#01 The Australian Dream


Through 2018, AJ+C will be investigating the URBANBACKYARD concept: revisiting and redesigning the courtyard apartment block to provide an ideal place for families to live, play and grow in high-density urban environments.

We will be asking whether it is possible to provide a uniquely local model that mirrors the traditional Australian backyard experience of trees to climb, a cubby house to hide in, and a lawn to play cricket.

The Australian Dream is for one to own their own home on a quarter acre block with a garden backyard in which the kids could play, with a Hills Hoist and a barbeque. By the mid-sixties 70% of Australians lived this car-based dream. When Robin Boyd, in his 1960 book The Australian Ugliness, identified this ‘Dream’ as the purveyor of an endemic Australian ugliness, he was criticized as being unpatriotic. Boyd was attacking the featurism of Australian suburbia and its lack of respect for the Australian landscape. However, for many families the Australian backyard proved to be a great place to bring up children. The houses were small and the gardens were large. Tony Hall, in his 2010 book “The Life and Death of the Australian Backyard”, observed that there was a clear time in the 1990’s when houses started to grow and gardens shrank...   In the new outer suburbs the gardens became so small that children’s free play was limited and the 2nd TV room became an ideal place for more passive recreation such as Internet, TV and PlayStation gaming.


The desire to live the Australian Dream has contributed to a lifestyle driven by debt that has seen both men and women entering the workforce in greater numbers. Between 1978 and 2010 there was an increase in the average actual hours worked by full-time and part-time employed people.  ABS figures from 2013 show that in Sydney nearly 17% of workers are putting in more than 49 hours per week. Peter Martin, reporting in the Sydney Morning Herald, noted that in “2015 the Bureau of Statistics says 5 million of Australia's 7.7 million full-time workers put in more than 40 hours per week. Of them, 1.4 million put in more than 50 hours per week. Around 270,000 put in more than 70 hours per week.” For many, the Australian Dream became dependent on a willingness to travel extensive distances to work.  

Generational shift, is occurring as people increasingly want to live within 30 minutes of work. Families with children are being torn between the choice between a city lifestyle without a car or ‘paying’ for a garden for the kids with long trip times to work.  For rent burdened lower income families, that choice may not even exist. Australian Census data supports the theory, as between 2006 and 2016 the overall percentage of Australian families living in apartments over 4-storeys doubled. Census analysis by Easthope and Tice in 2010  also identifies lower income households with children as a specific and significant sub-sector of the resident apartment population, geographically concentrated in the lower value middle-ring suburbs of Sydney such as the Sydney Olympic Park urban renewal site.

Whether by choice or necessity, the trends clearly show that families are increasingly located in high-density housing. An effort must be made to ensure that this housing is family friendly.

The answer seems simple enough. Build more family friendly apartments in inner ring and middle ring suburbs. Existing family friendly housing research commonly identifies three core needs: family sized housing; daycare, schools and social support;a public realm designed for kids.  The problem is that suppliers to the residential market in Sydney and Melbourne has failed to deliver family sized housing. Overwhelmingly, one bedroom and two bedroom apartments are being provided instead of “family sized” three and four bedrooms, out of a belief that the latter are an un-affordable product.


At AJ+C we believe that family friendly housing design, particularly in the Australian context, has not placed enough emphasis on a fourth need: to provide apartment developments with greater areas of shared outdoor space. Our hunch is that if apartment developments with garden courtyards as shared outdoor space were created with a dimension and design to enable safe free play and interaction with other children, without the need for helicopter parenting, then the apartment sizes need not be so large. This in turn would enable more affordable housing in a greener setting that fosters sustainability and wellbeing.

The term “shared outdoor space” was coined by Clare Cooper Marcus, a pioneer in the field of social issues in housing, open space design, and healing landscapes. Marcus suggests that shared outdoor space “is of great significance in providing a setting for casual social interaction; for strengthening social networks at the local neighborhood level; for children’s play; and for enhancing a sense of responsibility and safety in the neighborhood” Marcus claims that this shared amenity is particularly pertinent in lower-income settings where residents may not be able to sustain wider social networks or take their children to areas of public recreation; and in all settings where there are likely to be families with children.”   
URBANBACKYARD is an AJ+C urban design research project that will be investigating the ability of courtyard building forms to provide this shared outdoor space. We believe that by structuring residential design around this fourth need i.e.–  the provision of suitable private communal open space as a key element of affordable family friendly housing – we could greatly improve the lifestyle and liveability for families with children in high density urban environments.  Our research is a work in progress along a number of lines of enquiry in three main areas:

1.    Public Domain

How does the building block scale impact on the district scale of the street, block, permeability and gross development yields and the relative areas for development lots, road reserves, private communal open space and public space?

2.    Built Form Scale

Assuming block defining built forms, what is the scale of the private communal open space and how does this determine the scale of the built form, net development yields and the nature of the residential community.

3.    Building Typology

How can the use of multi core shallower depth building models be used to improve sustainability, affordability and social outcomes.

Jennifer Min