Down memory lane: suburbia and its discontents

Suburbia has its problems, but there's something about it that enthralls me.

Art by Ellie Stephenson

The image of Unanderra’s Western Suburbs pool punctuates my childhood like very little else. 

The pools themselves are infinitely inviting (minus the kiddie pool): the water’s frigid temperature written on a chalkboard at the entry; the beat-up change rooms; the best hot chips on planet Earth; the octogenarian lap swimmers making their slow pilgrimage up and down the lanes; kids attempting handstands in the shallow end; kids attempting elaborate dives in the deep end. 

When I was quite small and it was hot, my grandma would take me there. Grandma, my sibling Anna and I, we’d bundle into the back of her silver Subaru and arrive five minutes later at the pool. Our little bare feet would hop over the carpark asphalt and through to the pool. Grandma (a slight woman just shy of 150 centimetres) would give us ‘dolphin rides’ on her back, and we’d pile back into the car with a box of hot chips and a lingering smell of chlorine. Sometimes the waves of heat would congeal into ugly, grey lightning clouds and we’d depart early, dodging the angry weather. 

When I was 16, I’d give up on studying for my English trials and flip-flop down to the pool, the heat bearing down on me and warping the Princes Highway, the buzz of late spring humming in my ears. The journey was different now: I was thinking hard about Sylvia Plath, and I was keenly aware of the back of my thighs as a man leaned out of his ute to offer his commentary on them. But the destination was much the same. It was still a glinting blue oasis in the surrounding heat, the old guys still breast-stroking ad infinitum, the hot chips just as delicious. And, as ever, the touch of the water — deeply and essentially comforting. 

These vignettes are accompanied by others which feel very similar. 

My grandpa and I, sitting in Robinson Park across the creek from my old house, making ‘poisonous stew’ with the grass clippings left by the Council mower.

The time I convinced Anna to run away with me (to Robinson Park — out of boredom or ire, I can’t recall) only to be immediately thwarted by our neighbour, sitting on her front porch with a cigarette as she often did. 

The way, each Halloween, we would make only one stop: to the door of our other neighbours, to collect a treasured takeaway container of homemade Greek delight. 

The time we tried to sell chokos (home grown!) out the front of our house, with sadly minimal uptake from the neighbourhood.

There are two feelings which bind these images together. The first is a sense of loss: these memories, though vivid, feel distant. They’re almost part of another era, like the tales of youth told by a very old person. The second is a strong sense of place in suburbia.

Suburbia, though often maligned, is special to me. I always feel drawn to the suburbs. When I moved to Sydney for a year, I lived in Canterbury near the Cooks River, and would go on long lazy walks through Earlwood when it was sunny. Whenever I’ve travelled, I’ve felt a similar impulse: to wander through the parts of the city imbued with intense ordinariness and humanity.

Detractors might say mundanity, rather than ordinariness, but I think they’re wrong. Many of our lives are set to the backdrop of suburbia. The reason suburbs are special is that underneath the same-y patchwork of backyards and the buzz of lawnmowers, they are vivid and alive. 

Suburbs can have their own idiosyncrasies, their own defining feeling. Because they usually have only a few points for people to congregate — like the Western Suburbs pool — they combine people in ways which are rare in a larger and more anonymous space like the CBD. 

Suburbs are used primarily for living — not for running giant businesses, not for producing goods or entertainment. It’s in suburbia where pensioners can tend to their gardens and grandchildren. You can have little shops that couldn’t afford rent anywhere else, affable delicatessens who know your birthday, and bus drivers who’ll wait when you’re running late for school. You can have big, messy families with guinea pig runs and chickens and swingsets and decrepit trampolines. You know all the kids on your street — they might climb over your fence at any moment.

But suburbs are not always like this. In fact, much of my sense of loss stems from the fact that this character of suburbs is increasingly illusory and bygone. Many of the attributes that made suburbs so delightful for my childhood self are fading away. 

How can you embark on childhood odysseys with the neighbourhood kids when there are no trees to climb and no parks to roam? How can you play handball on streets where a great, hulking Hilux or Range Rover might growl past at any moment? When your suburb swelters as a heat island, how can you explore outdoors? As your suburb gets gentrified beyond recognition, how can you hold onto the sense of belonging it once evoked?

Suburbia is not idyllic. Disadvantage is suburbanised, compartmentalised into unseen and under-resourced pockets of cyclical poverty and immobility. Where sometimes the closeness of suburbs can provide personality, it can also be confining. The fungibility of suburbia, too, can have its ills. It is too convenient to create a mass expanse of McMansions that are unfit for purpose — ecologically and socially destructive. And increasingly, suburbia is also the frontline of the climate crisis, as flood-prone, treeless, black-roofed burbs get cooked and waterlogged by turn.

What’s more, suburbs face an existential problem. As city populations swell, it is unfeasible to infinitely extend the size of suburbia. Urban sprawl becomes less and less liveable, and harder and harder to adequately resource. 

What I wonder, then, is whether the valuable and meaningful parts of suburbia can be retained in a context in which suburbanisation is so problematic? What would a city look like that still gave people immediate and distinct communities, but did not suffer from atomisation and sprawl?

Crucially, the design of our suburbs must become far more intentional than it is currently. Right now, suburbs pop up sporadically, blooming like fungal growths on whichever former swamp or newly acquired piece of farmland presents itself. Little thought is devoted to the amenity of these new settlements: it is not uncommon to see a new housing estate half an hour away from any grocery store, helplessly exposed to bushfire or flood risk, entirely reliant on a single road out. 

Australian house sizes are among the largest in the world. My family home — which houses six people — only very recently managed to exceed Australia’s average floor size, which houses, on average, 2.5 people. When I drive past new housing estates, I am struck by the way the hulking houses press right to the edge of their block. The sheer size of our houses is regrettable — it needlessly increases energy use, worsens flooding through the panoply of hard surfaces, and keeps trees small and sparse. This spread of houses leads to inefficient cities: infrastructure is spread thin and travel times inflate. 

Making better suburbs requires us to think hard about how to make medium-to-high density housing usable. Big houses represent, essentially, the privatisation of many functions which used to be communal. The private pool ownership rate in Australia is high, and increasing. Many new builds now have amenities like media rooms, and two car garages are almost ubiquitous in many suburbs. So to sell a vision of more condensed houses requires the provision of these benefits communally. Investing in infrastructure like public transport, pools, parks, libraries and arts centres is essential — and conveniently easier when less space is taken up with houses. To make suburbs combine people, rather than abstract them from their neighbours, suburb design needs to induce them out of the door. 

The multi-decade erosion of public housing has undoubtedly contributed to the problems of suburbia. People experience dislocation as suburbs gentrify, homogenise, and hollow out. It should not be unthinkable to live near one’s childhood home, and nor should people’s connection to their place be subject to the whims of financial markets. 

A quiet life in the suburbs is a cultural fascination and long-term goal for many people. Reflecting on where the appeal of suburbia really lies is a necessity, or we face a future of McMansions, SUVs and urban wastelands.