Tuesday’s tone: Sustainable Suburbia

Fifty years ago, I left my suburban family home to move to the city, and I have lived within a few kilometers of the CBD ever since.

I hated my first years in suburbia, I felt lit up by its ordinaryness. My architectural studies have only confirmed this contempt, pouring essays on poor design from houses to planning.

My working life in maintenance suggested that density was the key to the future; that we had to open Baulkham Hills to Surry Hills, Ringwood to Collingwood, Woodbridge to Northbridge. But it seems impossible: the suburbia is so vast, and expanding so rapidly, that it can no longer be changed. The preserved suburbia is the most absurd oxymoron.

But recent events, specifically the COVID years, suggest that we look at suburbia in a different light. Could the very things we condemn in suburbia – low -density sprawl, monotonous monoculture of forms, white picket fence family appeal – be its safety. Can we have sustainable suburbs in the future? Here are some speculations.

Difference and density

Sydney’s mismanagement of the lockdown revealed a huge difference in households, the north and east had smaller numbers in larger houses, the southwest had more people in smaller dwellings. Most of the commentary cited discriminatory political policies applied to the low SE (socio-economic) status of SW households; but behind those observations is a note of social hope.

Larger household sizes are often because multicultural means multi-generational: grandparents, parents, and children living together are common in the Mediterranean and Asia (and our indigenous peoples), but not the Anglo-Celtic-Saxon originated in Skippys, where children can’t wait to leave to buy their own home.

We now see enormous social benefits to the ‘rule reversal’: while parents are working grandparents will take care of the children until the children are old enough to take care of the aging grandparents. . It increases social interaction and helps with child care, home education and cultural transmission. The social benefits are matched by a slight increase in density, aiding in sustainability. So that’s a win in suburbia.

Power over people

Australia has led the world in the uptake of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, almost entirely because it is a suburban country. More than 25% of homes have installed PV panels, an easier purchase for an individual suburban house owner than a strata owner in collective apartments. And many installers are discovering the value of batteries as prices fall.

It is locally generated energy: it is produced, stored, and used by one or more homes. It is the outs of substations and long -distance transmission wires of centralized fossil fuel power stations that are beloved by the National Party and the loony right. While they were stuck at 20ika century trying to replace one fuel with another, 21st The suburbia of the century has completely skipped the debate, moving to the future of ‘wireless’ transmission.

Again, it is precisely the characteristics of suburbia that make this work: large roof areas and lower population densities allow the energy generated to be “carbon neutral”, or better yet, by export. its to local businesses, schools etc., it can be ‘carbon positive’ in ways that the proportionally smaller roof area of ​​apartment buildings, with a larger number of residents, can’t.

Ironic then, that the higher density of urban buildings, often seen as ‘more sustainable’, have always relied on distant power (from wind, solar or forbidden by the sky, gas) to increase the smaller area of ​​PVs they can achieve. Strike two against the inner city.


One of the ongoing criticisms in suburbia is the high reliance on fossil fuels for transportation; the low population density rendered mass transit ineffective, increasing reliance on the ICE (internal combustion) car. Electric vehicles change all that. Upon request local electric buses can take residents on the local tram or train (all electric), and all individual travel can be carbon neutral when cars are charged at home. from solar PV to the roof.

Suburbia offers a great advantage for the last issue: billing. A detached house, with its own carport, garage or non-street area can have a dedicated ‘quick charge’ point to plug into. But in the inner city it is impossible to charge an electric vehicle if you live on a terrace without a garage in a back lane or an apartment without parking. You rely on public billing points (rare) or shopping centers (literally spending your time). Strike three against the city.


One of the major changes to lockdowns is the increase in ‘working from home’. The idea was incorrectly condemned by many politicians who thought all workers were like them, wore white collars (less than 25%) and worked in the city (less than 25%); they forgot to do manual labor on sites or on the move, which however appreciated the fewer commuter cars on the roads.

But the possibility of working at home has changed the outlook on our fabric in the city. Working from a home (occupied 24/7), avoids the commute and the need for office blocks (unsustainable occupied only 8-10 / 5). We can see many family homes with space for an office or two and the rise of home micro workshops, or home-based creative industries or more pieces of space in store corners. All of this is likely to be more sustainable and a further strike against the city.


Another failure of suburbia, which can be taken advantage of, is the low level, not to say difficult, construction of houses. This belies the ease with which we can change them, converting a single family into a multi-generational is easy in suburbia; by adding alts and adding, a nanny or granny flat, a studio or an income producing micro apartment, which increases both the efficiency and the value of the suburban house.

Some states have coded the change of homes without reference to the local council, and why not? If you stay inside a nominated envelope and build on the code, then let a thousand ideas thrive on every street. Better, and probably more sustainable, than homogeneous McMansion replacements.

Continuous innovation is one of the great possibilities in suburban housing which, importantly, you can’t do in apartment blocks; ironically built to higher standards, and consequently subject to much greater criticism if things inevitably fail. Anyone who has attempted to make even the smallest alts or additions to a Strata controlled building knows how difficult it can be. The Australian birthright of being a DIY homemaker fails at every turn. Strike of five.

Growing up

When suburbia of Australia doubled between 1950 and 1975 the majority of homemaking was by European immigrants who bought from them traditions of home-grown food. Some planted grapes to become wine (or stronger); others grow fruits and vegetables, some of which have never been seen in Aussie culture before. There are gardens on the market in every house.

Now, there’s a resurgence in the idea of ​​the home garden, (thanks Costa and ABC’s Gardening Australia). The 25-year drive to the eastern states to install water tanks means these gardens, growing fruit and vegetables to feed a family or more, are drought proof. And where the gardens may not have enough land, sun or water there is the community garden (converted from Council land or a local Bolo).

We know that heavy meat diets have huge carbon consequences; More fruit and veg in your diet is good for the health of you and the planet. Home -based gardens are a solution in every suburban block of land but near impossible on the wind -blown roofs of modern apartments, which focus on barbecues and outdoor living rather than planting food for the live. Strike six, on the fence and out.

My conclusion

Recently my 95-year-old Mom and I traveled the memory line to see the house I grew up in. The suburb has changed, property values ​​have gone up and it’s filled with a two -story McMansion replacing the beautiful old Calbungs (California Bungalows – actually a Queen Anne with a veranda). And I realize the suburbia I grew up in is better than it is today.

There were six or more in each house, many of them my age. We played in the streets and parks. We walked everywhere. There is only one family car. We have tenants, sometimes two, in the back who ‘shed’. Schools were local like shops, now replaced by a shopping center. European families have grandparents who go out and stay, and they become multi-generational (without that fancy word). The Greek family on the other side of the fence in the back donated vegetables from their garden.

I grew up in a perfect suburb, even though I didn’t appreciate it. Now that it has become a sterile upper middle-class enclave, I hate the suburbia of my childhood more. If only it could be used six ways forward in sustainable suburbia: multi-generational homes with more residents, finished better, with local work at home, local energy, electric cars and food for to all.

Does it want to get something out of the dynamics of Sydney SW, which has been criticized in the press but if we are close to sustainable suburbia, an oxymoron that is gone.

Tone Wheeler is chief architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed herein are those of the author only and are not held or endorsed by A + D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is maintained by simply reading and responding to comments addressed to [email protected].

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