Over the Hedge


This page written circa 16 March, 2014.

Tony Hall's book "The Life and Death of the Australian Back Yard" (2010) is the most rigorous, turgid, dry, academic, and yet vital and fascinating book. I had just finsihed learning from Bill Bryson that the suburb was invented at the point in history when the steam train made commuting possible. Hall carried the story forward, eventually explaining why Australian (and some US) housing developments have become cramped, regular, ugly affairs with windows that look out onto other people's windows. In the movie whose title I have used as the title to this comment, what was over the hedge was not so appealing.

The single page reproduced at right sums up the situation very well. The lower picture shows the intersection between an older and a new suburban development in Australia. The contrast is obvious between spaced dwellings and lego-brick-tight houses hideously crammed in. Each is typical of its era throughout Australian suburbia.

The middle of Plate 31 looks worse than Little Whingeing of Harry Potter fame.

The upper plate presents the plan of a modern UK development. In the UK the dwellings-per-hectare is higher and yet the environment vastly more pleasing. Many factors contribute, small front offsets, often terraced buildings, but the atmosphere is pleasing and the outlook restful and communal if not entirely private. There are communal spaces, trees are included from the outset, and each house has about 100 square metres or more of back yard, which Hall is at pains to show is the ideal for happy dwellers. A major factor is a small house footprint, typically 50 to 80 square metres, necessitating small rooms and multiple stories.

When we moved to CA we remarked upon how content people were with "track" housing developments. Huge houses, often 3000 square feet or more (about 300m^2) go some way to taking your mind off the ghastly outlook and boring gardens, but even the most expensive such plots do not come close to UK and European suburbs for aesthetics. In Hall's book I found a scientific study of suburban planning and an explanation of why I had always found English and old-style Sydney suburbs so much more appealing.

Hall also speculates as to how this has come about, despite apparently-rigorous housing regulations. Of course, the outcome is driven by the pressure between cost on one hand, and regulations on the other. The difference is that in Aus the buyer buys the lot and then contracts a builder, and neither builder nor purchaser is educated in factors that impact quality of life or future potential for development, so they put in the cheapest dwelling that has the largest floor area, typically a single-storey rectangle that fills the land to the legal limit. No town planner and no architect involved. Result: A crap job.

The interesting question is why the "lack of consumer resistance" as Hall puts it? How come the sad fucks are still buying into this kind of existance, as a more hard-core observer might put it? Are the residents at home and awake for so little of their lives? Hall cites evidence to suggest that this is indeed the case. They leave early, return late, and on weekends spend lots of time in that modern national pasttime, shopping.

The plots at left are not encouraging. I was a 1978-type Australian, but I am not a 2000-type Australian. Hall says "Wheras the people working the long hours may be earning significant salaries, they do not have the time to enjoy the fruits of their labour".

I want to conclude this article with a short story. Again this year I have enrolled in a paper. It is on Mentoring and Coaching. To kick things off we are asked to identify our own mentoring experiences, and mine concludes with the question "Can you be mentored by someone you have never met"? I am thinking of role models---the title I would have given to the person whose skills and styles most influenced me when I was a vacuous undergraduate, my first serious mentor. To exemplify this I cite the oft-cited role model, Steve Jobs, and I invite anyone to look at the superb (and rare) case of Jobs dispensing advice at a Stanford Commencement. Jobs ends by saying that he looks in the mirror every morning and asks himself "if this was the last day of your life, would you want to do what you are going to do today"? If the answer is "no" for more than a few days in a row, he advises, it's time for a big change.

(As an aside, is it not peculiar how the medium of video can screw up the tenses of your verbs? The late Mr Jobs remains in the present tense.)

When I look in the mirror, my answer is mostly "yes", but "I would like to be doing just somewhat less of it".

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