12 February 2013 ­– In the lead up to Green Cities 2013 Adam Beck, director – sustainable communities, flags the need to rethink suburbia. He will host a master class on the subject at the conference.

One of the best instincts in us is that which induces us to have one little piece of earth with a house and a garden which is ours,” said Robert Menzies in 1942.

In those early years following World War II, suburban life beckoned as the “Great Australian Dream” took hold. The lure of the suburbs was strong – the air was fresh, there was space aplenty and employment opportunities readily available. By 1949, just over 50 per cent of Australians owned their own “little piece of earth”, with a brick home and a car in the garage, hills hoist and barbecue out the back, and Victa lawn mower in the shed. In the ensuing decades, home ownership was to accelerate to 70 per cent, where it has remained for the past four decades.

The great suburban settlement of Australia by working and middle class families was fuelled by political support for increased home ownership.  Post-war policies sped up our shift to the suburbs, and as our prosperity grew, our cities began to sprawl. In 1955, the Australian Women’s Weekly described the changes that came with the post-war boom.

“Wages have shot up. Working conditions have been revolutionised. Motor-cars, refrigerators, and other erstwhile luxuries have become almost necessities… Savings have increased enormously. Under these conditions, people expect a similar improvement in housing. They are not content with tenements, shacks and humpies. The national urge is to have a home of one’s own.”

The shape of our suburbs, however, had been set more than 150 years earlier, when Governor Arthur Phillip drew up the first town plan for Sydney in 1789. He decreed that the streets should be laid out “in such a manner as to afford free circulation of air, and when the houses are built… the land will be granted with a clause that will prevent more than one house being built on the allotment…”

Today, if you thumb through any city, metro or regional strategy, you will find this suburban Australia etched into our forward planning.  In this reality, our existing communities are big, bold and beautiful.

But are they really?

For the past few decades, many planners and policy makers have begun to embrace “sustainable urbanism” as a means of creating neighbourhoods that are compact, diverse and in close proximity to public transport and employment.  While our cities will continue to grow onto the greenfield areas, new housing within existing or in close proximity to mixed use centres has become a priority.

So where does this leave sustainability for suburbia?  Can our existing communities become our sustainable heartlands, embracing sustainable urbanism?

The dream and the nightmare

Australia is the most urbanised nation on the planet – and our shift to cities is increasing, with more than 80 per cent of the population currently living in urban environments.  Most of us call suburbia home. Our suburbs are where our children are educated, where we spend our weekends watching school sport and where we socialise and relax.  Our suburbs are where we spend a large portion of our household income, which makes our suburbs a significant contributor to economic opportunity.

But there is a downside to the Great Australian Dream. Many suburbs, new and old, are poorly designed and lack the fundamentals of transport, infrastructure and services.  There is a significant lack of “place” in many outer suburbs – places where people can connect with each other and their location. Placemaking was not front-of-mind in Australia’s post war growth. As a result, our urban form is contributing to rising rates of obesity and depression, greenhouse gas emissions, commuting times, unemployment and sense of isolation.

So, how can sustainability support a more prosperous, healthy and harmonious way of living in the ‘burbs?

Globally, the push to sustainability has emerged as a new opportunity to deliver more prosperous, liveable and affordable urban environments. Rating tools such as Green Star – Communities in Australia, the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Neighbourhood Development and the UK’s BREEAM Communities are providing the impetus and framework for planning and designing new sustainable neighbourhoods around the world. Other movements, such as Transition Towns, are supporting communities to transform behaviour, build resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While new suburbs and neighbourhoods are embracing these rating systems, our existing communities remain largely untouched. As they grow, incrementally and haphazardly in some cases, planning regulation can only do so much to ensure that neighbourhood growth is sustainable.

So what characteristics define the sustainable neighbourhood of the future?

For some, our suburbs of the future look like the emerging ecocities of Asia and the Middle East.  Solar farms, electric vehicles and brand new green skyscrapers built from scratch. Precinct-wide energy systems, water recycling processes and technological interfaces that talk to each other are all part of this vision.

But can our existing suburban heartlands mimic the likes of Masdar, Dongtan and Tianjin?

I think not. While some elements are transferrable, our existing communities have entrenched challenges unlike new greenfield projects. Multiple land ownership, aging infrastructure systems and land use zoning that few governments would dare to change. Planning, at times, is more a political process than a technical one.

Our existing communities are complex and congested with challenges, barriers and competing values that often span boundaries of governance and aspiration. Some seek beatification and more green space while others seek job opportunities and social services. Some want everything and others want nothing – “not in my back yard, thank you”.

With new greenfield development and major brownfield redevelopment projects in Australia, sustainability has a real chance to gain a foothold, and has in some areas demonstrated real progress and outcomes. Barangaroo in Sydney, loop in Canberra and Caloundra South in Southeast Queensland are just a few major projects underpinned by comprehensive sustainability agendas.  These projects are often led primarily by master developers, local or state government development agencies, and the “line of sight” for sustainability from vision to delivery is often more structured.

So how do we begin to tackle this challenge?

“Place” as the new sustainability

“The real opportunity for sustainability lies in our existing neighbourhoods” echoed through the conference centre during the final plenary at the 2012 EcoDistricts Summit in Portland in November last year. As I sat on that final panel, alongside a number of esteemed peers like architect Ellen Dunham-Jones and community development mediator Don Edwards, this “no brainer” became the challenge of 2013 for all present. The sheer volume of existing versus new confirms the opportunity.

Having talked and toured EcoDistricts for a week in Portland, it was obvious to me that the Portland Sustainability Institute’s EcoDistricts model presented a significant opportunity for Australia. The EcoDistricts model builds capacity from both ends – top-down political and ground-up community.  The model aids the renewal of existing neighbourhoods and communities, using a powerful combination of public policy, catalytic investments from local government and utilities, private development and the participation of the community. The model acknowledges that change in our neighbourhoods starts with community aspiration and vision. It builds community ownership, entices political commitment and attracts finance.

EcoDistricts is not about imagining a “Jetsons” world in our communities. EcoDistricts is a process management tool, helping the community connect vision with delivery through a range of strategies. Great places, efficient transit and high quality amenity are as critical as district energy systems, water sensitive urban design and water recycling.

I don’t think sustainable suburbia is high-tech. Zero carbon, water positive and waste neutral homes are not fantasy. Smart grid connected, electric vehicle enabled and cradle-to-cradle analyses are here now. While there is still progress to be made, none of these technologies and solutions gains traction without demand. Demand is not generated without interest. Interest is not stimulated without engagement.

The first step towards suburbs of the future, therefore, is the community, local and city government and third-party collaborators, such as the Green Building Council of Australia, working together to generate interest and drive demand. It involves the cutting edge, not from a technological perspective, but rather from a community engagement perspective.

As Richard Florida writes in Ellen Dunham-Jones Retrofitting Suburbia, “…the physical environment of suburbia has not caught up with the new realities of suburban life”.  It is this physical environment where I believe a “new sustainability” evolves, with “place” becoming an ideal framework for sparking a sustainability revolution in our suburbs.

You can touch and feel “place”. It’s where we live, work and play. It’s the high street, the park, the beach. It’s tangible and physical, and “in your face”.  This is not necessarily the case with carbon, water or waste – the traditional sustainability elements we pronounce. While engaging suburban hearts and minds with issues such as carbon continues to be a challenge, “place” has the potential to become the political and technical catch-cry of suburban sustainability, as it has most opportunity to gain traction with the community.

Our post-war suburban dream expressed an element of place. My house, my land and my fence.  Our obsession with personal space, and its value being greater than public space, needs some rethinking.  We will only re-imagine this when quality urban design drives our city building efforts in Australia.

Adam Beck

I believe the EcoDistricts model may provide Australia with the framework to renew our suburban heartlands and put “place” front and centre of our suburban values, planning processes and political conversations. This is because EcoDistricts focus on connecting vision, with commitment, with governance, with politics, with finance and with delivery. Sustainability doesn’t work without all of these being present.

Adam Beck is the Green Building Council of Australia’s executive director of Sustainable Communities. He and Rob Bennett, executive director of the Portland Sustainability Institute, will host a special Green Cities masterclass on Friday 8 March in Sydney.  Participants will be introduced to the four step EcoDistricts framework approach to community development and learn how to apply it to an Australian setting.