When rural Australians spruik the benefits of country over city living, they often cite the profound sense of community in regional centres. In good times, this kinship might be a smile on the street; in bad times, it could be a stranger risking their life to save yours.
It’s akin, perhaps, to drifting on the open sea in a rubber dingy with four strangers. You may not have much in common with your boatmates. You may not even like them. But you’re there together, facing the same waves, storms and sharks. What’s more, you’re all each other has and few things foster connection quicker than shared time and adversity. It’s why, in regional centres separated by distances as vast as the metaphorical ocean and with no shortage of adversity to bond over, communities become families. But it’s also why what’s occurring at the outskirts of these towns and cities is so unsettling.
For the last two years, I’ve rented in a relatively new housing development at the edge of a rural city in New South Wales. Like in many similarly sized centres, the town’s core infrastructure sits on the banks of a river, ringed by widening circles of ever-newer housing.
This continual development is vital to housing residents and sustaining growth, but there’s something disquieting about the form it’s taken. From the outside, my neighbourhood is a perfect manifestation of the Australian dream: four-bedroom homes on wide blocks with Hills hoists, swimming pools, multicar garages and high fences. It’s beautiful. But it’s never felt like home.
Neighbourhoods like this are planned, built and sold as individually fortified castles, often with little thought for community infrastructure. If that’s what you’ve knowingly sought out, that’s fine. But this particular flavour of the Australian dream emphasises exclusion and luxury and has come at the expense of a less tangible, less monetisable good – community. Despite its synonymity with country living, community does not come from the bush itself; it comes from connection to other people.
Whether government or developers are responsible for fostering community is a separate debate. However, societies are measured by how they treat their most vulnerable and many people are only absorbed into their local communities after gentle pushes from well-designed infrastructure.
We are creatures of habit and convenience: the best community infrastructure prompts us in beneficial directions even when we don’t want to go. Give us a locked garage and no public transport and we’ll never take a bus again. Not a problem for some, but a real problem for the elderly who live alone, or the vulnerable whose social engagements centre around shared nods with those they see at the park each day. In buying into this isolationist variant of Australian dream by building suburbs that rely on residents getting in their car and driving away each day, we risk losing that capacity for osmosis.
This is, of course, just what housing developers do. It’s also how we end up with urban sprawl, which occurs when cities with empty land at their fringes expand rapidly in response to population growth. The resulting tidal wave of low-density housing leaves enormous swathes of purely residential land in its wake. Not only does it invite a multifaceted ecological disaster (the vast land usage carries a massive carbon footprint and displaces natural ecosystems; the lack of public transport forces private car usage), it’s damaging for the wellbeing of future residents. There is no shared public space in these endless sprawls of black-roofed cul-de-sacs. And so, there is no shared sense of community.
Urban sprawl is a much bigger problem in our capital cities than our regions, but it poses a particularly devastating threat here. It’s not just that our towns and cities, surrounded by so much undeveloped land, are vulnerable to runaway development. It’s also that country Australians are particularly susceptible to the ramifications of such development on personal and community wellbeing. Isolation and the resulting mental health detriments are a well-described problem in the bush. Surely, we should be doing everything we can to avoid further isolation.
Several regional Australian cities, including Dubbo, where I live, are attempting to combat urban sprawl with the development of multistorey residential apartments. This strategy, known as urban consolidation, aims to slow sprawl by increasing the density of the CBDs and reduce carbon emissions by housing people closer to their place of work.
Many regional residents will likely loathe this idea. But for some, the access it would grant to resources, amenities and community would far outweigh the benefits of the freestanding Australian dream.
One day, I’ll likely seek some version of the Australian dream and when I do, I’ll be free to wrestle with the societal, personal and ecological challenges that choice presents. That freedom is important because not everyone has it.
The other thing about the four people in the rubber dingy with you is that they don’t all have the luxury of being able to live in whatever housing is available. Did I mention one of your boatmates is legally blind? Or that another has limited mobility? For them, community might not be just a matter of convenience or comfort; it is a life-giving necessity.
That is why the kinship so celebrated in regional centres is worth protecting and fighting for. If nothing else, the ocean beneath the dingy isn’t getting any smaller.
James McKenzie Watson is a nurse in the NSW Orana region. His debut novel Denizen is out now from Viking
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