It is difficult to see twenty-first century town planners huddled in their non-descript offices dreaming of the birds, flowers, and scents of the fields of England and looking for inspiration from an eighteenth century gentleman as they tick off the compliance of the latest revamp of some suburban house for conformity with some obscure rule designed to prevent the slim possibility of the applicant seeing the private behaviour of their neighbour in their personal open space. But evidently, this is what they do. Perhaps muttering under their breath as they search for the relevant sub clause:
Up with me! Up with me into the clouds!
For thy song, lark, is strong;
Up with me, up with me into the clouds!
With all the heav’ns about thee ringing,
Lift me, guide me, till I find
That spot which seems so to thy mind!
(To a Sky Lark, Spring 1802)
For in their work, they are channelling William Wordsworth, the great English poet and would-be town planner. The rules of how to preserve or create a pleasant and satisfying garden suburb were set out more than 200 years ago by the Lakes District poet. At least in their original sense, suburbs were an attempt to return to the country, houses set in a pleasant rural setting, but nestled close to the conveniences of an urban centre. Perhaps instead of hundreds of pages of perverse prescriptions, all the protagonists in suburban planning dramas might consider reading from the text of ‘St William of Grasmere’. In his Guide to the Lakes of 1810, Wordsworth explained what made an integral and beautiful rural landscape. For Wordsworth, Nature constructs such beautiful country scenes in a number of ways:
‘Insensible gradations’: Unlike the superficial ordered art of man, Nature rarely has ‘strong lines of demarcation’. Instead, there are ‘fine gradations by which in Nature one thing passes away into another, and the boundaries that constitute individuality disappear in one instance only to be revived elsewhere under a more alluring form.’ Unlike a decorative garden, Nature allows a refined and complex connection of parts, with a seemingly endless and effortless melting or laying of elements into each other. In contrast to the gardens then being filled with foreign trees, all planted together, tendered and perfectly selected for the location, natural forests began randomly from deposited seeds and the layering of the staged growth, and produced trees that are fashioned as much by their neighbours as any other natural conditions. While the plants of nature may flow together without sharp distinctions, this does not create an undifferentiated singular mass. Instead bare mountains, where wind and cold prevent the tree coverage of the lower lands, provide a focus. Human forms such as church steeples can also be a valuable highlight, as opposed to a ‘discordant object’ such as a newly erected gentleman’s house “flaring” out on a prominent hillside.
‘Variegated landscape’: The randomness of the formation of soil types, stony patches, and land steepness ensures a pleasing ‘intermix of wood and lawn, with a grace and wildness which it would have been impossible for the hand of studied art to produce’. In an effort to avoid flooding, and perhaps benefit from the most sheltered position, or the best veins of soil, houses are clumped together on the side of the surrounding hills not simply scattered across the valley bottoms. There is diversity to the form of the houses as only materials immediately on hand are used. Houses are changed over long time by a succession of owner-builders, and so appear to grow by instinct without following any fixed notions of form. The rough texture of these houses and their uneven form allow them to be ‘clothed in part with a vegetable garb’ and ‘appear to be received into the bosom of the living principle of things’.
‘Multiplicity of symmetrical parts united in a consistent whole’: For the whole scene to work well, there needs to be the balance of both the grand prospect and the enticing immediate details. The sublime, broad, and massive forms of the mountains and valleys contrast with the beauty of the details along the lakeside edge, details such as small seasonal rivulets depositing gravel and subtly changing the lake form, and indeed the water surface at times. The lakes of William’s area were formed in broad valleys that allowed well-proportioned bodies of tranquil water as opposed to rapidly flowing rivers, thereby creating ‘that placid and quiet feeling that belongs peculiarly to the lake’ with its attendant ability to reflect clouds and hills and express changes in light and atmosphere.
In his book, Wordsworth had a lot to say about the colours of houses, searching hard for a reliable rule to be followed. Clearly, the ideal would have been to have colours that imbedded houses in the their location, and so reflected the colours of the nearby soils, rocks and plants. However, Wordsworth understood that some rock colours in particular were so obviously inappropriate – likely to produce more discordance than fine gradation – that he could find no firm principle and in the end merely settled for ‘a warm tint’ that ‘would not disturb but would animate the landscape’. In their range of brown to cream coloured brickwork, the builders of Australian suburbs seem to have taken the poet at his word. If anything, the pursuit of the perfect warm tint has become a national obsession.
As Wordsworth’s explanation of the Lakes District shows, the perfect country scene is one formed over a long time, by few people with limited resources, if not subsistence living, with predominantly local communications and influences, but above all, a necessary acceptance of natural constraints. This produces a sense of integration, with all elements both human and nature, working harmoniously together. This is about the opposite of a modern suburb. Contemporary suburbs can be formed almost instantly, with considerable resources and almost limitless information allowing a vast ever-changing smorgasbord of styles, materials, colours, and technologies. Far from feeling the firm hand of nature guiding the choice of location, form, plantings or scale, the modern suburbanite is free to express individual style collecting the elements or ideas from almost anywhere and assembling them in some hitherto unconsidered combination, though most commonly set firmly within the functional and financial logic of the street and services layout, and the innumerable rules or laws.
Of course, it is possible to construct a suburban space as something approaching the Wordsworthian ideal. We could experience something of the same senses and feelings as you might experience in nature lightly touched by humans. It requires a fine sense, with a good eye, a deep understanding of the setting but above all the desire to experience something of the same sensations in a space that we live in and not just in some distant, carefully-preserved natural spaces that we can only visit infrequently. The contrivances to heighten our feelings for nature in any setting are well known. Most revolve around maintaining a constant sense of immersion in nature, making the human element to appear subsidiary if not deferential. And, the natural setting will be inevitably already manipulated by forestry or farming or simple neglect since European settlement or indigenous management of the land before that, and the introduced plants and landscape elements will have the hand of humans marked firmly on them, at least initially. So the natural suburb won’t be a repeat or recreation of any untouched setting but it will attempt to evoke the same feelings and human responses, possibly by being more dense, more packed into any one aspect, than any natural bushland or forest or beachfront.
The devices are well-known, having been developed over many centuries now: set houses well back from any beach or bay to let the natural aspects of the water edge dominate the broad views; again leave any hilltops and dominant land elements unoccupied and tree-covered; allow clear hard lines such as roads to respect the contours or shape of the land; smudge the (artificial) division of land into private plots with few fences and near-continuous, overlapping gardens, including with public land; and hide the highly engineered nature of these living places underground and out of sight, that is the complex network of services necessary to sustain life and maintain ‘nature’ as we want it presented. Ideally the form and finishes of houses would take their cue from the natural surroundings and receding into the greenery or at least interacting with the vegetation on equal terms, with their complex variety of shapes appearing to wrap into, or intermingle with, the undulating lines of the plants and at the very least not ‘flaring’ out at any passers-by or more distant viewers. And for the best results of course, there should be few houses and large plots of land, so inevitably or usually this becomes a costly setting to make and therefore expensive way to house people.
As Wordsworth pleaded: “… let the images of Nature be your guide, and the whole secret lurks in a few words; thickets or underwoods – single trees – trees clustered or in groups – groves – unbroken woods, but with varied masses of foliage – glades – invisible or winding boundaries – in rocky districts, a seemly proportion of rock left wholly bare, and other parts half hidden – disagreeable objects concealed, and formal lines broken- trees climbing up to the horizon, and, in some places, ascending from its sharp edge, in which they are rooted, with the whole body of the tree appearing to stand in the clear sky – in other parts, woods surmounted by rockers utterly bare and naked, which add to the sense of height, as if vegetation could not thither be carried, and impress a feeling or duration, power of resistance, and security from change! ” (p 89)
While the general formula is clear, the results need not be formulaic. Ideally, each suburban setting would be distinctive. Whatever characterised a place, from the shape of the land, to the complex vegetation types, to the way water flowed through the spaces, to the direction of sun and wind, to the changes brought by human use in the past, both indigenous and more recently, could provide the inspiration for the design of the space. Unlike the fixed notions of form that underpinned traditional urban spaces, with their inherited ideas from the ancient Classical world, the forms and arrangements of a natural suburb would be as variable as the valleys, plains and hillsides that they filled. For the strongest or most intense flow of feeling it is not simply the reproduction of some familiar collection of plants and land shapes but it is the distinctiveness of the intimate, particular, specifically local, setting or collection that matters. If anything, accentuating the contrast with the ways of the next valley or stretch of coast would heighten these feelings for place.
But as any casual observer of our suburbs quickly realises, these ideals are most often just that: something that we may consider desirable but something that would remain always elusive. The impediments are simply too great. We do not easily and willingly allow our houses to mingle with the shrubbery and the broader setting. Apart from the desire to ‘flare’ produce grandeur and spectacle, there is little common understanding of what might characterise our neighbourhood or how any of the rigid house forms that we frequently use could best connect our house to the surrounding bushland or forests. For some, the house and its surrounding land is simply a utilitarian place where any consideration of connectedness is simply irrelevant so the resulting house form or finish, or plant selection (if any) is accidental, personal, and most often jarring. If it isn’t the simple functionality of a shelter that dictates things, it is the necessary need to move and move quickly, so that the expanse of roads, if not railways and airports, controls the feel of many suburban spaces, hemmed in as they are by these hard, wide open noisy barriers. The nature that we do allow – most obviously shown in the famous “nature strips” – is far from a refined and complex connection of parts melting into each other as a poet might describe. Despite the pretences and the labels, ‘nature’ is most often of the superficial ordered kind of art; a token half-hearted effort with seemingly any developers or governments unable to move beyond this. Perhaps these controllers are the problem. The reduction of such subtle matters to rules (as the only weapon available and done in the name of fairness and openness) never allows enough variety, or give and take, or fine adjustments to specific local realities.
And, even if there were administrators imbued with a poetic sensibility, their powers would be too limited. There is no meaningful and sustainable consensus about all the elements necessary to replicate the actions of nature, nor about the value of doing such a thing, and such broad commitment would be necessary for any strong and meaningful action. Planners are thwarted by the very nature of the process. In the end, a rapport with nature is a low priority. While at one moment we may want to imbibe ‘the spirit of Nature’, listening to bird songs or watching the complexity of light playing on a lake surface or clouds rolling over a mountain edge, at another, we seek the distraction of other forms of entertainment. There are inevitably more resources, more connections and more ideas than a subsistence lifestyle can provide and these divert us from any natural path, making ever larger houses, with ever more exotic forms. The ability to gain greater levels of convenience, comfort, safety, and pleasure that comes with wealth, takes us further from the realities of the perfect natural rural scene with its alternately dusty and muddy roads, unmade pathways, ill-defined unfenced boundaries, damp crumbling houses, randomly unkempt corners or fields, and irregular plots of land.
So inevitably, few suburbs are designed to be truly close to nature. Instead, fostering our feelings for nature in the place we live became a private matter. We invested in our feelings for nature by creating our own private Natures, that is, in our garden spaces. Almost all green, leafy, or garden suburbs will be built from the inside outwards, beginning from our intimate private spaces, with plants chosen for their role in enhancing our sense of place, or at least complementing and framing the built-forms that might be our primary focus. Of course, there would invariably a mixture of necessity and emotion, with some plants chosen for their protective or productive roles. We construct greenery to our demands, choosing plants and plant combinations to heighten our feelings, making pictures that suit our sensibility. Particular plants may resonate for us because of their produce, their colour and form or for some other never-stated reason, perhaps their link to people in our past or reminders of places. With a garden we can get close and personal, controlling and nurturing, making nature do our bidding, making the wild become tame, or alternately – if space allows -making new types of wild spaces. Any effective green suburban space comes about, more often than not, by the accident, with perhaps nearby remanent bushland intermixed with well-chosen private plantings and possibly combined with a few street or parkland trees that contribute to the blend. Inevitably there is a great variety of suburban green spaces, some where the combinations work well – the broad and sweeping complementing the close and intimate – but others where either gardens themselves ‘flare’ or fall flat, remaining lifeless expanses of grass or worse or having grand distant views that are less something green – brown or grey – factory walls, freeway gantries, or towers of some sort.
Unlike the older approach to constructing dwellings space, that of the Classical world based on dense urban spaces of the Mediterranean, where a strict dress code applied that gave the cities a simple coherence, the new approach propagated by poets and others a couple of centuries ago was about the personal and particular, and therefore about freedom and flexibility. And, no rule or set or rules not matter how complex, could begin to address all our feelings. Not only were the landscapes or the settings for suburbs almost infinite, ranging from the picture perfect with intense greenery and soft watery country to the dry open forests and grasslands with exposed rocks outcrops or simply flat rocky plains, but our material wealth and the reach of our trade relationships, meant almost any exotic plants, ideas, materials, forms and so on could be introduced. We might seek a complex harmony that allows for great variability, but the boundaries or limits would always be too flexible, too corruptible and easily transgressed. When is a house and its garden something like Wordworth’s celebrated receding cottage or when does a house and its surroundings, not simple because of its size, but in its imagery and finishes, become “flaring” that is attention seeking or at least paying no regard to its surroundings, displaying no desire to appear to grow by instinct and have no pretence to ‘appear to be received into the bosom of the living principle’?
You might think that when clearly presented with a green suburban space that obviously works, anyone would trim their excesses and their desires to stamp their personality on the streetscape and develop their feelings for the soft shade of the ample trees, allowing the canopy of trees to merge gently with the shrubs, letting roofs peak through and chimney stacks be framed by the breaks in the array of greenery. This vision might capture imaginations and instil a desire for natural harmony. However, the vision and the feeling are only partial or fleeting at best in so many suburbs. Flexibility become a licence to push the boundaries of form, size, and style if not simply the limits of the land, that is squeeze out the space left for substantial trees. The subtle art of the garden suburb is easily lost; it is not a robust thing. Feelings cannot be enforced. Without the spirit, the form is easily corrupted.
“Laying our grounds .. may be considered a liberal art, in some sort like poetry and painting; and its object, like that of all the liberal arts, is, or ought to be, to move the affections under the control of good sense; that is, those of the best and the wisest; but speaking with more precision, it is to assist Nature moving the affections of those who have the deepest perception of the beauty of Nature.. how much more ought the feelings prevail when we are in the midst of the realities of things; of the beauty and harmony, of the joy and happiness of living creatures; or men and children, of birds and beasts, of hills and streams, and trees and flowers; with the changes of night and day, evening and morning, summer and winter; and all their unwearied actions and energies, as benign in the spirit that animates them as they are beautiful and grand in that form and clothing which is given to them for the delight of our senses!” (pp 144-145)