Australia abolished its slums a hundred years ago. They might be coming back

Sydney. Not the slum part. Image: Getty.

Truth be told, most Australians live in good housing: this is good news for all of us because our housing is a major determinant of our health and wellbeing. But the lessons of history, and our recent research findings, published in August in the Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community, tell us this good news story is at risk.

Ideally, housing provides us with the secure, comfortable shelter that people and their families need to live healthy, productive lives. In general, Australia has modern housing stock with good heating and cooling, few major structural problems and few problems with damp and mould. By contrast, bad housing makes it much more likely you will get sick and stay sick once ill.

In Australia’s early years, much of the housing stock was of poor quality, often overcrowded, and posed real risks to people’s health. Slums were common in the inner parts of the major cities and in many country towns.

Scenes from the Fitzroy slums in Melbourne in the early 20th century.

As late as 1915 bubonic plague was a reality in the poorer parts of our cities and other contagious diseases remained an ever-present risk. Numerous letters to the editor documented a real social concern with the housing standards of the poor.

Government intervention, economic prosperity and tenancy laws all improved housing conditions across Australia. Within a century Australia was defined by good housing and high rates of home ownership. The nation saw off the last of its slums in the late 1940s.

Now the same conditions that gave rise to substandard housing in the 19th century are returning in the 21st, with a likely similar outcome. Recently, the Reserve Bank governor acknowledged young Australians need their parents' help to buy a home in Sydney. But most Australians don’t have a wealthy and doting parent to fund them into the house of their dreams.

The alternative is to live in lower-quality housing and to make do with a home that is relatively inaccessible, fundamentally unaffordable or both.

A million Australians on the housing brink

The confronting reality is that poor housing conditions are more prevalent in Australia than we think. We have a sizeable “hidden fraction” of Australians living in poor-quality housing. In particular, many of our most vulnerable have the double disadvantage of also having housing conditions that we might deem as falling below an unacceptable standard.

In one of the few contemporary analyses of this issue, we used the Household Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) Survey, a national longitudinal dataset, and find compelling evidence of a substantial stock of poor-quality housing in Australia.

The scale of our findings is somewhat surprising: we found almost a million Australians are living in poor or very-poor-quality housing. Within this total, more than 100,000 are residing in dwellings regarded as very poor or derelict.

These simple findings are important. They show the existence of a significant (and currently little known) population of individuals living in very poor conditions. At the very least, we need to monitor Australian housing conditions in a systematic way if we are to avoid this problem worsening.


Harms of poor housing multiply

Poor-quality housing makes the already disadvantaged even worse off. Younger people, people with disabilities and ill health, those with low incomes, those without full-time (or any) employment, Indigenous people and renters are much more likely to be found in the emerging slums of 21st-century Australia.

Importantly, many of these groups are already disadvantaged and (most probably) have a pressing need for housing that improves or supports their health and wellbeing. People with an existing illness or disability, for example, are almost twice as likely to live in dwellings in very poor condition as people without a disability or illness.

These findings about the size and uneven distribution of the problem should force us to ask what effects poor-quality housing has on people – on their mental, physical and general health? It is clear from our analysis that such housing has measurable impacts on mental, physical and general health. This impact is large enough to be statistically significant.

Given the time it takes to reform policy and plan for our cities and regions, Australia urgently needs to face up to the dismal reality that once again many Australians are living in housing not fit for habitation.

Governments must take steps to ensure the supply of affordable housing of reasonable quality. Otherwise, we are destined to become a nation scarred once again by slums, reduced life chances and shortened lives.The Conversation

Emma Baker is associate professor in the School of Architecture & Built Environment at the University of AdelaideAndrew Beer is dean of research & innovation at the University of South AustraliaRebecca Bentley is associate professor in the Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Park Life: on John Claudius Loudon, the father of the modern park

Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum: an engraving from one of Loudon’s books. Image: Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

Where did parks begin? Where was the first park? Who created it?

These questions aren’t actually as unanswerable as they might first appear. If you’re talking about purpose-built public parks as opposed to private gardens or common land, there’s an at least plausible answer in Derby, which at the very least is home to what might be the oldest extant example in Britain.

The Arboretum was created in 1840 by Joseph Strutt, a public-minded (ish) industrialist. His intricately landscaped park was designed to give the workers (e.g. the ones in his own cotton mills) somewhere for recreation and exercise on the two half-days off he generously gave them.

Loudon. Image: Royal Horticultural Society/Wikimedia Commons.

Strutt may have paid for it, but the real credit should perhaps go to its designer, John Claudius Loudon: he even provided the name, having been the first person to apply the word arboretum to curated botanical gardens. You thought you were having fun in a park: Loudon was trying to trick you into learning about trees.

Loudon is a now slightly obscure figure, having been eclipsed by those he influenced. A pseudo-self-made Scot (his father was a farmer who was at least successful enough to ensure his kid got an education), by the time he was 30 he’d made a fortune introducing new farming and gardening methods to southern England.

At this point, not dissuaded by – for example – the Napoleonic Wars, he sent himself on a Grand Tour of Europe. This was to, in his own words, cast off “confining coil of insular thought”, but he was especially seeking to increase his botanical knowledge. Along the way he picked up a strain of social liberalism, particularly focussed on the importance of public, ideally green, spaces.


Practical efforts in this area were hindered by discovering on his return from Europe that a dodgy investment meant he was broke, and later through health problems that highly excellent 19th-century medicine eventually attempted to cure by cutting off one of his arms. But he wrote extensively, contributing to the Encyclopedia Britannica and publishing Encyclopedias, magazines and various other works of his own, primarily on the subject of landscape gardening, but also tackling the design of everything from pubs to cemeteries.

The preservation and development of green space within the city was something Loudon thought about throughout his life. In fact, his first published writing was a letter about the importance of public squares in London as “breathing zones”.

One of his most intriguing ideas in this arena was sadly never developed, or at least never documented, beyond an initial thought: a proposal to surround London with a ‘promenade’, a circular route around the city that would link, to his mind, its most important features. It would run from Hyde Park, south over Vauxhall Bridge to the (now vanished) Vauxhall Gardens, then through south London to Greenwich Park. At that point, Loudon got really ambitious, with a proposed Thames crossing consisting of an iron bridge big enough for ships to sail under. On the other side the route would run in some unspecified way to meet what’s now the City Road, run up to Marylebone and back down to Hyde Park.

This proposal, which he charmingly noted would be inexpensive “with the exception of the bridge” (no, really?), would provide a day’s tour (presumably horse-propelled if you actually wanted enough time to stop and see anything) of the most interesting gardens, scenery and objects close to London. He was clearly on to something: not only the importance of urban green spaces in themselves, but the fact that within a city they could act almost in concert. Today London has several orbital walking routes which link its parks – although massive garden-based bridges, not so much.

Loudon’s green belt plan. Image: BuldingCentre.co.uk.

In 1829 “Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on fixed Principles”, Loudon would go on to make an even bolder proposal: not just for what we’d now call the green belt, but green belts plural, alternating rings of city and countryside/garden which as a city expanded could keep going until they hit the sea. Although he accepted the grandiosity of such a plan perhaps made it unlikely (the fact that the following year he married a science fiction novelist feels contextually notable here), he emphasises that the important thing is the basic principle: that towns and cities should be planned in such a way that no-one has to live more than a quarter mile from some kind of park, garden or piece of countryside.

Loudon may have seen his legacy as his writings: three years after completing the Arboretum in Derby, he died having spent almost every penny to his name on publishing various expansive and expensive tomes to share his knowledge and promote his ideas, which might seem to have been a bit of fool’s errand given no-one much reads them now. But it’s at least highly probable that Ebenezer Howard, father of the garden city movement, had read Loudon’s ideas.

And while that Derby park may not be world famous itself, it was highly influential on the parks that came after it – including something called Central Park in somewhere called New York, for which the Arboretum was a direct inspiration. Loudon lives on.