From Dunny Lane to Secret Garden
Sydney, like other cities and towns in Australia, is surrounded by narrow laneways that sit behind and beside old terrace houses. Affectionately known as dunny lanes, these alleys were designed as access points for the ‘night soil’ collector who had the somewhat unfortunate job of picking up the week’s worth of human deposits from each terrace’s outhouse. Now that we have advanced to sewerage systems, these narrow lanes are mostly abandoned, yet tell an important story about the city’s history.
Today these dunny lanes have been a source of neighbourly disputes in Sydney, a city desperate for residential space. Often they are purchased from the council by homeowners whose homes back onto the passageway, and sometimes developers and renovators seek to take over the alleys as they widen or lengthen their homes. Residents are often frustrated by the problems associated with the thoroughfares that are as yet unclaimed. Because they feel hidden, they can be used as access points for robberies; rubbish dumping and drug taking.
The story of our dunny lane is thankfully a little different. When my fella and I first inspected our tiny one bedroom workers’ cottage in Forest Lodge, we knew right away we had found our spot. We felt immediately at ease in the no-car laneway hidden from the rest of the city surrounding it, (the street, although quiet and home to squawking birds and giant gum trees, runs off a street parallel to Parramatta Road that is home to a Toyota factory and most oddly, Australia’s largest forensic morgue).
The cottage was undoubtedly cute, but what really lured us in was the plant life thriving in the old dunny lane that runs along the freestanding side of the house. It’s unusual to say we bought a house partly because of its proximity to a dunny lane, but there you go. We later learnt that the former owner of our place had spent her spare time gardening the passageway over many years. It’s like a very tiny and less harbouriffic version of Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden in North Sydney or a smaller version of McElhone Place in Surry Hills, where the entire laneway has become a garden.
The plant life in the dunny lane felt representative and symbolic of the culture of the street itself; if this was the kind of area where an abandoned laneway was transformed into a green space for everyone rather than fought over in a grab for extra land or used as a trash heap, then we wanted in.
What could’ve been a dreary path beside our house had been reclaimed, tended to carefully, and transformed into a secret garden. Unofficially, the responsibility for caring for the garden fell to us, as the new owners of number six. We have to keep the stink bugs off the citrus, water the thirsty ferns, and sweep the leaves away after a gust of wind makes its way through the giant gum trees nearby. We have a healthy grape vine climbing the fence; a huge hydrangea that produces blue, pink and lilac flowers; a clump of philodendrons; and miniature strawberries crawling along the ground.
For homes without much square metreage, every bit of space counts. We’ve recently installed a compost bin in the dunny lane, for the six cottages in our laneway to use. Collectively, we produce plenty of fertiliser, and the compost bin is slowly becoming a hub of community conversation. After dinner while we empty our vege scraps, the residents compare their evening’s recipes and share advice on how best to get our cakes to rise.
As well as a place of communality, the dunny lane garden is a place of respite too. When Donald Trump won the recent American election, I, like so many of us, had no idea what to do with myself. It was the early evening when I realised I had to admit defeat and recognise that he was indeed the new president. Instinctively I opened my back gate and headed into the secret dunny lane garden. It had started raining, a natural recognition that something in the world had changed. I let myself get soaked, and hung out beside the greenery, watching the droplets sit on grateful leaves. And then I noticed it, unassuming, not asking for attention: the first hydrangea flower of the season had started blooming that day.
The political landscape had fundamentally changed but the seasonal patterns of nature had not.
Recently I was researching our cottage’s history through the City of Sydney archives. I was delighted to find a reference to our laneway dating back to April 15, 1861. Upon inspection, Henry Graham, the local health officer, was aggrieved to discover the dunny lane was dirty, stagnant and unsanitary. Slops from the houses were emptied improperly, creating general ‘nuisance’.
If only Mr Graham could inspect the laneway now. I hope he’d be delighted by the greenery and the cleanliness of underground sewerage.
Sydney is full of these old dunny lanes, a relic of the city’s past. They are an opportunity for inner city gardening, spaces in between streets that can be too narrow to be useful for developers and wasted if left to store junk that belongs in council throw-outs. They can act as symbols of a community’s values. If transformed into a communal garden, a dunny lane can be the catalyst for neighbourly interaction in cities that can feel isolating for residents, and provide a space for the natural world to exist amidst the urban sprawl.