Tony Hall’s “New Suburbs: New Problems” article in March 2006 UDF invites much needed debate on issues relating to the elements of contemporary suburban design. The “suburban debate” is well documented, however many claims linking human behaviour and suburban form lack solid empirical basis. I will concentrate on the issue of private open space, particularly the suburban backyard.
Ian Halkett, in 1976, published results of a doctoral thesis entitled The Quarter Acre Block: The Use of Suburban Gardens. This study found that the backyards of suburban Adelaide were a hive of recreational and utilitarian activity and were rarely unwanted or unused. Since that time, the continuing trend of larger houses on smaller lots has meant fewer and smaller gardens.
It was with this in mind that my undergraduate thesis set forth to update and complement Halkett’s earlier findings, though in the context of Sydney. My thesis involved survey research of individual households in which use and attitudes towards the backyard were studied and analysed.
This data was used to formulate a set of qualitative design principles for private open space design. This article focuses on the survey findings.
The survey involved an analysis of three areas in the southern Sydney LGA of Sutherland, with different lot sizes, approximately 400m2, 600m2 and 1,100m2. Statistical analysis was undertaken of 90 interviews which inquired into the nature and frequency of use of the backyard, the design of their backyard and design preferences.
The case studies confirmed that the nature of the backyard is changing from a primarily domestic and utilitarian yard to a recreational and design conscious space complete with pools, barbecues, play equipment, patios or decks. Larger households and those with children desire these adult and children’s recreation elements more than other households.
The total number of activities engaged in was statistically related to the respondent’s lot size, however the number and frequency of activities is more strongly related to physical characteristics of the backyard and the demographic characteristics of the household. The backyard that provides a variety of facilities including children’s play, adult recreation, and utilitarian elements is prone to be used for a wider range and larger number of activities.
Larger families and those with children use their yard for more activities, however older respondents do not necessarily desire smaller yards despite using their private open space less. This reinforced the psychological attachment to the backyard. All but one of the sampled households stated that their yard meant something to them, being a symbol of privacy, spaciousness, self sufficiency or memories of times gone by. These meanings were shown irrespective of lot size however larger yards conveyed a greater sense of spaciousness and self-sufficiency.
Private vs Public Space
Fuelling the private versus public space debate, the backyard was the dominant recreational venue for the sampled households, followed by the inside of their dwelling, surpassing the front and side yards, the street, park, beach or private venues. This confirms that the backyard is probably the most intensively used recreation space in the suburb.
Perhaps more critical to urbanism is that despite there being a relationship between lot size and the number and frequency of activities in yard space, there is no relationship between lot size and whether people are likely to carry out recreational activities in public space. The small lot case study area, despite being situated adjacent to a well maintained, secure park complete with children’s play equipment, teenage skateboarding facilities, seating and lawn areas for passive recreation was used for only 10% of the total number of recreation activities.
A notion of preference
Of the sample, 75% opted for a medium or large lot. The preferences for housing type cannot simply be put down to stigma attached to higher density or communal forms of living. Preferences are statistically related to family stage variables such as number of children but are more significantly related to the number and frequency of activities - people who prefer a larger backyard actually use their current yard more than those with a smaller yard.
It is clear from this survey data that that the backyard is a place of ideals, aspirations and life’s necessities. Backyards cater for a significant number of recreational and utilitarian activities and convey meanings of control, individualism and privatism. The backyard is perceived by most of its users as a truly open and democratic space.
There are many forces affecting the changing nature of the suburb and some of these are inevitable. The importance therefore lies in the ability to foster the unique values of private open space irrespective of suburban form and density and relating design choices to solid empirical knowledge.
Also in UDFQ 75: September 2006:
- Interculturalism and the built environment
- Is money all that matters in Sin City?
- ‘Meeting Again’ - Melbourne’s new Sandridge Bridge precinct
- What value is urban design?
- ‘Petrol hits $5 a litre’
- Urban Design Fast Track WA
- Sustainable cities need strong local government
- Prestigious design competition for Antarctic Gateway
- New King George Square goes sub-tropical