is pursuing a decentralisation strategy to reduce high population growth pressures on Perth. The Federal Government has made vague promises about encouraging decentralisation, and moves are also being made in other parts of Australia. Why can’t SA follow suit?
Our low-density garden suburbs are historical and environmental treasures. They have provided a quality of life rarely matched in other parts of the world. They offer us great opportunities for reducing resource consumption and improving sustainability. Food-growing, water and energy harvesting, waste recycling and biodiversity enhancement are just some of the ways our suburbs provide one pathway to a greener future.
Evonne Moore is vice-president of Save Our Suburbs and spokeswoman for St Peters Residents Association.
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