City Living versus The Great Australian Dream

For a few years now I’ve harboured a dream to be able to live life without a car. I have this imaginary lifestyle in my mind where I live in the centre of a city. Everything I need is within walking or cycling distance. On the rare occasion that I need to do a long road trip I’ll just hire a car.

A series of articles that appeared recently in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Lithgow Mercury (here, here and here) got me thinking about it again. You see, Sydney planners are wanting to build an underground rail line from Central Station to Parramatta. Along that line they want to build high rise (up to 15 storeys) apartment blocks with the aim of encouraging their increasing population to live withing walking distance of the new mass transit system. From a sustainable mobility perspective the Sydney plan sounds great. The problem is the planners are fighting The Great Australian Dream. The big house with the big backyard.

Aussies want at least four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a double garage and room for the kids to run around out the back. The Great Australian Dream is the main driver behind urban sprawl in all our capital cities. To get the big block you have to live in the outer suburbs. Living in the outer suburbs means you will most likely need to drive a car to work, if not all the way then at least to the nearest decent public transport. As a result The Great Australian Dream clogs our roads in peak hour and causes us to curse everyone else following the same dream we are.

The sad news is that the Great Australian Dream is a lifestyle that is unsustainable in a peak oil world. The Sydney planners know it and so do a lot of other people, particularly Europeans who are practiced at living the width of a wall away from their neighbours. The rising cost of oil as supplies diminish will increase demand for public transport but Governments will be unable to build and maintain the infrastructure required to service the urban sprawl. We are going to have to adjust our definition of living and part of that adjustment will be living closer together, closer to public transport and closer to work.

Right now I’m almost living The Dream. I’ve got a big yard in a very quiet neighbourhood. The house is small but I’ve got a big shed. The problem is that I’m 35km from work and about 15km from the city where my better half works. There is no nearby public transport so getting to work would involve a drive followed by multiple bus and train journeys. Cycling and working from home are my best options for reducing car use but neither can be achieved every day due to distance and the need to see clients or work at clients’ sites.

So, what would it take to get me living closer to my neighbours, closer to public transport and closer to work? I’ve been mulling this over for the last few days and it all comes down to two words – lifestyle and happiness. To achieve the lifestyle and happiness I desire when living in a city centre I’d need the living environment to meet five criteria.

1. I am not prepared to live in a shoe box. I’m a country boy and I like my space. That doesn’t mean I need a big house, it just means I need room to move and an uncluttered environment in which to live. Good views would help.

2. If I’m going to move from being surrounded by not much to living shoulder to shoulder then I want to do so in a truly environmentally friendly building. It will need to be well insulated, take advantage of winter sun and summer breeze and have lots of natural light and ventilation. The building or development will have its own power supply, preferably cogeneration or trigeneration powered by natural gas.

3. Silence. I don’t want to hear the neighbours and I don’t want them to hear me. I don’t want to hear traffic even with the windows open.

4. There will be secure storage for bicycles and general living stuff underneath the building. There should be no need to clutter the place up by bringing bicycles upstairs or locking them to anything you can find. Each tenant should have their own private storage space.

5. The building or development will need to have shared facilities that provide safe and secure space for kids and adults to be active and get outdoors. Ideally it would be in a precinct that restricts the entry of cars thereby freeing up as much space as possible for parks, barbecues, swimming pool, gyms, etc. To my mind the design has failed if it encourages or necessitates car use.

That’s it. If I could find a place like that I’d seriously consider moving to the city centre or a public transport hub. I’m not sure about you but I haven”t seen or heard of any developments that meet, or even come close to, the above criteria in my city or others.

This brings us back to Sydney. If the designers and developers of the urban living environments along the Central to Parramatta mass transit system are going to tempt those chasing The Dream to live in their developments they are going to have to focus on lifestyle, not just stylish buildings. They are going to have to provide outdoor living space while building high quality, high density housing. And they are going to have to make the developments environmentally friendly otherwise they’ve lost before they’ve begun.

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One Response

  1. Couldn’t have worded it better myself.
    As an Interior Designer I feel the need to fight this fight every single day, urban sprawl has got to slow.
    Luke, good luck in your venture to find a space that fits your criteria. Unfortunately I believe we are still a far cry from realising this necessity in Australia. All it takes is for one of these environments to pop up, and pop-up SUCCESSFULLY, and the rest will follow. Hopefully it’s not too little too late.

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