Australia’s vanishing back yards a health risk

Cross-posted from The Conversation:

The traditional Australian suburban backyard is being lost to higher-density housing and massive project homes on small lots.

City planning is focused on making cities more compact, which in some ways is desirable, and the large backyard is seen as unsustainable and undesirable because of the space it consumes. But its loss could well be increasing the risks of physical and mental health problems among city residents.

Further reading: Planners know too little about the ‘depressogenic’ city

Private and secure backyards are places where people can retreat from the relentless pressures and intensity of city life. This sort of open space may provide the essential nurturing environment city dwellers need to cope mentally and physically with the stresses of their lives.

And cities are stressful places in which to live and have always been so. In the second century AD, Roman poet Juvenal wrote that the noise and lack of sleep in Rome was a major problem. Only wealthy Roman citizens could deal with the stress by building homes surrounded by peaceful gardens outside the city centre.

How is our health affected?

Today, evidence shows us that city dwellers, while benefiting from the advantages of city living, also suffer.

For instance, they are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, and their risk of psychosis increases dramatically. City dwellers have been shown to have a 39% greater risk of mood disorders and a 21% added risk of anxiety disorders compared to rural dwellers.

Life stresses clearly play a major role in causing poor mental health among city dwellers, but the impact of the environment cannot be ignored. A recent review of 50 studies shows that an environment devoid of nature may have undesirable impacts on health or quality of life. Part of the problem lies in the visual absence of plants and landscape.

Research also finds that play-oriented green spaces benefit children’s mental development.

It’s reasonable, then, to suggest that a lack of landscaped settings, such as backyards, could reduce emotional wellbeing, particularly among people less able to cope with mental stresses.

A place of vanishing backyards

Perth, where project homes bigger than 300 square metres are common, provides an interesting case study.

When devising Perth planning policies in the 1950s, Gordon Stephenson argued that the large backyards associated with Australian homes reduced the need for large public recreation areas. The backyard was seen as necessary for healthy city living.

By the 1970s, land subdivisions in Perth usually produced a residential lot around 600m2 with a frontage of 20 metres. Because project homes were so much smaller then, with a minimum 6m rear setback, a Perth family usually had a backyard of 120m2 at the very least. These areas provided space for large trees, cubby houses, climbing frames, swings, gardens and area to throw a ball.

Today, Perth planning regulations require private open space smaller than a double garage per family household. Houses like those of Alkimos and Ellenbrook, on Perth’s fringes, spread almost from boundary to boundary.

The houses comply with Perth planning requirements that allow areas under eaves, patios, verandahs and paved parking areas to be included in open space calculations.

Backyards have all but vanished from housing in Ellenbrook (above) and Alkimos (below).

Starved of space, and hotter

The result is little useful recreational outdoor space. Far from being child-friendly, these family homes without backyards are restricting our children from enjoying a normal active life in the safety of their homes.

Children have to use indoor spaces for recreation. This usually take the form of sedentary entertainment sources such as television and electronic games, adding to a great public health problem confronting our children. Obesity is associated with a lack of exercise as well as eating fast food.

Reducing open green space is also increasing urban temperatures, with major physical health consequences. All Australian capitals will increase significantly in average temperature by 2050. Perth will become Australia’s hottest capital with estimated heat-related deaths increasing from 294 a year to 1,419, many more than the city’s annual road toll.

It has been known for many years that the best way to combat urban heat is by providing well-landscaped open spaces with large trees. This is the very type of space that many large backyards provided.

We can confirm this cooling effect using thermal imaging. This thermal image of suburban Perth, taken on a 38-degree day, shows that landscaped backyards in older suburbs (blue) are far cooler than more intense housing developments with little private open space (orange to red).

A thermal image shows older suburban areas with large landscaped backyards are much cooler (blue) than the hotter (orange-red) higher-density areas of Perth. Dr Paul Barber ArborCarbon

Further reading: Why poorer suburbs are more at risk in warming cities

Leadership is needed

What can and should be done?

The principle is simple: in the suburbs we need to build smaller two-storey project homes with large backyards open to the sky, just as they have learnt to do in the suburbs of European cities. The role of these backyards can change as family lifecycle needs change.

Achieving this, however, will be difficult. Australians show little self-control of their consumption even when warned of the consequences.

A change is needed, driven by courageous, sensible and forward-thinking politicians who can see beyond the compact city pushed by planning bureaucrats.

Article by Linley Lutton, Adjunct Senior Teaching Fellow in Urban Planning and Design, University of Western Australia


  1. If I had a dollar for every time lately I’ve seen a father and son kicking a footy on the median strip/road out the front of a brand new house. That is a health risk.

  2. Perhaps there is a link between shrinking backyards, disappearing school ovals and soaring rates of autism after all.

    In 1980, autism rates were one kid per 2000 kids, today it is 1 per 68 and in backyard-less South Korea, it is 1 per 38!

  3. Hence why my wife and I moved out of Sydney and bought a place on 2000 sqm, being able to feel grass under our feet, see trees and grow vegetables in our own backyard without feeling imprisoned has been great for our sanity.

    • Absolutely. I rent a really old shitter house from a mate. It is literally falling apart. Every winter the roof leaks and I have to get up and replace broken tiles from the huge ghost gums that overshadow half the house dropping branches. But you know what? I love the spot. It’s about a quarter acre, with said ghost gums, a mulberry tree, a couple of white ceder and a jacaranda in the front. Out the back of the fence is a huge green park. My neighbour and myself are the only ones that have houses on the park side. It’s like having it as your backyard as the block slopes down and I can see it from most parts of the block. It is so goddam calming to see green and have the feeling of space. Even though the house is an asbestos riddled dump, i’ve been here ten years and at this stage don’t have plans to leave as it’s just such a nice spot.
      My neighbor is 83 and has the same kind of dumpy house but also the same kind of awesome outlook. We often sit in her yard having a few wines and just look out at the park and trees and tell each other how good of a spot it is. She won’t leave that place until it is absolutely forced on her. And I don’t blame her one bit.
      I have recently given up a job where I was often in dongas for half the year. Over the last six months I have been surprised about how much happier I have been which I put down to a combination of factors, but not being cooped up in a fucking battery hen living situation is probably one of the major factors.

  4. Plus playing xbox is more fun than playing a game of tag with the kids in the neighbourhood. They probably wouldn’t use the backyards much even if they had them.

  5. I’m like wft do kids need a backyard for?
    When they’re young they’re in Daycare until it’s dark
    Once they’re school aged they should be studying or they’ll never get into Select school.
    When they’re high school aged they’ll be fighting to maintain / improve their Halo player ratings.
    Once they’re University aged they’ll be too busy “studying” to ever mow the bloody yard (as well as buying dope because they are too stupid to see the huge pot plan growing in the back corner)
    So seriously wtf do kids need that back yard for..says a dad who regularly spends 3 hours each week(summer) mowing the bloody thing (it’s about 1/2 acre block)

    • Mate. I hope you have a ride-on. Half acre is a bit to manage. Fuck the kids (not literally of course…), I bet if you bought a battery hen block where you can hear your neighbour fart you would soon miss vegging out on the mower with a beer in your hand.

  6. Why have unproductive areas in your home? 😉
    The problem is that kids do not play outdoor as before. 40 years ago, if you wanted fun you had to take a bicycle and drive off to play with other kids. Outdoor.
    Now it’s telly and phone.
    Play parks around me are deserted. I often see the same few kids.

    • reusachtigeMEMBER

      You can blame helmet laws for making kids fat! Back then you didn’t have to wear a helmet so you just jumped on your bike and rode off to your mates place. We took that away from kids! And they can’t even have a proper shower anymore with all those low flow shower heads that have been imposed on them. Growing communism!

      • Well these days they can jump in the elevator and get out at the communal gym, start working on their abs. Much more efficient form of exercise.

      • Don’t forget the dunnies! The little ones have to watch what they eat otherwise the potato laden communist diet will block the low flow sewers!

  7. reusachtigeMEMBER

    Back yards are terrible places for kids. Dirty, smelly germ infested cesspits full of spiders and parasites just waiting to take a child’s life. Not to mention all the poisonous plants. Children are much better off in daycares, or if at home, on an enclosed balcony. Families need to invest more in apartments as only apartment living is safe for children!

  8. large parks are an answer, when I was a kid we’d hang out at pedofile park every arvo kicking the footy, flirting with girls and smoking barkies, I don’t think it did any of us any ha ha har harm

  9. boomengineeringMEMBER

    Dick Smith always said he was a free range kid. As opposed to battery hen types.

  10. and then these city dwellers complain about having to pay $1 for a lemon at the supermarket. My two trees currently have over a hundred lemons on them – I can’t give them away because all my neighbours have lemon trees as well.

  11. Sure those exurbs look like sh*t but the point is you don’t need a quarter acre block. Medium density down well as per 1890 standards is all we need.

    I live in Paddington in Sydney in a typical terrace house. We have a very small, but very well landscaped, backyard. All fake grass, even have a putting green that the kids and I use!

    However, the main thing with compact suburbs like this is that we walk everywhere, which is great for exercise and we have Trumper Oval fairly close by where we run around, kick footy etc. Despite not having a backyard my kids are pretty fit and healthy, made the zone finals for swimming and eldest daughter is off to the zones for the athletics carnival.

    • SchillersMEMBER

      If you don’t mind me asking Phil, how big is your block, how big is your house and what would it cost to buy in today’s market?

    • Eastern suburbs are great for lots of well preserved parks for kids to play, as are the harbourside parts of inner west. Head west and south west and parks are much more sparse. If you look at the stops on the South West metro where they have planned huge high rise development and density increase – e.g. Campsie, Belmore, Bankstown, and the parts of Marrickville near the station there is almost no public green space. Raising kids in those developments would be a form of child abuse.

  12. Just back from seeing family who live ~20 miles up the Hudson from NYC. Most houses on 0.5-2 acres, nice big places with beautiful gardens, many comfortably less than 1mil US. Friends a bit further away in expensive part of CT, big places in the woods, same sort of money.

    Australia, where did it go wrong??

      • I did live in that part of the world for a few years, it is beautiful. I miss those big houses and all that greenery. A few downsides also however…

        But for a template of what Aus could be, people need to be looking to places like that and not the uber density of Asian cities

  13. Achieving this, however, will be difficult. Australians show little self-control of their consumption even when warned of the consequences.

    A change is needed, driven by courageous, sensible and forward-thinking politicians who can see beyond the compact city pushed by planning bureaucrats.

    Ain’t that the truth, when I look at another fucking McMansion I just want to cry… Of course a capital gains tax exemption is part of the problem for a primary place of residence, you’re encouraged to build bigger than you need and expand the castle because then it’s worth more and it’s value will increase more over time (in theory). So rather than encourage and reward people for being frugal with space and only buy homes they need in terms of size and space we encourage them to build the biggest greatest building on a small block.

    May I present this comparison.
    1. Before.
    2. After.

    Or Even better.

    1. After
    2. Before

    I often walk the dog in these areas and feel gobsmacked by how hideous these McMansions are and the perfectly suitable homes that were there before being torn apart to build these eye sores..

      • Mining BoganMEMBER

        Australia. The land that good taste forgot. Thanks for that.

        I’m a loud person. I also like to talk to the dogs when out walking on Jack’s weight loss journey, discussing everything we see. I’m guessing there’s more than a few very insulted mcmansion owners in the area.

      • That is my definition of hell, living in 1 of those god forsaken houses… This is why I like the early stuff like 1930/40’s houses. I hate modern Australian architecture, it’s horrendous.

      • @Stagmal
        Thanks for the link.
        Everything I think about houses as I drive around. It makes my head & eyes hurt how ugly house have become, and my hear weep for the modest & beautiful homes that have been bulldozed across the country to make way for this shite.

      • @Gavin architecture? These days, unless you’re rich, its walls an a roof. Aint got the money for fancy architecture! Pine wood frame slapped on with gyprock and some sheets of tin on top = done.

    • The compounding folly of over-inflated land –

      1) Reduce the space available for everybody, reducing everybodys quality of life
      2) Peversely incentivise people to squeeze every sq cm of house onto their small piece of land to justify the stupid price

      Would be understandable were you constrained for land. But for the lowest-density country on the planet, its brainlessness of the first order.


      OC investors can buy BOTH new properties and existing properties. FIRB rules allow the purchase of existing properties if it can be demonstrated they have reached the end of their ‘economic’ life.

      There is no checklist for this and the onus is on the ‘buyer’ so guess what happens? Once the place is smashed down and the evidence trucked away in a day’s work, there’s not much economic value left anyway. What goes up is truly hideous; many call ’em glass ’90’s– as all the joins feature that angle which is devoid of any style. Slab based and bolted/ welded together in a snap, they just scream schlock. Our reputation for allowing and then applauding idiotic legislation is truly deserved.

      • You might find it funny that in the 80s in south bay calif that they tried to limit the destruction of RE that had period qualities about it near the Bch, retaininf some ambiance. Anywho they came up with a law that dictated that street facing facades had to retain their window structure.

        Never forget the house that was being demoed where they built a framework to hold up a few windows in there original position whilst everything else was torn down.

        disheveled… the best bit was when they incorporated the 80s glass block in the facade to give it a lighting feature at night….


        @ Skip
        IS funny. Glocca Morra ‘exists’ in the dusty book of laws.
        What matters here is the view from the ‘other’ side ( the deck of the 48′ Hatteras Cruiser)

    • My wife’s cousins built one of those hideous, flat roofed, square modern looking McMansions and it leaks like a seave when it rains, cost a fortune to heat in winter or keep cool in summer.

      Australia has to be the worst at designing houses, aesthetically and thermally.

      • Agreed, apart from the old queenslanders. Would love to build one here in Perth, but with a bit better thermal efficiency for winter. Love the wide open veranda style and slatted timber.

    • Since you all enjoyed those examples so much, here is 1 more..

      Before – yes it was a humble shack..
      After – I just can’t quite get over this house every time I see it.

      I recall a couple of years ago walking by and seeing 2 people in the street looking at it as it was nearing completion. I said “It’s beautiful isn’t it?” and they sort of giggled politely about it. It’s a good example of how green space is lost to a concrete jungle.

      I’m just not sure how on god’s green earth places like these get approval?


        Thanks Gav!
        That # 9 pilot house is the bomb. Best part is the custom mini gate out front. Keeps the feral pigs off the property?
        Owner must be a church official, member of the legal frat or a banker. They all just froth at those little swing gates and fences.

      • Yep that makes me weep. Too bad for the owners (probably live overseas anyway) but what about the neighbors who have to suck that vision up daily. On second thoughts likely renters if they’re not building so doesn’t matter.

      • Holy jeebus. This is going to sound really fucking racist (and true), but that house looks like the result of an Italian daughter got married to one a Salim Mehajers sons. Whats thats SBS show?

    • Thanks Gavin and others on this thread, was about to vent my spleen but it has been vented for me.

  14. unreal!
    No back yard and no front yard and I bet the garages are so small you can barely fit a car inside, narrow roads no footpaths.
    No backyard pools, and where are the parks, or are nature strips considered open space.
    But i’m sure the houses are really nice inside and have European kitchens and theater rooms.

  15. older suburbs may have had larger backyards per house, but they were still more space and transport efficient anyway. streets adhered to grids, which maximises the usage of space and makes getting from point A to point B much easier. it is now common to have to make roundabout journeys stretched unnecessarily out by the kilometer just to get to the shops, because of the existence of closed-off cul-de-sac and hierarchical street systems. segregated zoned “suburbia” and the hierarchical street network discourages walking and exercise.

  16. The home as a mans castle meets it enviable conclusion…

    Anywho… noone wants to mow lawns anymore nor do a spot of gardening, low maintenance Jamie Durie style landscaping is the go, its all about aesthetics [fast fashion – Bernays] and impressing others in a consumerist atomistic individualistic game of insecurity [induced] social management.

    This is projected via 24/7/365 full immersion advertising and brilliant social herd management that defines whom is a winnars and the losers in the never ending story of class identification.

    disheveled…. the punch line is the cortex injections used to be free…. now you have to pay for it…. snicker….

    • It’s a love hate relationship for me. My rental has a huge lawn and huge trees all around it. They piss me off when they drop branches or gumnuts, or when the cockies come and chew the shit out of the white cedar. The Jacaranda nuts make a nasty noise in the mower too. But the Mulberries are fucking delicious, and the lawn sucks to mow, but with the combination of the trees and lawn, I have one room with an air conditioner that is rarely used. Much better than hearing my neighbours cough on the crack pipe.

  17. What’s the reason that the lots are getting smaller in the first place? It doesn’t just happen, and price can’t be the only factor. This must be government policy encouraging/forcing this. What I don’t understand is why this is seen as such a great idea?

    • SupernovaMEMBER

      I believe it’s Council efficiency issue. Councils can bill higher water and sewerage and Council rates per square meter. Older 1 acre (4000square metres) blocks cost Councils more to maintain so now they can fit 10 houses onto the same block.
      Am lucky to live on one of the older sized one acre blocks in an energy efficient house full of park-like trees which I’ve recently sold and now decided to move to another part of NSW onto even more acreage to do similar…..yes need more space! Some mornings I listen to Sydney’s traffic jams and have to pinch myself I’m so pleased I made the decision to leave metropolitan lifestyle, rural is much better. I no longer have to put up with traffic jams just native wildlife and nature views with great internet and all mod cons and shops you park almost out the front of. In fact its depressing and frustrating to view the pictures above, if only they knew how easy it is to relocate to a more enjoyable area.

      • Supernova, but what do you do for work? I’m all for the idea of a more rural move, just no idea what kind of work I’d do. I’m not adverse to hard physical work either. But my current job is pretty much bound to an office. I’d go rural if I was more confident in finding work that paid the bills that would allow me to buy a larger plot of land further out. But the further out you go the bigger the blocks and the prices don’t really come down as a result.

    • Supernova touches on this but there is a deeper reason. The state land offices are now corporatised and have changed their reason for being from the provision of lowest cost land development to maximising profit. Captured.

    • Developers are greedy – wanting to maximise the number of lots. Councils are greedy – wanting to maximise rates income and provide less services per person/area. The government changes its rule upon lobbying from either of these.

    • Awesome insights, thanks guys. So is the expectation that when supply finally exceeds demand, the market will return to supplying regular sized lots again to attract buyers? Or should we expect that supply will just entirely stop until demand for ANY lots come back, then we’ll be force fed the shrunken versions again?

  18. McMansions and skyboxes. That’s all you’ll get. Going higher density always gets blocked by NIMBYs. The only time they’re overruled is when the profits are very high, which is the case for skyboxes.

  19. When my parents built in the Perth southern suburbs in the 1980s, 700sqm was not uncommon. Anything smaller than 550sqm was called a ‘cottage lot’. When i built in the early 90’s 600sqm was still common but anything larger was becoming rare.
    Today a 500sqm block is called a ‘large family lot’ and blocks 300-400sqm are the norm even 30km from the CBD. The media and developers call these ‘easy care’ lots which are environmentally sustainable and affordable. In truth, its developer and local council greed that wants to maximise the number of lots per square km. The sea of roofs seen in modern housing estates makes them like a desert during summer.

  20. People are choosing to build out their entire blocks because home values are based (at the moment) on a per square metre (under roof) basis.

    That may well change in the future and I personally will ROTFLMAO if gardens come back in vogue as the current crop of muppets get bent over and dry-rooted. In the meanwhile, what can you do?

    People need to make choices for themselves — you can’t have the government playing nanny the whole time. How do you justify allowing people vote but not make decisions on how much outside space they should have. The key is to let people who make crap decisions wear the consequences. No exceptions.