Presented to Canberra branch of the Australian Natives’ Association, 25 January 2023
The quarter acre block: a detached house and garden, usually in the suburbs among other similar blocks.
The quarter-acre block was a distinctively Australian innovation that flourished roughly 1860s to the 1960s.
Australia at that time had abundant land on the outskirts of cities and towns and a fast-growing population, particularly of young families. Australian home ownership was more egalitarian than in the UK and the US – where the wealthy had their enclaves and avenues and the workers had their slums and shanties.
The underlying idea behind the quarter-acre block was that housing should provide the best net trade-off for raising families in a well-serviced neighbourhood in housing that could satisfy the home-owners’ emerging needs through to old age. And all at an affordable cost. This cost in the 1950s was so low that blocks with older homes were affordable to those who were prepared to live in “frugal comfort” and were stable men who could be confident of stable employment and a stable income.
Australians in the 1860s-1960s were less mobile than British or Americans of a similar demographic – Australians were more satisfied with their part of Australia and their share of the Australian way of life.
Features of the quarter-acre block
One planner in the 1950s quipped that Australians wanted homes with “three bedrooms, a Holden and a motor mower”. He should have added a fourth desire: a neighbourhood.
Others, families and planners, had an unofficial tick list comprising:
• a 3 bedroom house
• front garden – which was never paved over for car parking
• back garden with space for children’s freestyle play, veggies and a few chooks
• an outhouse/dunny
• clothes line
• small workshop/garage/garden shed/firewood shed
• uncommitted yard space for temporary storage, fruit trees, an incinerator
Note: this was in a time when no one parked on the street overnight and it was also before barbecues became regularised.
What happened to the quarter-acre block?
I am have no specialised knowledge of this aspect of our history, but I note these developments:
• In America the chattering classes, in their inner city serviced apartments, began looking down on suburbia
• At the same time the “New-Age” youth revolution also revolted against the staid ways of their suburban parents and those whose aspirations were for “little boxes on the hillside, little boxed made of ticky-tacky” – as sneered at by Pete Seeger
• in Australia Donald Horne took a swipe at the same targets here in Australia in his book “The Lucky Country” (1964).
It’s worth noting that most of the critics were wealthy enough to employ others to do their home maintenance or were young and able to rely on expanding welfare payments (or parental back-up) to “drop out” and dismiss the idea of saving for a home.
This is in contrast to the owner-dwellers who were able to do their own repairs, look after their own gardens or clean their own guttering. They weren’t self-sufficient, but they had some degree of the do-it-yourself mindset.
Despite the dominant culture’s growing contempt for the suburban dream, everyday Australians still aspired to it. However by the 1990s their aspirations had been corrupted by consumerism and expansion of credit and instead of modest expectations, the influencers now wanted a bigger house with more appliances and – paradoxically – to spend more of their time not in their house: on overseas holidays, eating out, shopping (not making/ sewing/ gardening/ knitting/ cooking/repairing/ painting). They sacrificed their yard space for a bigger house, car-parking and a pool. They were actively competing with other home owners for status. “Showing people around” their trophy home became a thing.
What is the alternative to suburbia for city dwellers?
There are a few alternatives, but all of them are more dense – housing more people per hectare – than the quarter-acre block. The main alternatives in Australia are apartments and multi-unit developments.
This is what professor Hugh Stretton says about the high-rise apartments favoured in Melbourne by the Victorian government in the 1950s to the 1970s. And as you read this, think of our recent experience with lockdowns: where would you rather be locked down – in an apartment or on your family’s own quarter-acre block?
It is argued for the high rise policy that it leaves more open space for recreation. Under and around the towers most people find the open acres fairly desolate. Responding to various critics, various efforts have been made to improve them, but these efforts also face dilemmas. The more interesting and fertile the provisions for children, the more destructible or stealable. Any bushy or walled seclusion for play, or sunbathing, or love, will be regarded by somebody as a dangerous or promising seclusion for bullying, robbery or rape. So one policy has never varied: open space must all be open, fully wind-swept.
To sum up: The high-rise housing damages the old societies it displaces. It usually prevents the new tenants from buying what they live in, which they can be allowed to do in cottage housing; most of them miss some ‘sense of home and that loss may be more saddening the poorer people are, the less other securities they have. There are no very cosy or hospitable meeting places. Above all, the flats irritate and impoverish family life. Any reader is invited to remember whatever childhood formed him, and to sort out how much of its value depended on privacies, and on free, muck-about space on the ground, which has to be either rough and open ground, or a private yard, or at least genuinely safe and quiet streets. These Melbourne children have none of those, and their windswept public acres are no substitute for them. They have scarcely any private storage or hobby space for anything bigger, rougher or dirtier than conventional toys. They can’t keep pets, or dig, or build. And they must always be either shut indoors, or out beyond touch or sight of their parents altogether.
Suburban living: giving and receiving
However, suburban living on the quarter-acre block requires shared understandings and self-imposed disciplines. Quarter-acre suburbia does not automatically create civilised behaviour.
Within a block of my house there are people who are untrained for suburbia: rubbish shares their front yard with an abandoned car, overgrown shrubs prevent pedestrians from using the footpath, nature strips are neglected.
Other residents, in contrast, take pride in their immediate neighbourhood: they pick up litter on the street and even in the local park, they sweep their footpath, they keep an attractive, green front garden and they even follow the old practice of not using motor mowers on Sundays. These people – without thinking about it – are helping to make their part of suburbia valued by fellow residents. When people say “That’s a nice suburb” they are referring to the combined result of contributions of the residents to its appearance and operation. There are not many places in Somalia of which people say “That’s a nice suburb”.
What house-and-garden suburban living can uniquely provide
Let us turn now to what Hugh Stretton says about suburbia comprising house-and-garden blocks. As you read these extracts, please think of the homes and localities you knew and felt affection for when you were growing up and the qualities in them that you valued. Think of how you can aspire to express those values – in the light of Stretton’s principles – in your own future living arrangements.
Suburb haters, thinking of people without personal resources in ill-designed houses and gardens, too often undervalue the free and satisfying self-expression, the mixtures of community and privacy, fond familiarity and quick change and escape, which this miniscule subdivision and diversification of the quarter acre’s spaces can offer to the lives it houses. Compared with it, the private realm of the city apartment is internally monotonous, and its owner more restricted in what he can make of it. He loses a whole field for self-expression, and many chances to adapt his environment to idiosyncratic needs. He has only one escape. That one may be into the crowded city’s full and valuable diversity, but he can’t go there undressed. The escape is to nowhere quiet or private, to nothing he can kick, dig up, re-plan, encourage to grow, or hang a wet shirt on. In many cities the landless city apartment is where the rich get most neuroses and the poor get most delinquents.
Above all the house-in-garden is the most freely and cheaply flexible of all housing forms. It can be altered and extended in more ways and directions, with less hindrance from laws or neighbours, to meet more changes of need, than any denser housing can be. Each owner has considerable freedom to choose his own degree of privacy, publicity or neighbourliness. This freedom to alter his house without changing his address is an underrated one.
Plenty of people like gardens, and the time they spend at gardening. And many more things than gardening go on behind those fences – there’s no need to catalogue the hobbies and small trades and storages, all the arts and crafts and mercifully private disasters that clutter people’s backyards. Children’s uses of them are probably the most valuable of all – and not only to the children. Home allows the widest variety of outdoor activities and constructions, especially the complicated, continuing, accumulating ones. The players can build their own scenery and sets, and keep them intact for serials. Collectors can house their zoos. Parents, children, visitors, and the relations between them, all share in the benefits. In some urban circumstances (or social classes) children can’t “go out’ without due notice, a change of clothes, and a minder. But private suburban gardens let them go in and out of doors as they please.
Not many activities – least of all children’s – can do without ten-minute breaks every hour, and busy streets are not always the best places for such excursions. There are also ranges of perfectly tolerable behaviour (child and adult) which however can’t be tolerated either indoors or on public land: building, carpentering, metalworking, digging, hosing, basking, horsing about.
There are innumerable games and skills – amusing, educational, utilitarian – which adults and children can’t teach each other either indoors or on public land.
And I would add to what Stretton says: house-in-garden arrangements offer many more opportunities for children to be given active and meaningful responsibilities as their contributions to the running of the household – sweeping, weeding, harvesting, chopping firewood.
The energy crunch will destroy large scale suburbia
However, the future will not enable suburban living such as existed in the century before the 1960s. We cannot use this account of the Australian quarter-acre block as a template for the future.
The Australian quarter-acre block and the suburban living that it supported depended on cheap energy. Energy in the future will be less affordable and less reliable. Our suburbs rely on petroleum products to fuel cars, to farm, transport and process food, to bring consumer goods and water to us, to remove our waste and sewage and to build roads. Cheap energy has underwritten economic growth.
All the cheap petroleum has been already been extracted. New wells are opening only in more remote or perilous locations – which, themselves, use more fuel to establish and operate. Today, in 2023, oil sold for less than $US 80 is often not profitable to extract, oil sold for more than $US 8o is often unaffordable for many of those who have become accustomed to rely on it, both directly and indirectly.
Electricity relies on coal and gas (extracted and transported by diesel) or on solar/wind power. Solar and wind power installations last about 25 years but solar panels begin losing efficiency immediately. The replacement panels, controllers and transformers come from China through shaky, oil-dependent supply lines.
The consumerist suburbia of the last 50 years is coming to an end. Economic growth is in irretrievable retreat and the turbulence we see around is a consequence of the previous centres of power trying, increasingly desperately, to force others to bear the brunt of the retreat.
We can learn from the history of the quarter-acre block in Australia how intact families of European origin, when left to their own devices under a reliable umbrella of top-level state planning, thrived – despite attempts at interference from low-level officials. Pro-“diversity” policies and the dilution of demographic homogeneity are immediate challenges that lie ahead in the coming period of economic contraction.