Not In My Backyard – The Australian Dream Is Fast Becoming A Nightmare

20 years ago, when I moved into my home in Avondale Heights, I was surrounded by other homes on house blocks approximately 535sqm in size.

My first week, I planted several citrus trees in my backyard, and a gum tree sapling 3m from the back fence. The orange trees are all about to fruit again, and whilst the gum tree is still very spindly, it is quite tall.

After a few years, the investor who owned the house behind me sold up, and it was demolished, replaced with two townhouses which went up much closer to my back fence. I did not object to this development proposal because I mostly mind my own business.

One day, the new back fence neighbour, an elderly chap named Mick who had downsized from a full sized house, popped his head over the fence and helpfully suggested that I get rid of my gum tree, as it was one day going to get huge. I thanked him for his helpful ideas and ignored him.

Where is Mick now? Dead. The gum tree on the other hand is still there and contributing to taking carbon out of the atmosphere and keeping our suburb a little more liveable. Having my own fruit trees and scrubs and a gum tree out back is about more than my own selfish desires – it is about preserving an island of nature in suburbia.

Let’s face it, living in an apartment is not great. I did it for almost 7 years. The positives were that it was extremely affordable as an entry level first home, that it was close to a tram line (and Highpoint Shopping Centre) and that there was a nice faux rural view from the study and kitchen windows towards the green field buffer zone around the Maribyrnong Explosives Factory over the road. Sheep grazed in that field. The negatives included late night noise from the occasional inconsiderate drunken tenant in the same block, having my garbage bin refilled to the brim mere hours after I had collected it, lack of access to the master tap controlling water to my flat, and the footsteps on the walkway past my flat.

Even worse, for someone who grew up in a family home with generous sized backyard, was not having any land to attempt gardening on.

After I got a promotion at work, during which time I had saved enough for a deposit for a house, I sold up and moved 3km down the road to Avondale Heights. The extra travel time to work and taxi fares from late nights out are easily offset by the joy I get from having an actual house with large front garden and reasonably sized backyard to live in.

In this, I am lucky, compared to most people somewhat younger than me. I am a homeowner and my home is an actual house with land.

Melbourne, depending on how you measure it, is now approximately 5 million people in size. We have a rental availability crisis, and an ongoing house affordability crisis.

No matter what happens, in terms of reserve bank or government policy, many people are going to be unhappy.

In recent weeks, I have been reading many articles critical of the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) attitude of people like myself, who are big believers in the benefits of backyards and lower density housing. It is argued that we need to subdivide further and do considerable infill in housing developments in established suburbs in order to make the best use of the infrastructure which already exists, rather than growing the Australian capital cities further and further outward at greater infrastructure cost.

I’ve also read articles about the cladding of many recently built apartment towers, which make them both a potential death trap to occupants, as well as a money pit for their hapless and frequently naive owners. Other apartments, built when building codes were more lax, are so small and poorly ventilated, as to be extremely miserable places to call home.

When Dandenong is described in The Age as a ‘middle suburb’, you need to get a little worried. It is after all, 30km from the GPO. I guess that my lair in Avondale Heights, 11km from the GPO in the opposite direction, is an inner suburb now – with the vegan cafe to prove it!

There are many issues which are going to need to be considered in the many moving parts to try and restore home ownership affordability and easy rental access to Australians. I do not think that government subsidies for home ownership, nor artificially low interest rates, do anything other than exacerbate the problem.

As you would surmise from my attitude to my erstwhile neighbour Mick’s suggestion about my gum tree which existed before his townhouse, the one issue which I am most interested in is the quality of life which we will face in our cities going forward. We are all increasingly alienated from nature with each passing generation. Our cities are ribbons of black bitumen amid islands of concrete, with more and more of us living in towers of glass and steel. This is not a healthy environment to live in.

The absence of backyards, or front gardens, and trees, is going to have an impact on us, a severely adverse one.

Firstly, have you thought about what the declining tree canopy in the suburbs is going to do to temperatures when we replace our backyards with dual occupancies? The lack of shade to absorb sunlight is going to make our suburbs much hotter in summer. Trees also not only absorb carbon dioxide, but a lot of other omissions from cars, cleaning our air.

Trees, and back yards in general, also attract nature. I have regularly seen fruit bats in my garden, and that gum tree offensive to some has hosted owls and kookaburras and possums. Geckos can be found in my garden, and I once saw a larger lizard hiding in the wood pile (I do like a good BBQ). Cockatoos and corellas love eating the apricots and peaches on the branches I cannot reach on my fruit trees.

As a home owner who has a reasonable amount of land surrounding his house, I see it as my civic duty to have trees on my land. Not only does that make my own home a little more pleasant, especially in summer, but it contributes that little bit more to making living in a large metropolis that much better for my neighbours. I can hardly wait for when the avocado trees I have grown from pips tower over my back yard, encasing everything in shade.

If this makes me a NIMBY, then so be it. I am not going back to living in a flat, even if mowing the lawn is a huge nuisance.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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