Aussies mourn loss of backyard to urban sprawl

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Australian suburbia, made famous by Neighbours and Dame Edna Everage, is in danger of losing its most precious icon: the backyard.

Australian suburbia, made famous by Neighbours and Dame Edna Everage, is in danger of losing its most precious icon: the backyard.

The backyard, once the symbol of egalitarian middle-class Australia, is shrinking as population pressures reduce the size of residential blocks and create higher-density housing. In inner-city areas, the biggest outdoor space is a tiny paved courtyard, while apartments offer a balcony at best.

For much of last century, the Great Australian Dream was a house on a quarter-acre block in the suburbs, surrounded by a white picket fence and complete with a big backyard and pool.

In a country where outdoor living can be enjoyed almost year-round, the yard was a social hub. It had a lawn, shed and sandpit, a Hills Hoist (a quintessentially Australian clothes rack), fruit trees and a vegetable patch. It was a place where kids played cricket and rode their bikes while their parents supped beer in the shade and hosted barbies for friends and neighbours.

But now the yard is being squeezed out of existence, particularly in Sydney, Australia's fastest-growing city. Local planners said last week that only 8 per cent of new homes to be built in the middle suburbs by 2007 would be detached houses, while the rest would be flats. While the size of residential blocks - and the average family - dwindles, houses are getting bigger as an affluent population exploits the tax advantages of a primary home. Sydneysiders fulminate against the spread of so-called McMansions, oversized houses that blot out the sun and the views, with barely enough space outside to grow a tree.

The loss of the backyard is a blow to the national psyche. Contrary to the image of a land of wide, open spaces, Australia is the world's most urbanised country, with 85 per cent of people living within six miles of the sea. None the less, the Outback exerts a strong pull - and the backyard is the only place where people can live out their Crocodile Dundee fantasies. Hugh Mackay, a psychologist and social researcher, said: "We continue to embrace the rural mythology, which is really powerful in terms of Australian identity. In a sense, the yard has kept us in touch with the land."

Despite that mythology, Australia is strikingly suburban. Traditionally, the suburbs start right outside the city centre, with no medium-density housing in-between. Yet they have never been celebrated in the same way as the bush - except of course by the likes of Dame Edna.