Vanishing Backyards 

Suburban backyards have become a “thing” of the past.

GREEN BACKYARDS VERSUS THE “HOTPLATE”: These two images from Google Earth (part of Leumeah at left, and part of a new estate at right) shows the obvious difference between old and new suburban estates.

BIG changes have happened to our urban lifestyle over the past 40 years – and they are clearly represented by these two aerial photos.
The picture on the left shows part of Leumeah – which represents the old way of developing local suburbia. Simple 1970s brick veneer homes set amid leafy yards with plenty of biodiversity.
The picture on the right, on the same scale, shows one of the modern estates off Camden Valley Way – the new way of developing local suburbia. Squished-in rooftops.
I know, I know…developers, planners and councillors will argue that new estates are new, so you have wait until a lush leafy tree canopy becomes established. The problem is, many of us can’t see where there’s any space for big shrubs, let alone a leafy tree canopy. I fear this view will look much the same in 20 years as it does now. I hope I’m wrong.
In a nutshell, as our blocks of land get smaller our houses get bigger – and the death of the Aussie backyard is the obvious result.
Once a place of mum’s vegie patch and orange trees, perhaps a pool, barbie and games of summer arvo backyard cricket, our backyards are vanishing.
Some experts I read online blame that on our changing lifestyles. Kids are more likely to be found today inside with their laptop than outside climbing trees. Many families, burdened by debt, are also working long hours with lots of stressful commuting and have created for themselves an air-conditioned McMansion refuge.
Others say it is indicative of changing expectations in Australia. I suspect there’s a bit of truth in all of this.
I was recently looking at an old photo of my great-great grandparents standing proudly in front of their pit-sawn shingle-roofed bush home in 1881. It was barely a few rooms and a verandah yet it housed 10 kids. Almost a century later, most of my generation were comparatively spoiled, growing up in three-bedroom suburban homes and only having to share with one sibling. Even then, I can recall in the 1970s thinking someone was “rich” if they had a double garage or rumpus room.
These days, home cinemas, two or three bathrooms and even a parents’ retreat are expected in some of the supersized homes going up. Which is fine, but the result on tiny blocks is the picture on the right. 
And that will have environmental and climate consequences. I mean, to me, the photo on the right looks like a giant dark grey barbecue hotplate. Many scientists tell us that’s essentially what it is.
Tony Hall, a Griffith University professor, is one of the better online commentators and says the backyards of yesterday had an important ecological function. “The interaction of trees, plants and water is important in helping to make a more pleasant microclimate, especially in hot and dry Australia,” he said.
The narrowness of the gaps between newer houses – roofs almost touching each other – prevents airflow, which added to all the paved areas, creates “heat-island” effects. That problem is exacerbated by exhaust from air-conditioners and dark rooftops which absorb, rather than reflect, heat. Yet these are exactly the types of new estates popping up everywhere around Macarthur.
I’m no expert, but I do know that on maps I’ve seen of the heat island effect in Campbelltown, two of our big cooling spots are the Hurlstone farmland in the north and the Menangle Park hills to the south. Both are expected to be covered with giant dark grey “hotplates” within the next few years.
Luckily for Campbelltown, most of its suburbs were developed when backyards were still a thing. I hope the future for large parts of Camden and Wollondilly will be leafier and airier than the picture on the right suggests.

My own little Leumeah house has a yard full of life – from fruit trees and worm farms to dragonflies, blue-tongue lizards and king parrots. I fear kids in these new hotplate estates will only see those things on their laptop.

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