Barrens of Suburbia

Words & Images_Caroline Kemp

Take a Sunday drive around suburban Australia you are sure to find people hiding behind 1.8 mt. fences of timber, besser brick or steel, in shades of pastel, white or grey. It is not unlike a visit to any modern day wax museum.   Heaps of curated frontage but not a lot of life. Front yards are defined by the colour of the 1.8 mt. fence and plants that never mature beyond the great Australian hedge, aptly accessorise the got to have McMansions. Communal green space sits mostly vacant of human occupation, augmented only by the cookie cutter kids park which is defined by monocultural experiences of play, in colours of red, yellow and blue.  Play equipment will occasionally host a child or children, momentarily, on a swing, slid or climbing frame, but mostly the resource intensive 'green' space sits idol to the barrens of suburbia.  

It's  funny…… that moment when the penny drops, and you realise that the contemporary wax museum version of disengaged suburban residential estates has resulted in a social phenomena so subtle that no one has really noticed. The fence of isolation is growing, subtly with each new sprawling peripheral development and is now a structure of such magnificent proportions that it defines more than the boundary of the suburban street, block or neighbourhood.   Design is a potent force within our urban setting and the decisions that we make and that others make for us sure do have  the ability to isolate or activate!  Would you like your fence brick or timber, 1200mm or 1800 mm, solid or permeable?   But does it really matter which way you choose?

The recipient of the Australian Institute of Architects 2009 Gold Medal, Ken Maher, raises a number of fundamental points in his  A.S Hook Address titled, 'An architecture of engagement'.  It was 2009 when we planted a citrus orchard along one side of our residential street in response to the price of a lime at that time. The notion of growing food on our verge was novel,  but for nothing else, food in all its novelty, simply made sense. If we had to mow it, we should grow it. If we could grow it, we should use the seldom-utilised resource that is the great Australian nature strip to produce food and in the process provide our suburb with so much more.  More from every angle.  Simple, clean and green whole food, co-located within the grass roots of a new suburbia, a contemporary suburbia with all its inherent problems, retrofitted for an food smart future offering 'activated and engaged' spatial experiences that revolutionise our understanding of suburban living. Spaces that seize the opportunity to paint the urban canvas in a vastly different colour to the contemporary yet antiquated default setting.

Fascinated by Robin Boyd's classic architectural text, 'The Australian Ugliness', his astute awareness of aesthetics and how this shapes the way we occupy and respond to the built environment, we were hungry for more, when we stumbled on Jane Jacobs seminal urban planning text, 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities', and the raft of work from the more contemporary Jan Gehl.  Urban Food Street was perched on the cusp of something fruity and magnificent, and it was inspired by some of the greatest thinkers in urban design when the January 2010 edition of Architecture Australia arrived in the post bearing Mahers 2009 A.S. Hook Address.  Maher's message sent a shiver of design euphoria down the Urban Food Street citrus spine and at confined to us that integrated edible suburban landscapes had to be an engaging reality of our suburban future. Maher puts it nicely; 

"I believe architecture and design are potent forces in our culture - and in our daily lives - which can enrich human experience and uplift the spirit yet are hugely underrated. We are now poised at a critical turning point for the way we live and use the finite resources on our planet, so the opportunity for architecture and design to reshape the future is greater than ever before".

Fast-forward several years and one is left wondering if the powers that be, those who approve and 'improve' our barrens of suburbia have caught on or if they even know what the A.S Hook Address is and why Maher and all the recipients both before and after him have received this award?  If so, why does the default setting of contemporary suburban living fail to respond to the holistic needs of this society, of our future societies and why do we continue to build those metaphorical suburban fences of isolation?  Fences which essentially design stress into the built environment without stretching the way we think about value adding,  to our lived experience of the suburban landscape, in any way? 

In his address, Maher discusses many issues, all of which are not covered here, however he does go on to talk about the twenty-first century as the century of cities and how Australian cities are set to swell by an estimated 10 million more people over the next 50 years. That was 2009. The numbers are staggering, the logistics unthinkable, the sustainability not possible whilst we collectively, respond through the current methodology of urban design and all its modern day understandings that are associated with  master slotted communities and the sprawling suburbias of isolation that result.  Years on there doesn't appear to be an inkling of urgency associated with designing or planning differently, with conceptualising our suburbs in an alternative way.  Potently, there were two paragraphs from Mahers address that really caught our attention;

"Design is about imagining and inventing a future. Design is about inspiration and desire and, if we are to engage our communities in desiring a better, more sustainable future rather than the guilt of a more constrained future, then design thinking is essential. The challenge for the design profession is to turn attitudes around by advocacy and demonstration to  the real value of design is better understood by our communities and our politicians."

If imagining a future is important part of the key to thinking about suburban occupation differently, then what type of future is inherently right and how can design thinking be used to challenge the largely accepted structure and the resultant function of our urban and suburban environment, the places that shape the way we live now and how society will live or exist in the future?  

Verges are just one of the under-utilised suburban opportunities to think differently about shaping our relationship with the built environment in new ways.  If we conscientiously design value into the suburb, we actively create opportunities that are environmentally and aesthetically significant through new interpretations of usage. Its exactly what retrofitting our suburban landscape has done in the Urban Food Street neighbourhood and the praise from those who live this new organic suburban reality extends directionally from the softening of boundaries between the public and private domain, to the opportunities for social engagement derived from benign everyday actions such as the simple act of sourcing the 12 fresh mint leaves that you require for tonights meal.  Imagine that, your next mint leaf is reduced from a trip through peak hour traffic to your local store with a screaming toddler, to am engaging walk around the block with the dog, toddler riding along.

Because we don't aspire to a dearth of creative thought or a urban monoculture there isn't one utopian answer for every suburban landscape and maybe this is exactly the answer we are all looking for. For us growing fresh food in the public domain was and is an inherently smart alternative, as it co-locates our basic human need for a supply of nutritious food within the urban environment of those that consume it.  Utilising food as a catalyst for a different way of activating public space, has changed our narrative with the suburban environment in so many ways, edible, healthy, green, engaged, active, fun, and educational.  Like all good design we thought about the 'accepted' normal experience and packaged it in a way that leaves a legacy that is intuitively more intelligent than what we started with. Its a no brainer really. Why expend energy growing and mowing grass when we could tangibly be expending energy and saving energy by growing food for people to eat?

The environmental, health and economic benefits of growing fresh nutritiously dense, spray free food on the verges of an intimate suburban context are huge.    Gone is the anatomy of suburban disengagement that slots us into the latest and greatest pre packaged, McMansion lined, residential streets.  This is active living that responds to the locality of setting by challenging the barren structures of our sprawling society.  We were so chuffed with Mahers address and his call for an 'engaged' future way back then, that the collective that is our neighbourhood adopted this excerpt as critical way forward when thinking about  the potential of our suburban streets;

" I believe designing in the future will need to be an organic process, an ecological process, where landscape and nature are integrated and interpreted. We need a new design ecology that reaches beyond economics and physics to embrace human senses and emotions, and to define an architecture that reflects life at a deeper level or, in Siegfried Gideon's words. "the interpretation of a way of life valid for our period"".

This subtle reminder of why we are growing the food bowl of the green and liveable suburban future can be found hanging from our permeable fences, as you wander through our socially engaged integrated edible suburban neighbourhood.  

If you'd like to read the full address, titled 'An architecture of engagement',  by Ken Maher, the link is here.

Architecture Australia. 2010. An architecture of engagement. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 07 November 15].