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Published 25 March 2013 14:39, Updated 25 March 2013 15:10
Sacred site: For many Australians, a home without a backyard is a compromise best avoided if possible. Photo: Michel O’Sullivan
A few years ago I found myself sitting on the floor of a very small apartment in a very large (by Australian standards) high-rise on the north shore of Sydney. A group of 20-something males – well-educated, professional and highly ambitious – were gathered around discussing who among their peers was about to get married, go on holidays or, even more importantly, buy their first bit of real estate.
The host had bought the apartment we were sitting in with his fiancée. Apartment living suited them at the time but he could see himself moving into a traditional home as soon as they started planning for their first child. “Without a backyard, your kids will become fat retards,” he said. His mates agreed.
It was crass way of expressing a deep-rooted belief that remains at the heart of our national aversion to medium-density housing – that apartment living means a reduced lifestyle. Even a tiny courtyard is preferable to nothing.
The backyard, however small, remains stubbornly fixed to our concept of the great Australian lifestyle. In a report we did on Australian identity a few years ago, the “end of the backyard” was a topic of conversation across groups as they pondered the end of Australia’s status as “the lucky country”. While participants were getting their heads around the medium-density concept, it was a reluctant compromise, an option embraced only because they considered it the only affordable route to home ownership.
There were still plenty of negative comments about apartment living. “I could never live in a place where you walk down a hallway and there are 20 or 30 people you share that floor with; like a hotel. I like my space and I like my backyard.” “We still have yards. In most countries people don’t have a yard. The houses are all stacked on top of each other and the yard is the park down the street. Yuck.”
Hence the hubbub over the NSW government’s plan for eight “urban activation precincts” across Sydney – North Ryde, Macquarie Park, Epping, Wentworth Point, Homebush, Mascot, Anzac Parade South, and Randwick. Some of these areas are close to universities struggling to provide housing for their students and have been earmarked for high-rise apartment blocks up to 30 storeys tall. “Yuck”, some (existing residents) might say. “Yeah”, might be the retort from those desperate to find affordable housing options in those areas
The desire for home-ownership will slowly but surely trump the desire for a “traditional home”. Young Australians are already proving to be somewhat flexible and pragmatic about what they can afford and already see the benefits of apartment living as low maintenance and potentially closer to infrastructure.
And yet the onus remains on governments to create infrastructure around these developments, particularly communal and green spaces. It’s also up to property developers to come up with innovative and enticing apartment living options that combat irrational fears about apartment living.