The Beach House. Basically a large box with a smaller one above; no doubt the master bedroom, surrounded by a fenced patio. Deep sky blue in colour and broad windows / sliding doors that feed out from the house.
Almost iconic of the coastal sales pitch… if it were overlooking the rolling sand dunes and perfect rolling waves. Not so much when it sits beneath the grey morning sky of suburban Melbourne, overlooking the graffiti-rich railway.
Worse than this appeared at various locations before and after this point along the railway; the modern housing estate. Worse not only because of the constant handful of townhouse designs – modified only in their façades – squished together, but that it personally reminded me of Mawson Lakes, a suburb of Adelaide and would no doubt remind many readers from either Australia or the US of somewhere closer to their home.
When you have a free afternoon, here’s a little experiment for you; find a nice inner city café with areas to sit where you can watch the pedestrian traffic pass by. Casually watch people as they go about their business. Count how many are dressed exactly the same. If it’s a temperate city, count how many are dressed for the tropics (or vice versa at lower latitudes).
What you will notice is that we choose to be both subtlety unique, but relatively themed in our dress code. This is one frontier where we still feel we have some control over our personal reflection. Nothing is more depressing than unification or as uncomfortable as being overly loud.
The urban landscape is a reflection of how hoodwinked we are into the belief that someone else knows us better than we know ourselves and suburban planning is increasingly not about the values to that particular community, but a showroom of some fictitious global ideal.
It’s always stuck with me; a line from Billy Connolly’s 1995 tour of Australia, when he was talking up the uniqueness of Australian cities, he compared it to other developed countries where everything was becoming McDonalds. His view, 15 years ago, was that the distance between the Australian cities had allowed for strong and distinctive identities specific to each city. I can’t help but feel that we’re also losing that even in the lucky country (more so, but not exclusively, in suburbia).
The problem is, of course the stock standard packages that have become ‘the norm’ of the industry of sprawl. Prefabricated housing designs that look “modern”, but are cheap to build, inefficient in passive heat management and degrade unreasonably fast. Housing has become disposable fashion where we’re told what is the latest craze is and seem to accept it without question.
We’re poorer for it, both financially and socially, it doesn’t reflect our communities nor the legacy we wish to leave to future generations, however, I do not think it’s too late, as I’ll explain.
Cheap housing is making us financially poorer
A couple generations ago and earlier, a middle classed family could own a good quality house (in many cases also a car), all of the necessary technology, clothing and schooling (being the baby boomers generation, typically more children per household than today) all on one main income. How is it that our throw-away, ‘made in China’ and ‘fashion house’ societies struggle on two incomes – so much so our children are nowadays primarily raised by external carers simply so we can keep up with the bills?
We’re told that we’re better off and in some respects, that may be true, but it is not universal in developed countries, nor does it even seem to be the average. A good equivalence could also be in health. We may have improved protection from disease and infection, but also increased healthcare requirements for preventable diseases such as, heart disease, various cancers, type two diabetes and obesity all the result of our current lifestyles.
A single observer is unlikely to notice such changes over their lifespan, but when you look over a number of generations, it becomes difficult to overlook a worrying conclusion that the middle class is in fact in many cases worse off than it was a couple generations ago, regardless to how much apparent improvements in household income.
Many other commentators have discussed the impacts of consumerism and how the throw-away mentality degrades household wealth and so I will not go into it here, but in much the same way the ‘fashion house’ lets us down.
These prefabricated housing designs are not region specific. In most cases (unless you’re willing to spend a lot more), they are single brick and minimally partitioned. To cram as many as possible into a new housing estate and there is little thought as to optimal orientation relative to the sun. Black roofing titles are also super trendy…
Basically these new houses are only liveable because of your central heating and cooling system, which must remain on most of the year.
You may as well demand that the builders remove the cost of painting the interior for either you’ll do it when you move in or need to redo it within the first 5 years with a good quality paint (often laughingly shrugged off, because ‘it was time for a change anyway’).
Most ‘fashion houses’ will not be standing by the time your grandchildren are in the market to buy their first home and even if they are, they more certainly won’t be as trendy as they were when they were first built. They are an ill-designed fad and cost the householders far more than they are actually worth.
All trendy together
Take a given clothing designer (I don’t know any and won’t bother searching for one) and ask a whole community to take out personal loans to buy and only wear that designers fashion for the current season.
What a dreadful, impersonal and depressed community you would create, reminiscent of the stiff dress code of yesteryear’s school yards (I don’t think today’s polo shirts and hemmed up skirts really count).
I feel the same way when I enter these new communities, such as Mawson Lakes. Sure, some might defend the designers and planners, saying that it isn’t that bad, but between the barren, windswept wetlands and the townhouse and apartment monotony, I fail to sense a genuine community. It’s the sterility one imagines to be the daydream of some communistic fascist.
Concrete walls, painted ash grey, with weird protruding façades in some “sassy” colour only turns the scene from sterile to some nightmarish clown.
Maybe, on a few of the nicest days of the year, you might find householders out and about in the open patches of grass, but more often, the streets are deserted but for the lonely jogger or a forlorn couple walking their hyperactive dog.
The biggest failure of the modern housing estates is that they try to artificially design a sense of community. Turning pastoral lands into a new suburb over 5 years leaves out the heart of the place and ruins once fertile land. You simply cannot engineer the human element from the outside. It’s a process that happens entirely from within that particular society and happens over time as they reflect who they are and what they feel is important to them. It must also be allowed free-reins to create the personality of that particular community without subdivision to the point of no return.
Another way to look at it is from the feeling of returning home. For most it comes when the door opens, the lights are turned on and all the stuff is illuminated. But it should come from seeing the local baker’s shop on the horizon as you pass by the lake where you can the kids ride you bikes around or fish in and then amplified when you turn into your street, passing the corner park where the children play and you notice that Mrs. X has planted a new row of rose or Mr. Y has finally painted his fence or the children from two houses down spot you car and wildly wave to your children as you pass.
This isn’t nostalgia – this is a community! We too often make excuses for the loss of such things, but the truth of the matter remains that most of these sprawling new developments over the past couple decades are just places where people share a postcode and not a valuable sense of community.
It’s not the property of smaller world either.
For example; when we were in Melbourne for that morning, before our return to Adelaide, a seller of the Big Issue spotted my fiancée, who she hadn’t seen in a few years, and began a warm and animated conversation – catching up like old friends. Even in a city like Melbourne, simply treating others with dignity and warmth creates the same sense of community.
Planning design tells us what we value and therefore misses the fundamental living nature of a community leaving the younger generations especially devoiced from a connection to their surroundings, which cannot be healthy leading into the twenty first century. I worry that the twentieth century will largely be as disposable as most of its products and apart from the wars and radical stepping stones in technology, will leave few heirlooms for those who follow – the importance of community is too valuable to allow being degraded from our societies.
All is not lost
However, it’s not all bad. We, in the developed world largely live in democratic societies. For the past few generations, we have increasingly bought into the notion of fashion. The only reason something is in fashion is because someone, somewhere, decided it is.
I for one will never be caught dead in skinny jeans, even if the current fashion trends lead me on a wild search for something I can put on without a shoehorn.
In reality we citizens are the true power of our communities. We not only have the right to question what’s important to us, but the power to do something about it.
As is prevalent in the “debate” over climate change, we all too often think that our personal contribution is small. However that’s not the entire story. We should be talking about what kind of communities we want for ourselves and for our children. Shared voice is shared values and that is the seed to a sense of community.
After all, what is a better “status symbol” (for, part of the problem of consumerism as is often discussed is that peer-pressure: keeping up with the Jones)? Having the newest 3D flat screen TV or a safe community where your children can explore and have ample access to parks and sport? Having the biggest SUV on the market or a walkable community with good quality fresh produce and other goods and services within a short commute (either on foot or cheap and clean public transport) from your home? An awkward little backyard space or vast open spaces – both natural and recreational – nearby for when it suits your lifestyle? Having a house full of stuff or a real community – where you and our family feel more inclined to be out enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and activity rather than slowly growing fatter on the couch?
You may not totally agree with my vision, but that’s simply part of the beauty. Communities should be unique and reflective of the views of the people who live within them. If you and I don’t share the same view, well we’re simply more likely to visit each other’s community rather than share one. The point is we citizens are the real designers of our communities; a fact we’ve long forgotten.
We should rightly say what we think are the properties that we would like to see in our community and demand / work for them. It’s our life and our home. What gives our communities value is what they mean to us; how liveable they are to those within them.
If we don’t like the values to a politician, we demonstrate it through our votes. Likewise, new housing estates can be sent back to the drawing board if we “vote” through not purchasing the sterile communities the sellers offer.
The first step is, as I continue to labour upon, to ask yourself what is truly important to you. If enough of us are talking about it, change will occur. As this becomes evident, even more people will be likely to start asking the same kinds of questions. Sure, we may end up with the odd beach house alongside the railway lines, far from any ocean, but that will be an enjoyable quirk at worst. We will however avoid depressive unification of poor “cheap” housing and recapture that wonderful sense of community; one of few things that can retain, if not improve its value with age.