Satellite image of new suburb exposes Australia's 'big problem'

Young Planner of the Year and TEDx Speaker Samuel Austin explains why Aussie suburbs are

A viral picture on Reddit of a new Queensland subdivision has sparked a debate about suburb design.

Many are questioning why new suburbs are so squished together, built boundary to boundary, with non-existent backyards, minimal public open space, and worst of all – no trees to be seen.

Well, it’s a problem not unique to Queensland. In fact, it's being replicated in every single city, town, and suburb across Australia. And it's a big problem.

An aerial view of a new Queensland subdivision.
A viral image of a new subdivision in Nirimba on the Sunshine Coast has sparked debate about Australia's urban sprawl. Source: Reddit

What has changed across Aussie suburbs?

Now to start off – no, you’re not crazy. The design of Aussie suburbs has changed quite substantially in the past few years.

Firstly, homebuyers still demand the same features of houses from the 1970s. We all want our slice of the Australian dream. A freestanding, four-bedroom house with ensuites, two living rooms and a double car garage. Give me a castle amongst the plasterboard and concrete “gumtrees”.

And secondly, lot sizes have been getting smaller and smaller each year. But if everyone wants a big house, with four bedrooms, two living rooms and two car spaces, what happens?

Well – as you can see across countless examples in Australian cities – we end up with houses with no backyards, built boundary to boundary, eaves to eaves.

Satellite images compare Marsden Park to Quakers Hill
Marsden Park is a world apart from Quakers Hill, despite the Sydney suburbs being a 5-minute drive apart. Source: Samuel Austin

Why are our Aussie suburbs changing?

A clue to what's causing the problem can be found in its name – sprawl.

Sprawl is when cities decide to keep building detached houses further and further away from the CBD, rather than building new apartments or townhouses closer by. And the price of infrastructure for sprawling, detached homes is incredibly costly, and is getting more and more expensive each year.

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A recent study of Sydney found that it costs over double to build the necessary infrastructure in sprawl, than it would if you built a home in the inner-city. This is because in new suburbs you have to lay kilometres of new water and sewage pipes, build new roads, and connect houses to the power grid.

Whereas the inner city already has the infrastructure in the ground. It’s much more cost-effective to upgrade infrastructure than to build it new.

And to make up for this cost? Well, you either shrink the lot sizes, or you increase the house prices by a significant amount more. Of course, this is just the direct financial cost.

Let’s not talk about the enormous amounts of additional carbon emissions these new residents will create from living so far away from the city and having to drive every day, the native bushland we have to destroy to build these houses, or the fact that these houses will become heat sinks in summer.

More by Samuel Austin

Two images of Marsden Park where houses are built right to the boundary line.
In suburbs like Marsden Park, houses are built right to the boundary line. Source: Samuel Austin

Well how can we fix this big Aussie housing issue?

Fortunately there are some fantastic examples of sprawl done well in Australia, but they don't look like the suburbs we’re used to. Because to fix this sprawling mess, we need to build up not out.

When we build apartments and townhouses, not only can we house more people, but we can use the space we’ve saved on having individual free-standing houses to instead build large swathes of public parks and open space.

In Sydney, look at Fairwater in Blacktown, or the Thornton Estate in Penrith. They have a great mix of apartments, townhouses and detached homes all set amongst well-integrated public open spaces and bushland, with large mature street trees in abundance.

Australia, we need to be asking ourselves an important question. Would you prefer a tiny 20 square metre backyard, or a large park with sports fields, nature play and bushland right on your doorstep?

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