Urban nests – families on high rises
Élodie reminisces as we chat about her arrival in the Hoddle Grid a decade ago. Back then, the way Melbourne felt like a city without being a “big city” made her feel at home.
She recalls how safe she felt as a woman walking back from her night shifts to her west-end apartment. The ease of car-free transport, the nearby cafés and restaurants, and the characters within them, all made her block resemble a little village, an important touch for someone from regional France.
She and her husband now have a two-year-old daughter, Elisa, making the family a rarity in a suburb dominated by uni students and young professionals. In 2021, the city’s cohort of children under 15 was six times scarcer than those elsewhere in the state. That could change as more city workers weigh up the opportunities to live and work for longer periods in the same neighbourhood.
It was the city’s nightlife that continually drew the Gallic couple out when they arrived. Élodie makes slightly fewer nocturnal trips now, and more towards the handful of playgrounds beyond the grid’s periphery.
“The city could definitely do with more, and ones that are made less with concrete and more with natural materials”, she said when we discussed how to change the stigma associated with raising families here.
I heard a similar refrain from local business owner, Dani Zeini. “People think it’s impossible to do. They imagine your kids being caged up,” said Dani, who makes up for the lack of a traditional backyard by regularly exploring local gardens with his wife, Dina, and their three children.
With or without children, using space effectively in apartments can require compromise and ingenuity. Favouring quality over quantity, the Zeinis have slowly adapted their abode to accommodate each child. Their three-bedroom apartment is a unique, family-friendly asset in a one- to two-bedroom flooded city. Even so, with the arrival of their third child five months ago, fitting another room in remains a priority.
Despite the challenges, Dani is convinced of the payoff for his children. The city’s galleries, museums and events have helped them become more cultured, he notes. A local public school, he adds, would increase the centre’s attractivity and would be a welcome addition for families like his.
Alongside their kids, Dani and Dina have managed to find the kind of community that families value. While the couple remembers their early days being filled with homesickness, they – like Élodie – found a vertical village, one that managed to bring a sparkle to life amid the otherwise sombre days of lockdown. The pair supported new parents during those days, along with others who needed someone to talk to. Using their culinary talents, the Royal Stacks founders joined with others in cooking for neighbours at home.
Post-pandemic aftershocks on the city’s social fabric have nonetheless been significant for other households. Being among the three-quarters of city-dwellers who rent, Élodie has found the steep cost-of-living increases hard to bear. She laments the takeover of her favourite local eateries by soulless chain stores. Speeding scooters have made footpaths dangerous for children. The constant noise of day-time construction and night-time partying has worn her down and led her to consider looking for a suburban home.
Many local families still believe in the city’s capacity to find a harmonious balance between its many functions, beyond business. Even when the background noise is more cacophony than symphony, they are as resilient as they are creative in their adaptation. But some avowedly profit-making priorities have left many others feeling overlooked as an afterthought, and short of options.
Dani remains optimistic though, finding other reasons to remain for the long term. While his in-laws occasionally bemoan the trek in from the couple’s childhood home in Dandenong, the city’s events regularly attract friends to visit. His children, and others like them, might be rare for now, but they are thriving in the vibrant surrounds.
As Melbourne looks to embrace more density, for the sake of housing affordability and sustainability, their stories are challenging the national narrative of urban families and proving that a city home can be one for life, not just a season. •