With the end of World War II came the ‘Great Australian Dream’ - the idea that any hard-working ‘strayan could buy a house on a quarter acre block in the middle of suburbia, burn the living fuck out of some meat on their barbecue, have a Hills Hoist for their rat-tailed kids to hang off and generally revel in the illusion that they’re the duck’s nuts.
Sure, it’s a great dream for some, but over time it has leapt from a simple dream to a deep-seeded entitlement. How we define Australian identity and culture seems entwined with an incontrovertible appetite for endless suburban sprawl. And ironically, this is actually damaging Australia.
Before you tell me I’m dreamin’, let me explain.
With low housing density and poor planning, for most of the 20th century the only feasible method of getting around was by car - and in most outer suburbs, it still is. The Doncaster railway line, for example, has been proposed in various forms since 1890, decades before the suburb was absorbed by urban sprawl. With the announcement of the North East Link, the rail line still seems an unlikely prospect. The only choice to reach the CBD from the area is to drive, or ride a horrifically slow bus.
Other issues tend to be less obvious.
Urban sprawl eats up native bushland and farming areas – for example, up to 50% of Victoria’s fruit and vegetables are grown within 100km of the Melbourne CBD, mostly in the South-East, Peninsula and Werribee areas where the soil is most fertile. Even focussing on issues that we face today, the most basic of services in the outer suburban fringe can be distant or non-existent — no-one really knows how terrifyingly far away their local hospital is until they really need it.
‘The Great Australian Dream’ causes a raft of other problems, too. The desire for The Dream is why Australia suffers from a housing crisis. It’s why $220 per week for a room in a share house in Zone 1 is a pretty good deal. It’s probably why you still live with your parents. And it’s one of the core reasons Melbourne ranks as one of the most expensive cities in the world. More broadly, “unsustainable population” is one of the major arguments against refugee intake. ‘The Great Australian Dream’ is a troubling curse on the national rationale.
A re-evaluation is needed. Is a large backyard really necessary in an era where the majority of the population spends their lives attached to a screen, and most fitness regimes are performed indoors on treadmills and in yoga classes? If time is now such a precious commodity, is it really best to be spending up to three hours a day commuting?
Every single person on this planet is born into some sort of culture. Often, this culture is built on such fundamental ideals that they are obscured by the social structures that are built upon it. But it is time to grow up, Australia. Vertically up, in medium and high-density housing, preferably. Taking our lessons from the indigenous nations and original owners of this land, it is time to remember to take only what we need, not what we want.
Whilst urban renewal is an incredibly difficult task, with Melbourne expected to grow to 9 million people by 2050, change is just as inevitable as it is necessary. Let’s rethink the Australian suburban culture now. After all, we’re just going to endlessly bitch about mowing that lawn anyway.
Image by Michael Coghlan, used with permission.