Australia as a nation might have been born in the bush, but the reality is that we have long been a nation of urban (and suburban) dwellers. In fact, according to the last Australian Bureau of Statistics survey, 64 per cent of us reside in one of the eight capital cities.
And there are probably some very good reasons for our love affair with the big smoke. A study by researchers at the University of NSW revealed that the rate of social disadvantage increases as you go from the centre of big cities and out into the country. Poverty is higher in the outer suburbs than closer in and keeps getting higher as you go through regional cities, bigger country towns, smaller country towns and finally rural areas.
“This is likely to be because the further out you get, the more unemployment you find and the harder it can be to get access to services such as doctors, dentists, childcare, aged-care and even a bank branch,” Fairfax's Ross Gittins reported.
However this is not to say there aren't lifestyle advantages of a life beyond the concrete jungle. The survey showed the incidence of neighbourhood problems tends to decline the further you get from the centre.
“People in inner metro areas tend to be twice as annoyed by noisy neighbours as those from further out and it's a similar story with concerns about litter and too much traffic,” Gittins says.
Celebrated urbanist and Fairfax architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly is in no doubt the city is for her. Farrelly lives in a Victorian terrace in Redfern and says she can see the Sydney tower from the end of her street.
“I like excitement and energy and that to me is what cities are about,” Farrelly says. “I actually like that there's drug dealers and poor people and a whole mix. I like differences.”
Farrelly also appreciates the obvious benefits of world-class facilities that city living brings. “I can visit four different swimming pools, more than 200 cafes, three universities, the heart of Chinatown, the opera and the cinema, all without getting in a car,” she says.
On the other hand, Farrelly's hostile views about suburbia are well known to Fairfax readers:
“The suburbs are about boredom, and obviously some people like being bored and plain and predictable, I'm happy for them … even if their suburbs are destroying the world.”
However, not everyone agrees with Farrelly. According to the Bankwest Quality of Life Index, 21 of Australia's 25 most liveable communities are to be found in deep in the suburbs.
“Although many Australians dream of living on the coast or in the country, in reality the best quality of life in Australia is found in the suburbs, particularly in Sydney's north, Melbourne's east and western Perth,” BankWest retail chief executive Ian Corfield says.
“In the suburbs of Australia's capital cities, residents often have the best of all worlds with access to good schools, modern hospitals and reliable jobs, but also large houses, fast internet connections and low crime rates.”
The Index revealed that residents of Ku-ring-gai in Sydney's northern suburbs have the best quality of life in Australia.
Australian suburbia kicked off around the 1850s, with the advent of the railways and tramways, allowing people to live further away from the city centre on bigger plots of ground. Many of these suburbs were fashioned as 'garden suburbs' and promoted for their connection with nature.
Charles Pickett, author of Designer Suburbs and a suburbanite himself, says the access to gardens and nature is the ongoing appeal of much suburban living. “The challenge is to connect suburbia to sustainable urban infrastructure, especially public transport,” Pickett says. “The problem with suburbia is its reliance on private transport. That's where it goes wrong.”
Although not many Australians actually reside in rural areas anymore, it doesn't stop many of us from dreaming of making a 'tree-change' and living a bucolic existence amongst goats and beehives. Of course, some actually make the move.
Arran and Emma Pratt abandoned their suburban life in Umina on the NSW Central Coast and moved to a shed on a two-hectare property on the edge of the Yengo National Park. They live there with their four children, Fin (12), Willow (10), Jasper (5) and baby Daisy.
With no utilities in the area, they rely on solar power and tank water. And the shed only has two rooms. “The term 'rooms' might be a stretch,” Arran admits. “We built most of it from reclaimed materials found on roadside throwouts. You learn to make do when the nearest Bunnings is an hour away.”
Arran works as a technician for Railcorp, a role that sees him travelling for two-and-a-half hours each day. Emma stays home with the baby and runs an online business, Hazy Jane, creating handmade children's clothes.
“The isolation can be difficult for Emma, especially during this time when she has a small baby,” says Arran. “Do we miss suburbia? No, not really at all.”