Aussie backyard bliss no more

Aussie backyard bliss no more

Australian environmental organisation Planet Ark says Australians no longer live the outdoor lifestyle they think they do.

Its recent report "The Inside Story of An Outdoor Nation" shows shrinking backyards, more screen time and long working hours have concerning implications for the nation's health.


But opinion varies as to who or what is responsible for this phenomenon, as Kerri Worthington reports.



The Planet Ark research found a link between time spent outside and the size of people's gardens.


Spokeswoman Rebecca Gilling says the iconic quarter acre block is a thing of the past and the shrinkage has coincided with more time being spent on indoor activities.


"People living in units or apartments spend on average about three and a half hours a week doing recreational activity outside. People with large backyards spend over five hours a week outdoors. And that's not doing boring things like mowing the lawn and hanging out the washing. It's actually getting into the garden, taking the dog for a walk, whatever it is, playing sport."


Rebecca Gilling says Australia hasn't got a culture of using local parks the way city dwellers elsewhere in the world do.


"I think in Europe people have lived in apartments for decades so they use their local parks in a much more frequent and formalised way than we do in this country. Because we think of ourselves as being outdoorsy then that seems to be enough. What we find is for every hour we spend outside we're actually spending over seven hours inside in front of the television or the computer."


Taking a contrary view, Monica Richter of the Australian Conservation Foundation's Sustainable Australia program says there is a trend of smaller backyards but that doesn't mean people don't go outside.


Ms Richter says more parkland and urban spaces like sports fields, community gardens and facilities are opening up and that's bringing people out of their homes and into the community.


"With the trend towards people with families moving back into the inner and middle rim of our cities it's showing that these spaces are being used. There's a higher demand for play facilities for children and sporting facilities. You know, a kid's backyard becomes the publicly available, publicly accessible parks and facilities. The good thing about this trend is that it's creating community, the community produces a lot more walking rather than people moving about just in cars."


It's a different story in the outer suburbs of Australia's cities, where most of the population growth takes place.


There, developers are obliged to provide a certain amount of parkland when building new housing tracts, but those areas remain extremely car-dependent.


It's there, too, that the phenomenon of a big house with a tiny garden is most common.


The Institute of Public Affairs director of deregulation, Alan Moran, says this is because land prices are too high due to government* involvement in the planning system.


Mr Moran says excessive bureaucratic involvement has led to an explosion in the price of houses and forces developers to provide smaller blocks.


"The government actually leans on builders in terms of planning permission to actually ensure the blocks are relatively small, But it also, by not allowing development to take place except where it allows it, where it actually makes a permit available, then the government is reducing the amount of land available and that increases the price and puts a lot of pressure on people to go for smaller blocks."


But the real problem, says author Tony Hall, an Adjunct Professor within the Urban Research Program at Griffith University, is not the size of housing blocks.


"What seems to be happening is the house size increases dramatically and whatever the size of the lot, people expand the house to cover the lot. And Australia now has the largest house sizes in the world. Another big, dramatic change that takes place at exactly the same time in Australian society is the working hours change. Australia goes from a low working hours society to the highest in the world. This is not a matter of being paid more, but you don't take your holidays, you work weekends, you work beyond your contract, this kind of thing. All this happens at exactly the same time in Australia."


Dr Hall says a major cultural change in 1990s Australia was brought on by financial deregulation that encouraged unprecedented levels of indebtedness.


"People take out huge loans to buy huge houses. They're big deep square plan, they have very few windows, very little outlook, large interior spaces without natural light and ventilation. They're just big, they're not nice to live in. If you had a house which was nice L-shaped with nice windows looking out on swimming pools and things then that would be more expensive per square metre. You're being sold these big things, they're not nice to live in, but people often don't notice you can't look out because they're not there in the daytime because they're working all these long hours. The whole thing seems to be one kind of package."


It's not all gloom from the point of view of one social researcher.


Monica Richter of the Australian Conservation Foundation says the public health consequences of the indoor lifestyle have become so apparent that authorities are taking action.


"Yes, we have a more sedentary life. Yes, as we rely more on our cars we don't do as much exercise, we don't walk to public transport facilities, so we are seeing increases in obesity, particularly childhood obesity because we get less exercise, because we're eating more. Those are societal trends, bit on the other hand, we're also seeing that the facilities are starting to be made available for children and families to get out -- bicycle lanes, we're seeing parklands being opened up for play facilities, for dog runs. There are a number of trends occurring and I do think we're seeing that councils and governments and developers are investing in making sure that those facilities are available."

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