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

HGTV is the third highest rated cable network after “embrac[ing] the real America” and avoiding conflict

American viewers – at least those still paying for cable – like what HGTV is showing:

The escapist appeal of looking at other people’s beautiful homes turned Home & Garden Television into the third most-watched cable network in 2016, ahead of CNN and behind only Fox News and ESPN. Riding HGTV’s reality shows, parent company Scripps Networks Interactive Inc. has seen its shares rise more than 30 percent this year, outperforming bigger rivals like Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox Inc. and Viacom Inc.

HGTV’s formula is relentlessly consistent: a shabby house gets a makeover, and a happy couple moves in. A variation on the theme — house-flipping for fun and profit — works too. The network has aired 23 different flipping shows over the past few years. Today “Flip or Flop” and “Masters of Flip” run in prime time…

“If you watch a lot of our competitors, it’s about bling-y expensive real estate in New York or crazy flipping in L.A.,” said Scripps chief programming officer Kathleen Finch. “For the most part, our viewers live in suburban houses with yards. We embrace the real America.”…

The key, Scripps executives agree, is a refusal to upset HGTV’s audience. There’s no profanity, and on-air conflicts are confined to paint colors or tile choices. Instead of making the network feel trivial, its fans say, the relentlessly pleasant programming is a comfort, especially in hard times.

Americans like houses, both in terms of what they might aspire to themselves (the home may be their number one opportunity to define themselves) as well as knowing what their “neighbors” have (don’t those people on TV count as neighbors in today’s world of limited deep social ties?). The lack of open conflict could also tie in nicely with M. P. Baumgartner’s work The Moral Order of a Suburb which argued suburbanites create community by avoiding conflict.

I’m also intrigued by the idea that showing “the best side” of suburbanites could be a winning formula on television. I’ve been working on several projects in recent years about the depictions of suburbia on television. In the 1950s and early 1960s, there were numerous shows that presented everyday suburban life (obviously, a very sanitized white, upper middle class perspective) but since that period, many shows that do this are doing it with a wink and nod or to laugh at suburbanites. Do the fairly wealthy viewers of HGTV enjoy seeing themselves on screen when few other shows or TV networks offer such an opportunity?

Americans are good neighbors but have little interaction, knowledge

A Chicago Tribune article juxtaposes two survey findings regarding Americans acting as neighbors:

A 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that fewer than half of Americans know most or all of their neighbors, and nearly one-third said they know none by name.

While 92 percent of Americans consider themselves to be good neighbors, 56 percent said that they interact very little with their neighbors, according to a 2013 study by Nextdoor, a San Francisco-based social network for neighborhoods.

That goes along with the fact that 56 percent of people believe that being a good neighbor means you should be respectful of personal space or boundaries, the Nextdoor study found.

While a good neighbor may be a quiet, unobtrusive neighbor, a really good neighbor is a friendly one, said Nextdoor spokeswoman Kelsey Grady.

This could be chalked up partly to the tendency to overrate one’s own skills – like most Americans saying they are above average drivers. But, it also fights nicely with the argument of The Moral Order of a Suburb. Baumgartner finds that suburbanites got along by staying out of the lives of others and avoiding public conflict. Whereas a traditional understanding of community requires consistent interaction and long-standing relationships, suburban residents have community marked by private lives and transience. If conflict arises, the community spirit is lost (see recent examples here and here). Thus, one can be a good neighbor by not knowing the neighbors, not provoking any sort of conflict, and retreating to the private space of the housing unit and/or yard.