Our Suburbs Can Be Transformed Into True Communities

Published on
by
The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

Our Suburbs Can Be Transformed Into True Communities

Such a pathway is fast becoming one of necessity, not choice.

by
Peter Cock

About 80 per cent of the population -- and an even greater proportion of children -- live in the suburbs, which with a bit of effort can become communities in the true sense of the word, growing some of their food and doing more of their own construction and maintenance.

Of course, some social trends are obstacles to sustainability: family size has shrunk and its instability and mobility have increased. Houses are larger and the land around them smaller. Suburbs are often stripped of community skills, resources and networks. They are largely deserted during the day.

There are hindrances. It is still difficult to obtain a permit to run a small business from home, and even some bylaws make it difficult to have a street party. Other barriers include fences, the lack of appropriate facilities and services and a fear of an inability to deal constructively with conflict. We have become accustomed to alienation from neighbours and even family members and don't question the idea that each of us individually should be economically self-sufficient.

But a sustainable locality can be a better place to live. Housing estates need to be replaced by small, multi-function villages. Think of the vitality of traditional European villages and small towns. Backyards can be shared rather than fenced. A neighbourhood can generate electricity, capture water and feed gardens. Sharing food surpluses is a great way to feel part of a neighbourhood and part of the earth.

Local streets can become commons where children play safely among fruit trees. Primary schools have the potential to expand their role as community hubs by co-locating some essential everyday services nearby.

Such an environment will make strip shops and parks viable again, and walking and cycling will be the normal form of transport. This fosters community connections, reduces environmental footprints and reduces how often and for how long we need to travel. A suburban street full of life and connections is safer. Connecting with neighbours and working and shopping locally can provide resilience in the face of the increasing costs and impact of energy, food and water scarcity.

An obstacle to change is the fear of governments and large corporations that they would lose power and there would be increased pressure on them to become more responsive and adaptive to the diversity of neighbourhoods as one size does not fit all.

Of course there are challenges. For example, it's difficult to learn to work with conflict that is generated as the boundaries between family and neighbourhood blur, but the ability to manage this is vital for a "village" to share in raising children, as we once did.

Experiencing this means our consciousness can never again be locked into a one-village world. Nor do we have to be locked into just being in one place for life. Living more locally can be combined with a multi-level national and global consciousness. But we can't carry such awareness individually; we need access to technology and community to share it.

If this is our path forward, and if I were the young investment adviser I once was, I would put money into redevelopment of the suburbs and even the urban-rural fringe.

Deciding that the city of Melbourne is big enough would take the pressure off going outwards and/or upwards. It could shift energies towards improving the quality of suburban life. Instead of being subsidiary to the inner city, the vision could become more the city as a cluster of villages.

While this vision isn't new, it is now pressing to address the social, economic and environmental challenges we face. It's an opportunity that calls out for local entrepreneurs in partnership with local communities to challenge the barriers and create possibilities along this path.

Such a pathway is increasingly more one of necessity than choice. If we don't make the choice now, it is likely that a changing climate and dwindling fossil fuels and other natural resources will eventually force it upon us.

 

Dr Peter Cock is a sociologist and environmentalist. He is co-founder of the ecovillage Moora Moora Co-operative near Healesville.

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