Suburban Futures

How can the suburbs be transformed to increase resilience in challenging times? Do we need radical new urban imaginaries to guide this transition?

Led by Professor Brendan Gleeson and Dr Samuel Alexander, this research project seeks to reimagine suburban landscapes in ways that advance the causes of justice, sustainability, and resilience.

The suburban way of life is commonly held up as the defining image of ‘the good life’. Every aspect of this way of life is dependent upon the fossil energy supplies that have become accessible in the last two centuries, yet this very same fossil dependency is at the same time proving to be a fatal addiction. Not only is fossil energy a finite resource, currently being depleted at pace, it is now clear that burning fossil fuels is a key driver of climate change.

What would become of the suburbs if we gave up fossil fuels and moved toward a post-carbon society? What is the relationship between the suburban form and the underlying political economy of growth? And how could suburban communities reinhabit the built environment in order to develop new, more resilient and inclusive modes of economy?

This research project begins with the recognition that replacing the built environment is a very slow process – less than 5% p.a. in most large Australian cities. What this means is that over the next critical decades the primary challenge is to reinhabit, not rebuild, a built environment that already exists. In exploring what this ‘Great Resettlement’ might look like, this project seeks to provide more detail on the urban social movements that might drive this change and how the active participants might collectively reinhabit our cities in pursuit of an alternative, post-capitalist urbanity.

Suburban catastrophists like James Kunstler in the US argue that fossil fuel depletion will imminently render the suburban landscape an inhospitable wasteland. But such curdled imaginations fail to recognise suburbia’s latent capacity to become something new.

The work being developed by Brendan Gleeson, Samuel Alexander and colleagues, including MSSI Associate, David Holmgren, is based on the premise that retrofitting our cities according to a new vision of prosperity can and should begin in the suburbs.

Aims and activities

  • Reimagine suburbia in ways that make the best of a built environment that already exists
  • Explore the role urban social movements may need to play transforming the suburbs
  • Envision new suburban futures based on alternative conceptions of prosperity ‘beyond growth’
  • Deepen the understanding of the relationship between the suburban form and modes of political economy
  • Bring together practitioners, researchers, and decision-makers working in the fields of urban planning, post-carbon transitions, urban social movements, and political economy

Publications

Video

Happen Films have made a short documentary on Samuel Alexander's household practices of voluntary simplicity and downshifting. The themes are intimately related to those discussed in Degrowth in the Suburbs.