The Evolution of Brisbane's Streetscapes
We all agree that Brisbane is different. Superior climate aside, the planning and fabric of our suburban environment is very unlike that of the southern states. We tend to live on remarkably large and homogeneously sized and shaped blocks of land, in detached timber buildings separated by spacious streets and lanes. Social segregation is present but localised, with a historic absence of the chronic, high-density slums that plagued Sydney and Melbourne. Locally we find diverse streetscapes, where a colonial-era house may sit between post-war and interwar homes, which in turn may be flanked by developments of any conceivable age. Overall the impression is one of space, order and diversity.
But don’t be deceived – the “big country town” character is not a result of backwardness or a historical lack of growth . On the contrary it has its roots in a very deliberate and progressive piece of legislation passed in 1885, with a few historical and geographic coincidences thrown into the mix. In this piece we’ll look at some of the drivers behind the archetypal Brisbane “burbscape” and the challenges that they pose for local history researchers.
It’s easy to pick the dissimilarities between a vintage Brisbane suburb and its equivalents in Melbourne or Sydney. Recall the rows of Victorian-era terraces along the thoroughfares of Paddington, Newtown or Fitzroy. Dwellings with street frontages of perhaps 5 or 6 meters and tiny paved gardens behind wrought iron fencing, with blocks stretching up to 50 meters beyond the street boundaries. When they were new many of the back yards contained a stable and of course a privy, accessed by the "nightman" through a narrow back lane. Imagine the smell of human and animal waste mingling between claustrophobic brick walls, and the diseases that followed.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan of the Victorian terrace but only in the modernised version, with appropriate sanitation, smaller households and tasteful additions to complement the original living areas. The point is that large-scale, high-density housing developments never materialised in Brisbane.
To put this into perspective let’s compare a late 1800s subdivision of Rosalie in Brisbane (top) with a roughly contemporary area of Carlton North, Melbourne (below).
Late 1800s neighbourhoods of Rosalie, Brisbane (top) and Carlton North, Melbourne (below). Click to enlarge.
The photos are of the same scale, approximately 200 by 100 meters. I’m not claiming that the neighbourhoods are identical in terms of construction dates, zoning and demographics but they provide a reasonable comparison of late 19th century working-class environments.
Obvious differences include overall building density, the shape of blocks and dwelling styles. The Rosalie neighbourhood is dominated by detached, pyramid-roofed timber worker’s cottages on generous and uniform blocks of 10x40 meters, or approximately 400 m2 footprints. Thus the streets are separated by a distance of about 80 meters with no need for a lane between the two rows of properties - the “nightman” and other services accessed the back yards through the front and sides of the properties. Over time many of the cottages have been extended and mature trees now shade the lawns but when the houses were young most of them were much smaller and the yards barren, presenting a very open landscape. These are humble worker’s dwellings, located near the bottom of the flood-prone Rosalie valley, and as we move up the slopes of the inner suburbs the block sizes remain fairly uniform but the houses become more substantial, reflecting a wealthier demographic.
In contrast, the North Carlton brick terraces are on narrow blocks of about 5 x 40 meters or 200m2. The properties are serviced through a back lane and over time most of the small yards have been consumed by house extensions. The 200m2 footprint is the norm in this particular neighbourhood but more premium areas have properties of 250m2 or even double blocks of 500m2. Lower working-class terraces may be of 4x25m, or a 100 m2 footprint or less. Even in remote middle-class suburbs the property sizes rarely exceed 300m2. The takeaway is that Melbourne residential properties were variable in size, dominated by terrace developments, generally smaller than in Brisbane and subject to more pronounced social segregation.
Legislation, Transport and Geography
There are of course many reasons for Brisbane’s distinctive burbscape but the key drivers relate to early legislation, public transport and geography. Let’s look closer at each of these factors.
As Brisbane transformed into a growing free settlement in the mid-1800s, the government observed the slums of Sydney and Melbourne with rising concern. The pattern seemed to be repeating here, with unregulated development and the emergence of impoverished, high-density neighborhoods presenting a health and fire hazard. A bill was proposed in 1864 to stop the formation of narrow streets and alleys and to regulate the subdivision of land to control density, but it was thwarted in the final stages by “interested persons”. A reporter reflected:
“In every community selfish wretches are to be found who would
place in jeopardy the commercial prosperity, or endanger the health of
the inhabitants of a large town, rather than that themselves should be
deprived of the chance of making a few extra pounds. . . . We know of
one subdivision which contains only ten and a quarter perches in superficial
area. If this state of things is allowed to go on, what will become of the health
of the inhabitants generally, and of the safety of life and property?"(1)
Note that the “10 ¼ perch block” mentioned translates to a relatively healthy 260 m2. Things did indeed deteriorate over the coming decades as density increased and Brisbane was struck by fire and “miasmic” disease.
High-density dwellings in Milton, ca 1870. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Another attempt at regulation was made in 1885 and this time the Legislature conquered vested interests to pass the Undue Subdivision of Land Prevention Act. This remarkably progressive act set a minimum size of 16 perches, or approx. 405 m2, for all future subdivisions.
In practice this translated to a standard property size of 50x200 links or about 10x40 meters. Roads and lanes were also given minimum dimensions (2). There were exceptions of course - properties already subject to title deeds were not affected and we can still find these smaller lots in old suburbs such as Petrie Terrace, Spring Hill, Milton and Woolloongabba. Variations around the 10x40m standard did occur and were entirely permissible, as long as the 16 perch minimum was observed.
Low-lying street in kelvin Grove, a subdivision pre-dating the 1885 Act. The street frontages are of the standard 50 links or 10 meters but the properties are only 10 meters deep, creating a very "cosy" neighbourhood feel. Click to enlarge.
The 16 perch rule had a range of consequences but most importantly it precluded the construction of traditional terraced housing. At 400 sqm a property with a typical 6m frontage would be 66 meters deep – excessive even for the traditionally stretched terrace format. But what about the handful of terraces that do exist in Brisbane, for example “Cook’s Terrace” on Coronation Drive? This development post-dates the 1885 Act and each of the six dwellings has a footprint of about 6x30 meters, or 180 m2. Each dwelling was too small to be defined as a separate property, but these houses were built for rentals and thus the overall development exceeded 16 perches and could be transacted under one, or maybe two or three titles.
Many middle- and upper-class citizens opted to buy two or more contiguous 16 perch blocks and this gave rise to a gradual densification as the excess land was sold off and developed over time. The detached houses and large blocks of land reduced the risk of fire and the preference for timber as the predominant construction material could therefore continue, at least in the suburbs.
The Act and later legislation which cemented the 16 perch rule also had the effect of pushing development ever further from the old city centre - the beginnings of urban sprawl - with authorities struggling to keep up with amenities and particularly sewerage reticulation. Even today, Brisbane has the lowest residential density of Australia’s major capital cities, Canberra excluded (3).
Early aerial view of Wooloowin and Kedron Park, 1920. The 16 Perch rule is in effect. Brisbane from the Air Illustrated, 1920.
The second driver for low-density suburbanisation was the emergence of public transport. The first set of horse-drawn tramways were constructed by 1887, electric trams followed in 1895 and most of the city rail network was laid by 1890(4).
The suburban transit system as it stood in 1904 is illustrated below. It was this infrastructure that enabled the middle classes to migrate en-masse to new suburbs as the population boomed and urban subdivision came to a halt. Simply put, the comparatively late settlement and development of Brisbane allowed the young city to expand on the back of a modern public transport system.
Brisbane’s suburban network of rail (red) and tramway (blue) in 1904 (4). Click to enlarge.
And thirdly, as we touched on before, the dispersion of social classes across the city was less marked and to some degree determined by topography. High ridges and hills were favoured by the well-off and workers were generally confined to the low-lying flats and valleys, with the middle classes occupying the middle grounds.
Of course the variance around this rule of thumb is considerable but the correlation is strong enough to take note. In general, socio-economic gradients in Brisbane operated locally rather than across the city, with widespread and pervasive slums presenting less of a problem than in Melbourne or Sydney.
Local Patterns of Subdivision and Development
So, having established the macro forces for Brisbane’s suburban evolution let’s zoom in on the individual streetscape.
As mentioned before, it is rare to come across a suburb, or even a street in Brisbane consisting of vintage houses exclusively of the same period. Generally speaking the progress of subdivision was slow and although the sequence of development on a particular street can be read from the architectural styles, it rarely follows a logical pattern from one address to the next. A case study is probably the best way to illustrate what’s going on here, taken from a property that I researched in Windsor.
For this group of five properties the story begins in 1902, when a substantial block of about 2,600 square meters was purchased by a manager of the nearby Campbell & Sons building materials company. Our manager built a lovely gabled house for his family that year; on a corner lot facing the main road which transects the suburb. Corner lots were often preferred for first developments along virgin roads. The rear yard of the property was used as a paddock for the family horse or horses – one of them went walkabout in 1917 and was advertised as missing - and some of the land was almost certainly used for a fruit and vegetable garden. On the below aerial photo the original property boundary and house are highlighted in red.
In 1925 a little less than half of the land was sold off as two separate properties and contemporary multi-gable houses were built on each lot by the new owners. By this time the city’s public transport system was well developed and automobile ownership was within reach for the upper professional classes. The paddock was superfluous but the property retained a good-sized back yard for the vegetable garden and privy.
In 1989 another two lots were divested. The land facing the main road was built on and on the southern lot sits a 1910s bungalow which was relocated to the spot sometime after 1989. Yes – this is another challenge for local history researchers in Queensland - those sturdy wooden cottages on stilts tend to move around over time.
150 years after the initial sale of crown land the sequence of subdivision is complete, and we are left with the original 1902 house on a corner surrounded by four younger buildings of various vintages in no discernible order. This case is by no means unusual and it explains the great diversity of house styles across our early suburbs.
And so we arrive at today’s typical Brisbane burbscape - intentionally spacious, ordered, architecturally diverse and highly liveable. So don’t be disheartened by the dismissive “big country town” label dished out by our southern compatriots. The reality is that our environs are the product of a very deliberate and progressive planning act set out 130 years ago, and significant early investment in public transport and amenities.
1 - Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser, 21 April 1864
2 - An Act to make Provision for Regulating the Width of Streets and Lanes and to prevent the Subdivision of Land in such a manner as to be injurious to Public Health. Queensland Government Gazette Vol 37, 1886.
3 - Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3218.0 - Regional Population Growth, Australia, 2012-13.
4 - Adapted from "An Analysis of Brisbane Society in the 1890s" (Thesis), Lawson, 1970.