EXTRACT | Suburbs are the front line

Posted on 06/12/2011


Despite my best intentions, I didn’t engage with Lifeboat Cities by Brendan Gleeson when it was released in 2010. Some of the ideas about suburbs expressed in Heartlands are carried through this work. In an article published on The Fifth Estate, he discusses Lifeboat Cities and its address of the challenges facing cities with consideration of suburban environment: “Most human beings now live in some form of urban setting, so we are an urban species. Most people who live in the cities live in a suburban setting.” In Australia the proportion is 80%. If cities are to present responses to the challenges of climate change then that has to include suburbs – bandying planning terms like TOD and density aren’t arguments that make themselves in/for suburban environments and communities but also don’t address a core issue for planning. That is we are planning in climate change rather than for it – climate change is here now not unfolding in the future. Infrastructure provision, for example, locks us into carbon polluting practices for decades to come. This question of language, framing and discourse is a fundamental problem for planning practice, particularly  in the dislocation of issue, policy and response (or practice).

Gleeson further says “we really have to take this suburban situation, the suburban set of questions that fall out of that, very seriously. I do think that there have been sections of the progressive social movements, broadly defined, that have wanted to wish suburbs away. And I think that’s a highly problematic idea.” The following extract highlights one of his key arguments about suburban environments:

My pragmatic, I guess, position is that we have most Australians living in a suburban setting, in the suburban fabric.

Suburbs are the front line. We are planning in climate change; it’s manifest, it’s happening. The suburbs are going to be the front lines of that challenge.

We have to do something urgently now about the adaptation task and retrofitting, using that awful term, suburbia, to make it much more resilient and adaptive.

I believe that the main mitigation task is going to occur elsewhere, and I don’t think humanity is going to attempt that seriously until something horrible happens.

At the moment, where there’s a burning need for the urban professions, and where we can be most efficacious and have most influence for good, is in this task of preparing our suburban regions for the stresses and challenges that lie ahead with climate change and resource depletion, and also some of the injuries to the social fabric that have been inflicted over the last decades.