Good Fences make Good Neighbours, or Do They?

Posted on January 30th, by Kathryn Kutchel in In the Media, Melbourne, News, Planning, Urban Design.

As residential living becomes smarter and more inclusive of situations including multi-generational living and communal space, is there growing potential in the Australian market for the possibility of shared backyards among residential dwellings? For generations, Australians have thrived off the idea of owning their ‘forever home’ with a spacious yard and picket fence to flag-post the boundaries of their property.

However, with the concept of shared backyards emerging around the world for varied purposes – sustainable shared food production in North America and Canada, multi-generational dwellings across Asia – has the time come for Australians to do away with the fence and embrace communal living in our own backyard?

Victorian news program, The Project, approached the issue last week by way of inviting Peter Vlitas of Avid Property Group to share his views on this “incredibly optimistic picture of suburban living.”

The topic of ‘shared backyards’ can be traced back to 2009 where Northern American residences were sharing their backyards to encourage a better flow of food production, a concept that the Shared Backyards Project Manager, Christopher Hawkins hoped to see “active in Australia and New Zealand this year.” Evidently, that did not occur, however, Taylors General Manager of Urban Development Planning and Design, Nick Hooper believes that it could “be beneficial on a few levels”.
“That scenario would be helpful here because it would allow individual family groups to have the privacy of their own home, but to benefit from the shared space that you can certainly have in scenarios where a shared space will actually work. There will be scenarios where people who aren’t related would be willing to share but I think they’ll be pretty rare. I don’t think it will suit most people, I think it will suit some people who benefit from a shared approach to life and yes, growing vegetables for their own use etc.”

If we’re not willing to share our space for growth then what exactly will we use our shared backyards for?

With food production not being a top priority or incentive for this concept, the question of whether family arrangements are enough to prompt change is raised instead. Due to Australia’s sprawling landscape however, there is not a significant need to consider multi-generational family arrangements as several Eastern countries do.
“Extended family arrangements is something we don’t tend to do here in Australia a great deal but certainly overseas we do.” Mr. Hooper stated. “It won’t work in most scenarios where people don’t know each other, don’t trust each other and unfortunately most of the press around this has just leapt on that outcome.”
“I think it all comes down to having an open mind to what type of products might work for different family arrangements, one of the weaknesses in our town planning system is that it simply wouldn’t allow for that. Every allotment has to have their own private, open space, there is no allowance for shared space when it comes to private, open space.”

If we agree to sharing our space with our neighbours, will future buyers buy into the same concept?

Benefits and potential of shared backyards aside, there would also be an increase in the need for legal restrictions and specifications surrounding these dwellings. As stated in a 2012 article by Newser, ‘communal spaces aren’t without risks’ with estate agents in particular having to handle this issue. The dilemma centres around the seller and potential buyer; does the seller need to sign a document stating that the house comes with a shared backyard? Or does the potential buyer need to calculate the cost of re-erecting a fence and would this affect the quality of life by not embracing modern change?
“This is asking you to go a step further, and say, rather than have an individual private backyard we’d like to have a shared space amongst dwellings. The town planning system would simply need to change to accommodate that outcome. Certainly, in multi dwelling developments you can have communal open space that is owned by the body corporate, but still each unit will have their own private backyard.”

Having the allowance in the system for shared backyards would be a great thing, but currently the town planning system cannot support the possibility of the concept due to the lack of clarity surrounding the circumstances of buying and selling, and therefore who is responsible for the erection of a fence.
“There’s two scenarios, one is any houses with a shared backyard can only sit on one title in total, in other words you would have multiple dwellings on one title. Therefore, the shared space isn’t an issue and in that scenario, you would avoid the situation where one person wants to sell because basically, that wouldn’t be possible. You’d be saying that this is a product for one title. If you had, let’s say there’s four houses sharing a backyard, and if those four dwellings had their own individual title and each of those four owners decided they wanted to knock the fence down to have shared space, I think it would be pretty clear that if one of them wanted to sell, they would either need to re-erect the fencing or have some level of agreement with whoever was going to buy.’ Mr. Hooper explained.

‘You’re looking at scenarios where certain groups of people want to enjoy a certain outcome, whilst those certain people want to enjoy that outcome, the outcome will be fine. As soon as you either change the relationships between those people, or change the people in those relationships, the likelihood is you’ll need to go back to conventional outcome.”

While we wouldn’t be sharing acres with our neighbours, perhaps shared backyards offer a solution to ever-shrinking block sizes and ever increasing land prices. Image sourced from UDIA

One must additionally consider whether this concept will impact the market with regards to affordability and appeal. With current lot sizes shrinking from 420sqm to 400sqm ( in just one year and entry-level buyers searching for cheaper ways to buy into the market, could shared backyards be just another sacrifice the public make in an effort to own their own home if it means that maintenance costs could be shared amongst neighbours?

“The amount of open space you end up with for an individual dwelling is not actually that large. The lots are getting smaller and smaller in any event – we’re producing lots under the Smaller Housing Code that are 200 – 250sqm – so they are quite small anyway, those things are more important for the affordability situation than I think this solution. I’m not saying it can’t play a role, but I don’t think it’s the panacea of all ills. I think it is an option to be provided to widen the prospects for people to buy into but I don’t think it will have significant impact on affordability.

Is the dream of a picket fence backyard being outranked by affordability in the current Melbourne land development market? Is Australia really prepared to give up on green spaces despite the push for a smart cities approach? Image sourced from

Despite a significant rise in communal space in Melbournian cafes and open spaces, the vision of shared backyards accompanying a current ‘smart cities’ movement – which Taylors is proud to represent in their projects – is currently a grey area. When asked whether the concept of shared backyards is one that Taylors is currently on board with, Mr. Hooper explained that the company would be keen to lead the way, regardless of whether or not this trend would become commonplace in Australian development.
“Short answer is, we aren’t currently doing it. Simply because there’s no legislative capability at the moment to do it. Every house must have private open space, we can create allotments that have more than one dwelling, but as soon as you do that, the Residential Code provisions kick in and they require private open space of certain areas for every dwelling. So, before it can be done in real terms, the planning scheme needs to change.’

‘But, having said that, if the planning scheme can change or if there is a way of getting around the planning scheme and our clients wanted to do it, we’d more than happily incorporate it into our designs. They’re the ones who’ll have a better feel for the market, and so therefore again the proportion or the number of them in any given estate will depend upon the market pickup.’
‘It’s something that we are watching with interest and we’ll be ready to incorporate it should things change to accommodate it.”