The backyard, an icon of Australian suburbia, is under threat – and it has taken a Pom to point it out. Tony Hall, a former British town planner who is now a Queensland academic, warned that sprawling single-storey homes had become the norm in Australia, swallowing up the outside space once proudly occupied by the backyard.
It used to be every Australian's dream to own a house on a quarter-acre block in the suburbs, surrounded by a white picket fence, with a big yard containing a swimming pool and barbecue area. Families lived outdoors for much of the year, eating, playing and entertaining.
But Professor Hall, who studied aerial photographs as well as measurements of homes and residential blocks, said a dramatic change had taken place during the 1990s. Houses now extended right to the boundary of blocks, leaving little room oudoors. They were cheaper, and maximised floor space, but were threatening the backyard with extinction.
Professor Hall, from Griffith University, began his research after moving to Australia two years ago, and noticing that building trends appeared to contradict the image of an open-air lifestyle. He said the trend was being driven by people who wanted to maximise the resale value of their houses, or worked such long hours that they were rarely at home.
"The real problem, I think, though, is what is happening to the Australian lifestyle," he told Australian Associated Press. "What's happening to this idea of the outdoor lifestyle – the barbie, the swimming pool?"
Research suggests that backyards have been shrinking for years, with population pressures reducing the size of blocks and creating higher-density housing. In inner-city areas, the most common outdoor space is a tiny paved courtyard.
The backyard, once a symbol of Middle Australia, traditionally contained a lawn, a sandpit, a garden shed, a vegetable patch and a Hills Hoist – a distinctive locally designed clothes dryer. It was a place where kids played cricket and rode their bikes, while their parents supped beer in the shade with friends and neighbours.
Professor Hall said that while urban sprawl was common to many countries, Australia was losing its backyards faster than most. The only exception he found was Adelaide, where people were still building houses with plenty of outdoor space. He said: "What people in the suburbs are doing is spending the money on what they perceive as floor area rather than lifestyle. Walls and windows cost money. The second storey costs money. This gives you the cheapest way. But it's not a very nice environment."
The trend was damaging to the environment, Professor Hall said, as the houses required more heating, air-conditioning and lighting. They had little shade and a poor microclimate.
He said a return to a backyard life could only be achieved through planning regulations.
Despite its image as a land of wide open spaces, Australia is one of the world's most urbanised countries, with the bulk of the population squeezed into the seven coastal cities.