Who’s noticed the suburbs are turning green?

One of the the great unheralded changes in Australia's cities was the greening of the suburbs - both old and new - over the last thirty to fifty years

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Looking down Cometrowe St Drummoyne towards Five Dock Bay in c1962 and 2017 (source: via Sydney Than and Now)

The exhibit, which comes via Sydney Then and Now, shows the remarkable change in Cometrowe St in the Sydney suburb of Drummoyne between 1962 and 2017. Here’s another before-and-after comparison; it shows how the inner city suburb of Paddington, Brisbane, looked in 1962 (just after the tram depot burnt down) and how green it looks today from the same viewpoint.

I’ve no idea why it’s seemingly never mentioned but the greening of the suburbs over the last 30 – 50 years is one of the great unsung advances in Australia’s cities. The scale of the change to both private gardens and streets is massive. The transformation of older suburbs, especially those with space for front gardens, is the most striking illustration, but today’s fringe suburbs are also becoming greener much faster than their counterparts in the past.

When did it happen? I’m not aware of any studies, but the received wisdom in Brisbane is that it got up a head of steam in the 1980s when the international exposure from the Commonwealth Games and Expo 88, the story goes, prompted proud Brisbanites to “do up” the exterior of their houses. Maybe, but that doesn’t explain why it happened in other cities.

Why earlier residents didn’t value trees and shrubs to anything like the degree we do today is an interesting question. Was it only true of working class suburbs? Was it because yards were mostly a male domain? Because so many householders grew up in the country and saw gardens as work? Because the basic technology of the day meant plants invaded pipes and nurtured mosquitoes?

And equally, what changed? Perhaps it’s mostly down to a change in lifestyles enabled by affluence; we can better afford to build decks/patios and pools, as well as buy outdoor furniture, automated irrigation, and trees. Smaller (net) yards probably helped as did the accelerated shift toward viewing housing as a form of investment as well as a form of shelter. The change in the socio-economic profile of the population might’ve been a factor in formerly working class inner suburbs, but the growing taste for landscaping seems to cross class boundaries.

Whatever the reason, it’s made an enormous change to our residential streetscapes, yet it’s seldom noted. And unlike the changes due to redevelopment, it’s happened without complaint or significant problems (maybe less so in bushfire prone areas). It’s a positive development to balance complaints that large houses are reducing the size of private gardens and redevelopment is making streets barren.

We still need to do more in some suburbs to plant trees in streets and there are some where front gardens are still perfunctory, but we should also celebrate the massive changes we’ve collectively wrought, noting that much of the change is on private land (see Why don’t we “green the streets of Australia”?). Congratulations us; we’ve done a spectacular job at improving both our private and public environments.

Have our universities studied in-depth the economic, social and cultural forces that drove this change (surprise me!)? It’s an important topic because as streets get prettier it might make redevelopment harder. It might also give us useful insight into how residents can work towards the same end that benefits not only them privately, but also their neighbours.

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