Why do outer suburban streets look so bland?

Manna Gum Drive, Ventnor, Phillip Island

Critics are gunning for Victoria’s Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, following his decision to rezone 5.7 Ha of farmland at Ventnor, Phillip Island, for residential use despite the opposition of Bass Coast Shire Council. The rights and wrongs of the Minister’s decision is no doubt a fascinating topic, however my present interest is in the way this land is likely to be developed.

I got to thinking about that after reading a letter in the paper on Saturday from the owner of a beach house at Ventnor, expressing the “hope that this natural wonderland does not become transformed into a home of little courts, high fences, and narrow streets filled with the McMansions of suburbia”.

I wouldn’t be holding my breath if I were him – there’s got to be a much better than even chance that any new residential development will end up looking more like nearby Manna Gum Drive (see exhibit) than the more traditional ‘beach houses’ of Ventnor. In fact even that seems optimistic – given the enormous decline in average lot sizes in recent years, a more probable scenario could be this development in Melton.

He can probably rest easy about his fear of McMansions though. Two storey behemoths are likely to be too expensive for most Ventnor newcomers – it’ll probably be single storey brick veneers with low tile roofs and two car garages.

Being near the beach doesn’t faze the standard suburban form – it’s ubiquitous. Drive 100 metres back from the beach in large parts of the sub-tropical Sunshine Coast or Gold Coast, close your eyes, and you could as easily be in the bland streets of Melton or Campbelltown. You’ll even have the same experience in tropical Cairns.

I expect they all look much the same because the economics of land development and cottage building produces the same solution everywhere. Affordable lots are 500–700 sq metres with high fences for privacy. The houses look more or less the same because the home building industry is pretty efficient at churning out economically priced detached houses in low-maintenance brick veneer.

As with most mass produced items built to a price, the scope for differentiation isn’t high, often just a tweak of the front facade. Buyers can have something markedly different if they want – they might, for example, commission an architect – but they’ll have to pay a lot more for the advantages of a bespoke design. But that’s just not an option for the vast bulk of buyers in areas like Melton and, I daresay, Ventnor.

A key reason streets in fringe suburbs look so boring and nondescript to sophisticated eyes is their relative youth – trees planted in the nature strip haven’t had time to take off and residents haven’t yet established front gardens. Many streets in established suburbs were bland once too. The streets of Eaglemont and Ivanhoe doubtless looked pretty insipid at first with their small brick and tile houses, but generations of zealous gardeners cultivating their front yards and nature strips have created, in effect, a completely new streetscape.

Yet there are many streets in established suburbs like this one in Keysborough which are still pretty uninspiring despite the advantages of maturity. This relatively young street in Melton looks like it’s lost some street trees already and parts of the nature strip have become a parking lot. Here’s another newish one in Melton where the front yards don’t even pretend to be gardens – they’re all driveway and low maintenance ground cover. And most of the houses on this street on the Sunshine Coast were built at least 30 years ago (in fact some have been redeveloped) yet apart from a few desultory palms, trees with scale aren’t very common.

Without reasonably large trees to create unity and the sense of a ‘wall’, the streets of Melton will look lacklustre to my eyes. The houses will struggle to create a sense of enclosure by themselves because they’re set back from the street and predominantly one storey with low roof lines. But I doubt the residents see it that way. I’ve certainly not seen any evidence suggesting outer suburban residents generally dislike either their houses or their streets.

In fact the look of these sorts of quiet residential streets is really a matter for the residents, not me. I have a justifiable interest in their sustainability because that can impose a cost on the broader society, but the aesthetics of a cul de sac don’t inflict a cost on anyone but the residents, so how it looks is really their business.

10 Comments on “Why do outer suburban streets look so bland?”

  1. TomD says:

    Even landscaping and trees cannot save us from the Australian ugliness of decades of nasty brick veneer homes and their equivalents in post-Fifties high rise brick units.

    They are at total contradiction with the raw beauty and uniqueness of the Australian bush and natural environments.

    And in the name of low maintenance … or lack of developer imagination, regarding equally affordable alternative approaches??!

    If brick had to be the core material used, then the brick manufacturers also have to carry a lot of the blame for the many, many years they failed to offer aesthetically pleasing and more environmentally harmonious choices in the colours, tones and visually nasty ‘standard dimensions’ of their brick wares and selections.

    Council regulations too, for their structural requirements for higher buildings that excluded the use of timber.

    The list of players responsible for this ongoing crime against Australia’s wonderful natural environments does not reflect at all well on the Australian culture … and the aesthetic and planning decisions being made in its name.

    Relief in the form of superior masking landscape .. and a welcome but very late sense of enhanced design sensibility .. only came around the time of the arrival of Burke’s Backyard.

    Finally, someone got Aussies thinking about some fundamental issues and approaches in this formerly terrible built environment context,

    Nothing defines the damaging outcomes & capabilities of the problem more than a simple look at some of the foreshore buildings and skylines surrounding Sydney Harbour and Sydney’s beaches – across from the CBD on the north side by way of example, or in Dee Why. Then it pays to contrast this mentally with the original colorful architecture (much of it drawing upon timber not brick) and true character of historic Balmain. By way of comparative example.

    The way The Rocks area is built to the landform itself is another salutory lesson … both being a far cry from the more recent and seemingly unstoppable assaults on our eyes that the approach you describe represents.

    Such poor development and decision-making should be viewed as a matter of national priority, given how they define the urban/suburban environment and living spaces to the key extent they do.

  2. TomD says:

    … On the plus side there is of course the wonderful timber and tin, stilted ‘Queenslander’/Bungalow style of buildings which fit the environment and climate too in Queensland. And the locally quarried stone buildings found in many cities. Possibly the Georgian architecture of Tasmania deserves mention as well because of how well it seems to fit with its context, but as with those pokey terrace houses, I would never want to live in one. This is one area where modernity definitely wins out!

  3. Daniel says:

    It’s worth noting that standard designs for homes are nothing new. I found a common design in a bunch of houses from the 1930s. http://www.danielbowen.com/2007/02/07/little-houses-made-of-ticky-tacky/

    • I lived in a house in Thornbury that was over 100 years old. There were three other properties on the street that started with the exact same design. The front facade was still virtually identical on each property but for a different lick of paint on each (the details only, the red brick was left intact on all of them). The fences and gardens had all evolved quite differently, and I believe each property had the original kitchens and bathrooms replaced meaning the rear sections would have all looked quite different.

      100 years of evolution aside, every single party we had involved some neighbour in the street getting their door knocked on by someone thinking it was our house.

      Apparently the houses were all built to house people families of military or high level police officers (can’t remember which!), with a small orchid next to each one where the newer houses on the street now stand.

  4. Oz says:

    In the first instance, the “blandness” in urban design probably reflects the bland mentality of the developer and bland expectations of the purchaser. There are some subdivisions in the MSD that have become aesthetically pleasing over twenty years. Long term blandness in an urban street is a consequence of the mind set of the local demographic market in which the residents find themselves

  5. Johnyboy says:

    I think they are lucky to have a house. Some people who are affluent can carry on like monkeys in a trapped cage. Though half the population of the planet thinks that bland place is paradise and aspire to this.

  6. john says:

    Yes to everything about the economics of the housing market. What I don’t understand is why Australians, and/or their local authorities and peoperty developers (depending on who you think is driving things), insist on wasting so much space on barren nature strips and front setbacks, even while they are reducing the back yard to practically nothing.

    Compare your typical modern urban fringe house on 500 square metres with a well to do 1890s terrace or semidetached on 300 square metres. For the same size house the latter is likely to have more useful private open space (ie back yard). Not least because it has smaller front and size setbacks.

    A three metre wide footpath and a four metre front setback is more than enough to create a pleasant streescape provided it is planted appropriately, as you can see by walking down a zillion Sydney or Melbourne streets older than world war 1.

  7. Michael says:

    I live in an area that was subdivided in the 1950’s and the lifestyle has changed a lot since then. When I grew up most weekends were spent at home and a lot of that time in the garden. There was hardly anything else to do. There was no weekend shopping and a lot of households had only one car. There was a great deal of pride in suburban gardens and a great deal of gardening skill. I’m not sure whether this kind of lifestyle is going to survive to the same extent. If you don’t like gardening, don’t know how to do it or simply don’t want to spend weekends working in it, large gardens become a burden. It’s pretty clear walking around my suburb that a lot of people can’t cope with their gardens. I think it is just inertia, an ignorance of other housing options that keep a lot of people in these bland suburbs.

  8. Hawthorn fan says:

    Plants can help a LOT…..check out the Google street view for Auburn Grove, Hawthorn. All but a few of the properties are ugly multi-storey apartments, but the well-established London Plane trees make the street beautiful.

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