Cooking meat in a suburban backyard and resolving suburban conflicts

A recent controversy in an Australian suburb highlights two key issues in suburbia: (1) what exactly can you do in a suburban backyard and (2) how do suburbanites resolve conflict? To the details:

The Perth woman said she couldn’t enjoy her backyard in the suburb of Girrawheen, claiming her neighbours deliberately allow their barbecue meat and fish smells to waft into her yard…

After her claims were rejected by a tribunal earlier this year on lack of evidence, she applied to the Supreme Court of Western Australia for right of appeal. It was also turned down in July…

And it’s not just the smell of meat and fish that has made her furious — it’s the smell of cigarettes and the sound of children playing with basketballs…

Mr Vu said he just wanted to “keep the peace” and had removed the barbecue out of his yard and also banned his children from playing basketball…

Mr Hammond said the first step in any dispute with your neighbours was to try and resolve the matter face-to-face.

Two issues are present:

  1. Suburbanites tend to assume that backyards are for private activities. The front yard is open to the public and can be seen from the street and the sidewalk. The backyard is more hidden, particularly if the yard is fenced or cut out from view in other ways (such as through hedges and trees). But, are there limits to what can be done in backyards? What is considered infringing on others? Overly loud dogs? Trees that cross property lines? Activities found undesirable by neighbors (such as grilling and playing basketball)? Where property rights end and neighborhood disturbances and nuisances begin could be a fine line (and there are surely some local regulations to help figure this out).
  2. Suburbanites are often not great at resolving conflict. Baumgarner argued suburban community is built around avoiding open conflict and using third party actors if necessary. It is not clear from the article above how much face-to-face interaction happened between neighbors but appealing to the courts seems likely to end badly for neighborly relations: no matter who wins, the fact that this led to media coverage and court cases likely makes it more difficult to have positive relationships.

On one hand, this is a small-scale conflict. On the other hand, multiply such conflicts by just a few and the suburbs look like a place where neighbors want to be protected from each other – wait, privacy and exclusion was indeed behind the creation of suburbs

LA McMansions prize interior space over backyards

New LA McMansions tend to have limited backyards for a variety of reasons:

“Comfortable” translates to a desire for bigger spaces, more amenities and higher-quality materials than in the past, notes John Closson, vice president and regional manager of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services...In many cases, the yard is not the family center it used to be, says architect Hsinming Fung, director of academic affairs at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. “What a family would do together for entertainment value is no longer in the backyard or the frontyard,” Fung says. “Technology has completely changed the way we use space. They need the indoor space because they use it much more.”…

A simple — some say brutal — development equation is at work today: More square footage equals greater return on investment. “Obviously, the price of land continues to climb in Los Angeles,” architect Ron Radziner of Marmol Radziner says. “Even if the client doesn’t necessarily want a bigger house, they feel they need to have it as an investment to have it make sense.”…

One point generally acknowledged is that many people today do not want the expense and hassle of a big yard. “It’s not practical to have a big lawn these days,” Tighe says. “People are rethinking that, rightfully so.” But they do still want something of a yard, just not the way we think of it.

One complaint about teardown McMansions is they are built close to the lot lines, dwarfing other homes or open spaces. At the same time, I’m not sure about the concern for backyards. These spaces have also tended to be private spaces, even if they are outdoors. Many yards have fences and landscaping intended to keep others out of sight. Backyards are also a symbol of sprawl: every housing unit has its own outdoor space.

A stronger public argument might be made for front yards. As New Urbanists and others argue, these are important for joining the street and sidewalk with the private home. This is why many architects emphasize front porches – they can provide some of the same features of the backyard deck but do so in sight of the public, encouraging social life and presenting a more lively and green streetscape.

It will be interesting to see if arguments/discussions about McMansion regulations in Los Angeles include guidelines about backyards.