Reviewed by Seamus O'Hanlon (School of Historical Studies, Monash University, Australia)
Published on H-Urban (January, 2002)
A Property-Owning Democracy?
A Property-Owning Democracy?
It is a truism that Australia is one of the most urbanised nations in the world, and has been for over one hundred years. In fact, it is the most suburbanised, and as Graeme Davison has argued, is probably the world's first truly suburban nation. For most Australians, the desire to have a home of one's own has been a fundamental ambition in life. For the millions of immigrants who have come in the 210-odd years since European invasion, that ambition has perhaps been even more powerful than for the native born. In some Australian cities, most notably Sydney, real estate--specifically the windfall gains that can be made from speculating in it--can sometimes appear to the outsider to be the one glue that holds the diverse groups of the population together.
It is odd, then, that until recently few comprehensive studies of how Australians actually live and use their housing have ever been undertaken. There is a long and distinguished tradition of histories of architecture and planning, and histories of particular buildings and groups of buildings, as well as studies of individual cities, suburbs and towns, but rarely have Australian scholars got together to discuss how we as a people actually live, and why we do so.
It is no accident that when such studies did begin, they came out of the Urban and Environmental Program at the Australian National University under Patrick Troy. In various guises from 1965 until its closure in the late 1990s, this Program attempted, in Troy's words, to "develop a debate about the Australian city and how urban Australia lived" (p. ix). This was always central to the Program's research, but especially over the last decade or so, a strong attempt was made to document how "real" Australians, as opposed to those who feature in glossy magazines and lifestyle television programs, actually live. The result has been a series of books and studies, including, among others, Settlement: a history of Indigenous Housing, edited by Peter Read; Our House, stories of Australian housing, edited by Susan Marsden and electronically published by the Australian Heritage Commission; and this book, A History of European Housing in Australia, published by Cambridge after the sad demise of the Program.
In this collection, nineteen authors of diverse backgrounds and interests report on various aspects of Australian housing and urban policy. The group includes historians, planners, architects, sociologists, geographers, and economists who all came together to report on their findings, workshops, and their ideas before writing the final versions of their papers that appear here. The benefits of this collaboration are obvious in the different understandings that can come out of diverse interpretations of similar case studies. Sometimes this leads to repetition, but mostly this is acknowledged in the references to other chapters sprinkled throughout the book.
With eighteen chapters, plus a preface and an introduction, there is too much contained in this book to adequately summarise here. The book covers most aspects of Australian housing from Graeme Davison's first chapter on the "Colonial Origins of the Australian Home," which documents the British influences on domestic architecture and urban space, through to Patrick Troy's final chapter, "Lowering the Standard," which argues that current urban policies supposedly aimed at making Australian cities more efficient and compact are actually an attack on the living standards of ordinary people. In between, various authors report on the introduction of planning schemes and building regulations, the processes of building houses, including if necessary doing it oneself; the uses Australians have made of their spaces, including those outside the dwelling; and the role of governments and communities in connecting the houses and their inhabitants to each other and the wider urban area. Chapters by David Merrett and Blair Badcock discuss how the houses were paid for, whether home ownership has been good or bad for the nation, and whether future generations will be able to afford it, while Clem Lloyd reports on those who miss out altogether, the homeless who have again appeared on our streets in large numbers since the "return of scarcity" in the last two decades.
As with all collections, there are some chapters better than others, but I suspect no two readers would agree about exactly which these are. Personal taste, disciplinary interests, and preference for statistical over anecdotal evidence might influence these decisions. If I have any criticism, it is the absence of discussion of dwelling types other than the detached single-family house, although the decision to exclude these, because of their relative rarity and recent introduction, is made explicit in the introduction. My other gripe was the use of first initial and surname when citing sources in the text. This is done throughout the book, no doubt at the insistence of the publisher. A minor issue, but it gives the impression that first names are unknown and therefore looks amateurish and detracts from the overall high standard.
This is an important collection that will be useful for scholars of Australian housing, and indeed of the country itself, as housing is one of the basic human needs, if not rights. The decision to abolish the Urban and Environmental Program will, I am sure, be regretted by future generations. What the Program did, and what is again on display here, is point out the discrepancies between the interests of capital, the policies of governments, and the desires of Australians to live in dwellings and urban areas that are reasonably affordable, secure, and safe. Perhaps in an age like ours, dominated as it is by the theologians of neo-classical economics, people and books that point out unpleasant truths are unwelcome intrusions of reality that must be eradicated.
. Graeme Davison, 'Australia - The First Suburban Nation?' Journal of Urban History, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1995, pp. 40-74.
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Seamus O'Hanlon. Review of Troy, Patrick, ed., A History of European Housing in Australia.
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