Life in the outer suburbs has never been so tight. Despite the District Plan stating that (in the Outer Residential Area – where this photo was taken) a minimum of 50 sqm of open outside space per household unit must be provided (188.8.131.52B.6), with a maximum site coverage of 35% (184.108.40.206.2), clearly not everyone is prioritising these in their building.
While the rules for infill housing (5.3.4) are clearly different to, or at least bend and break the mainstream residential rules, there are examples around town which raise the question – Why do these people live in the suburbs? Wouldn’t almost any apartment deliver better living conditions than this?
Suburbia (children playing on freshly mown lawns, clothing blowing on the lines, neighbours chatting over fences, everyone happy and smiling and on valium) is an image which has never been universally attainable – but it was one dependent on a specific relationship between indoor and outdoor space. But saying this assumes that the underlying premise of suburbia is/was one reliant on the physicality of architecture and design to deliver it.
Clearly aspirations for good design are no longer prevalent, and it’s possible they never were really that important to the majority. More obvious now, and no doubt always critical to the suburban dream, is the aspiration for home ownership as an abstract ideal, rather than an architecturally desirable thing. Suburbia is underpinned by the communal assumption that houses (as an investment) is – well “safe as houses.” The ability to get better living accommodation for everyone, and to increase the percentage of well-designed medium and high density housing in order to better use the planet’s environmental resources, is hence not an issue that architects have any power or ability to determine. The shift is one that has to happen in financial literacy and education, and in undoing the dominant reliance on home ownership as investment, and perhaps home ownership. It was the propgandists following the war – the political fight between renting and the perception of home ownership in the suburb as guaranteeing more security – which has determined our cultural dependency on owning the places we live in.
If we believe that in order to support better city design, access to urban infrastructure (transportation etc), long term resilience (given peak oil etc), community building, pedestrianisation etc. that high and medium density housing is critical to the future city, then perhaps our energies should not go exclusively into the good design of these. There are already excellent examples of good inner city living. Instead the link between financial security and home ownership needs to be rethought, and the propagandic use of aspirational images of suburbia (which probably didn’t even materially exist for most in the 1950s) need undermining. If city councils and government really think more intelligently about “affordable housing” they really need to stop using the term. Instead the shift that should be supported should be increasing the viability and appeal of long term tenancy, and the financial literacy of the population.