Brisbane’s Suburban Charm

“I hate Brisbane. It’s nothing but traffic, traffic lights, bitumen, powerlines and car yards. Everyone’s in a rush. It’s ugly. It’s impersonal. In the country, everyone knows everyone else. I can’t wait to get back home.”

That’s what people from Queensland’s farms and regional towns sometimes say, after a reluctant and fleeting visit. They’re right about the ugly side of the city; but that’s not the whole story. Brisbane is a beautiful place, once you turn off those main roads with their frantic traffic.

It’s a city of hills and creeks and gullies. David Malouf wrote, “Brisbane is hilly. Walk two hundred metres in almost any direction outside the central city and you get a view – a new view. It is all gullies and sudden vistas.”

The hills can be a challenge. David Malouf also wrote, “Brisbane is a city that tires the legs and demands a certain sort of breath.”

It’s because of its terrain that Brisbane has so much green space. The creeks and river rise up in heavy rain and flood the banks, and debris across parks and walkways marks just how far the water came up. You can’t build houses on these flood plains. Instead there are sports fields, playgrounds, plantings, fig trees, bushland and pathways.

A disc golf goal on a course beside the creek at Moorooka

Scattered along the pathways and suburban streets are cute little street libraries and honesty boxes of home-made jams and pickles.

Street Library in an old fridge, Kelvin Grove

You can go from the top of Mount Coot-tha to the river, and even to Moreton Bay, on walking tracks or cycle paths along the creeks. Without leaving the city, you can find an octopus on the sand at Redcliffe or explore the mangroves at Wynnum.

An octopus washed up on Suttons Beach, Redcliffe
Along the mangrove boardwalk, Wynnum

Some quiet suburban streets and cul de sacs are secret heavens. I walk down them on a typically beautiful Brisbane day, and think, “People here must feel smug – they’ve found a perfect place to live.” Down every gully there is a green and peaceful park, often lovingly nurtured and developed by a local Bush Care group, and in many, a flourishing community vegetable garden.

Community garden, Moorooka

Almost anything will grow in a Brisbane backyard, from avocado trees to cacti, and there are mango trees and bananas, lemon and lime trees and hedges of rosemary.

In the occasional yard there is nothing growing but grass, which must take dedicated mowing over years on the part of the owners, in a climate where wattles and eucalypts, African tulips and coral trees, cassias and camphor laurels will grow without encouragement on any empty piece of land.

There are quirky sights in the suburbs, such as on an otherwise boring, 1960s block of flats in West End, where a creative solution to clothes drying has full-sized rotary clothes hoists, as normally seen in back yards, planted on each balcony.

Creative clothes line solution at West End

There are gardens with old-fashioned flower beds, charming letterboxes and quaint creatures among the plants.

Cute front yard at Tarragindi
At Holland Park, a letter box that matches the house

There is a collection of old engines in a sprawling Sunnybank yard.

Old steam engine, part of a collection at Sunnybank

There’s a skeleton guarding a rooftop not far from Greenslopes Hospital.

Skeleton on a roof at Greenslopes

Last year, in that strange time of lockdowns and isolation, Con and I went exploring on foot, and we saw the suburbs of Brisbane in more detail than ever before.

There are trees flowering all year round, but they are most spectacular in Spring: jacarandas, silky oaks, flame trees and poinsettia, and the natives: sterculia, huge spreading tallow woods and gums.

Jacarandas in Norman Park
Sterculia in bloom, Mt Gravatt

I’ve begun a new Pandemic project: to collect all the colours of frangipani. They grow easily from a broken-off piece, left to dry in a dark place. Carrying a plastic bag to stop the sticky sap dripping, and seeking low branches hanging over front fences, I now have acquired pieces of red, yellow, apricot and deep pink-flowering trees. I’ll plant them in a row in a new stretch of garden beside the house. They’ll be a reminder of a challenging time, when I found comfort in walking the suburbs of a beautiful city.

Frangipani, Woolloongabba

Brisbane Gardens


My neighbour has a Bali garden: outdoor rooms, statues, tropical vegetation.

Across the road, there’s a bare front yard: grass, a couple of shrubs. The old bloke living there digs weeds out of his lawn with a dinner fork, and he hates trees.

Lots of people hate trees. Dirty, dangerous things, trees.

Version 2

Up the street, there’s a place that’s been landscaped in the popular Tuscan style: clipped shrubs, citrus in pots, a lavender hedge of sorts. Lavender doesn’t flourish in a sub-tropical climate.

A new, box-shaped house in the next street has geometrical-leafed plants to suit its style: pointed mother-in-law’s tongues and spiky yukka. Is there any imported plant more ubiquitous than the yukka? It’s not only because it suits the geometrical look; it’s also because yukka thrives without any attention in dry conditions and severe heat. It’s the only plant that survives in the blazing sunlight reflected off brickwork outside my eastward-facing front door.


Myself, I have a mainly native garden, designed to attract birds and butterflies, with birdbaths and local plants: callistemon, wattle, banksia, native groundcovers. I live in a 1970s house, and this was the style of the time.


Gardens vary as fashions change. Gladioli were plants of the 1950s, when the post-war suburban delight in all things prosperous and showy brought about a flourishing on speciality plant and flower breeding.

I’ve never liked gladioli, with their lack of scent and lurid colouring. At a Barry Humphries show in the late 1960s, Edna Everage threw plastic gladioli into the audience and told us to hold them erect and make them quiver. They were for her a symbol of “refined” suburbia.

Before that period, during the Great Depression and the War and earlier, what I think of as “cuttings” gardens flourished in the spreading urban areas.  Up and down any street, the same varieties of geranium, coleus, bougainvillea, bromeliad and frangipani demonstrated that people were sharing their plants, not buying them in nurseries the way we do today. Garden design was an economical, amateur matter. Roma Street Parklands uses many of the plant types used in those old-fashioned Brisbane gardens.


These days, busy modern home-owners like low-maintenance, landscape-designed gardens. Lawn is of a carefully-chosen, manageable variety, and nothing gets overgrown, which is a pity.

I walk the streets of Brisbane every week of the year, and what delights me most is to see a garden with a gnarled old frangipani tree dropping fragrant blooms over a battered picket fence, or purple bougainvillea scrambling high into a backyard tree. You can keep your tidy yukkas and clipped hedges. And especially, you can keep your mother-in-law’s tongues. I’m a mother-in-law, and I don’t like the implication.

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