Retrofitting the suburbs | Michael Green

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Retrofitting the suburbs

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Environmental and economic pressures combine to boost activity at home.

PERMACULTURE founder David Holmgren grew up in the suburbs – in Fremantle – in the 50s and 60s. As a young teenager, he concluded that the lifestyle he observed was the most wasteful that had ever existed.

Now, however, he regards our post-war subdivisions as fertile territory for the relocalisation movement: places where people could grow much more of their own food, work at home and meet their needs while consuming much fewer resources.

Why the change in perspective? Unfortunately, Mr Holmgren explains, it’s because “we’ve moved so far in the wrong direction in those succeeding decades”.

Earlier this year, he spoke at the Wheeler Centre on “retrofitting the suburbs for a resilient future”. (You can also find this video of his talk on the Centre’s website.)

In it, he sums up our neighbourhoods by way of the fictional – and often amusing – happenings at four properties on “Aussie Street”. He tracks the residents from the “golden age of suburbia” (1950s), through “rising affluence and additions” (1960s and 1970s), “aging and infill” (1990s), to the more speculative possibilities of a “permaculture retrofit” (2000s) and “the second great depression” (2015).

His thinking challenges the notion that higher urban density is the answer to reducing our environmental impact.

In the 1950s, the residents of Aussie Street have small houses and large gardens; most tend vegie patches, fruit trees and chickens. One couple, Mario and Angela, who live at number 4, even keep a goat.

As the decades pass, however, food production diminishes, the dwellings are extended, gardens and driveways concreted, and one block is subdivided for townhouses. All the while, there are fewer people living in the homes, and they spend less time there.

Illustration by Robin Cowcher

In a recent essay explaining his analysis, published on the Simplicity Institute website, Mr Holmgren argues that instead of re-building a denser city, we should aim to adapt what we’ve already got.

“Even with a growing economy, the building stock and infrastructure turns over slowly,” he says. “In 50 years, short of catastrophe, the city will be largely filled with the things that are there now. But within that, people can change their behaviour quite rapidly.”

Aussie Street begins to change in the 2000s, when a young couple and their baby move in. They set up a backyard nursery and an intensive vegie patch, and sell their seedlings and greens. A friend and his parents buy next door; they knock down the fence, take in a boarder and retrofit the house for passive solar gain.

With an eye on the economic strife in the USA and much of Europe, Mr Holmgren also extended his scenario to 2015, and addressed some of the financial coping strategies people could choose here as well.

The key change, he says, is to shift from seeking high incomes, to reducing your costs. That’s what people naturally do when times are tougher: more people live under the same roof, and meet more of their own needs. On Aussie Street, the goats return to number 4.

“You can minimise your costs by slowing down, going fewer places and being more productive with the underutilised fixed assets you’ve already got,” he says.

“People in Australia have a sense that really big change is coming. Every household knows their own situation best, so people should think hard about how they can seriously plan for the future.”

Read this article at the Age online

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