Owning a five bedroom home with double garage and garden situated in a quiet urban neighbourhood is synonymous with living the accomplished, settled life. In fact, home ownership remains one of the hallmarks of living the Australian dream.
There is nothing wrong with this dream per se. Only that isn’t actually a dream anymore, but a reality for many. The detached, single house has not only become a tangible for more Australians, the demand for it has let to an enormous urban sprawl which fundamentally shaped the faces of our cities, the way we travel within them and our expectation of its infrastructure. What does that mean? Let’s say you are living in the pictured neighbourhood: Do you expect to find a supermarket nearby? Will there be a school within reach? What about your local library, hairdresser or restaurants? How far will your workplace be away? And how will you get to all of these places?
While many would say ‘yes’ to all of the above, the common expectation is that our desired destinations outside of home only require a short drive by car and a hopeful quick opportunity to park nearby. Look at universities, hospitals, shopping centres – in fact, picture any popular destination and you’ll also be able to imagine it’s car park. The suburbia we have come to love has become a place where we cook, eat, sleep and spend those hours in between said activities. The rest of our lives has become a careful construction of journeys to and from.
For many people this kind of life works. It is desirable for – predominantly mothers – to taxi children around town and contribute to their education and physical exercises that way. Our car offers a safe commute, a place for private conversations, contemplations. It is safe, fast, flexible, always available.
There are obvious moments when our expectations aren’t met: we’re stuck in traffic, can’t find parking or having to pay to park. Usually these moments remain without consequences and only become a topics of shared complaints around the kitchen table, with work colleagues or anyone else who cares to join in the shared disappointment. There aren’t any consequences because our demands are “more parking” and “better infrastructure” by which we mean more roads for cars.
Suburbia has a direct impact on our quality of life and level of health. When science warns us about the prevalence and danger of sedentary lifestyles, the time we spend at work sitting is only half the picture. For many the other half is usually spend tucked behind the steering wheel, sitting. The life in suburbia demands a price beyond its mortgage. It asks for the commitment to maintaining things they way they are: the job, the travel, the car.
Is there a viable alternative to living comfortably yet more actively? When we dream of ‘livable neighbourhoods’ and ‘connected communities’ do we just imagine a group of detached single houses next to a train line, or an extra shared path we can ride on? Maybe we just mean a bit more time so we can build a bit more exercise into our day?
As long as the majority of us want a slice of the Australian Dream there will be more single houses and we all live more of the same. Long live suburbia!