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Modernity’s paradox: Fatter, sicker and sadder - Part 2

By Brendan Gleeson - posted Thursday, 10 February 2005

The other side of the suburban divide

In the new spaces of affluence, the relative absence of a public domain impoverishes the young in a different way to the poor (see Part I), excluding them from the principal civic resources and social experiences that nourish the development of strong citizenship values.

The deserving: Too much dessert

Let’s imagine the situation of the children and youth who might live in the master planned estate that might eventually replace Lansdowne Caravan Park. It is also likely to look very crowded, in a middle class way. Lots of large houses, many of them two stories, packed into small lots, separated by narrow streets and pocket parks – it may or may not have footpaths.

Some commentators have derisively called such estates “McMansion Land”; perhaps because their supersized contents seem steroid “enhanced”. In truth, the observation is condescending and rather unfair. The large structures reflect a growth in the national appetite for more housing space that has been a feature of Australian life for much of the 20th century and now beyond. At the same time, the plots on which they are set have been dramatically compacted as the "urban consolidation diktat" has been applied in various ways to new subdivisions by state and local governments.


Hawley, resorting to mild hyperbole, describes contemporary project homes on the newer Sydney master planned estates:

Four bedroom, spiral staircase, open-plan, kitchen-family-dining-lounge, multiple bathrooms, rumpus room, big-screen media room, barbecue, spa, multi-garage bigger-is-beautiful-is-better houses.

Whilst condescension is unwise, there are growing reasons for disquiet about McMansion Land. The growth in housing girth is an environmental concern - the suburban palazzos are energy guzzlers - and also, perhaps, a health concern. Evidence on the national epidemic in childhood obesity points to a relationship between the expanding girth of dwellings and the growing waistlines of their inhabitants.

The contemporary suburban mega house internalises activity, allocating large amounts of space to passive recreation: home theatres, lounges, rumpus and computer rooms, courtyards, and monster garages for the storage of adults’ toys.

Gwyther explains: “They love cocooning inside their McMansions, which are like castles, fun factories and mini resorts in one”. These relatively sedentary residential landscapes contrast with older suburban forms that were premised on far greater levels of outdoor activity, especially for children.

The traditional backyard has gone, along with its trees, garden veggie patch, often pool, washing line and shed, where children could let their bodies and imaginations run free and build tree houses, cubbyhouses, billycarts, dig in the dirt and invent games. Now, it’s indoor computer games, and, given there’s no room for a decent run-up in most McMansion courtyards, children are driven to sport and formally organised activities most days of the week.


Those “McKids” who actually do participate in organised sport - a chore for parents working long hours on the mortgage treadmill - will experience at least some level of physical activity. But missing from these new suburban landscapes are the opportunities for spontaneous, constant free play available to children of previous generations, and those lucky enough still to have backyards. As Hawley observes, many parents cite space as the principal reason for rejecting “inner city shoe boxes” in favour of the new master planned estates. And yet free, permeable space seems to be almost absent from the new residential landscapes.

The freedom and permeability of activity space is further reduced by the highly routinised and supervised lives imposed on contemporary middle class urban children. The Geographer, Paul Tranter, believes that Australian children are subjected to unprecedented levels of surveillance and control, driven by an epidemic of parental and institutional concern about environmental risk and crime. Many now live highly scripted lives, marked by pervasive anxiety and the absence of free and independent play. Cadzow (Sydney Morning Herald, January 17, 2004) writes of the "bubble wrap generation":

So reluctant are we to let our offspring out of our sight that we drive them to the playground and everywhere else rather than allow them to walk or ride their bikes. Strapped into the backseat of the family sedan, chauffeured to and from school, soccer practice and piano lessons, middle-class Australian boys and girls are like pampered prisoners - cosseted, constrained and constantly nagged.

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This is the second part in a two part series looking at our toxic cities. Read part one here.

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About the Author

Brendan Gleeson is Professor of Urban Management and Policy and Director of the Urban Research Program at the School for Environmental Planning at Griffith University, Brisbane.

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