David Holmgren Publishes Simplicity Institute Report: Retrofitting the Suburbs

I’m pleased to announce that David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept, has just published a Simplicity Institute Report, entitled “Retrofitting the Suburbs for the Energy Descent Future.” I’ve provided a short overview of Holmgren’s essay below, and the full report is available at the Simplicity Institute here

Sometimes well-meaning ‘green’ people like to imagine that the eco-cities of the future are going to look either like some techno-utopia – like the Jetson’s, perhaps, except environmentally friendly – or some agrarian village, where everyone is living in cob houses that they built themselves. The fact is, however, that over the next few critical decades, most people are going to find themselves in an urban environment that already exists – suburbia. In other words, the houses that already exist are, in most cases, going to be the very houses that ordinary people will be living in over the next few decades (in the developed regions of the world, at least). So while it is important to explore what role technology could play in building new houses in more resource and energy efficient ways, and while there is certainly a place for cob houses, etc., for those who have such alternatives as an option, the suburbs are still going to be here for the foreseeable future. We’re hardly going to knock them all down and start again. It is important to recognise this reality, and not get too carried away with eco fairy tales about some distant future (although there is still a place for such visions). Rather than dreaming of a radically new urban infrastructure, a more important and urgent task is to figure out how to make the best of the existing infrastructure – and that is precisely what David Holmgren does in his Simplicity Institute Report, entitled “Retrofitting the Suburbs for the Energy Descent Future.” David has been at the forefront of the environmental movement for several decades now, both in Australia and worldwide, and this essay is another example of how he constantly pushes at the edge of the sustainability debate. He is a penetrating thinker that deserves our most serious attention.

As well as providing some guidance on the best things we can do to prepare for the coming decades and help transition to more sustainable suburbs, David also describes the Simplicity Institute’s ‘Simpler Way Project’ as ‘an extremely thorough and useful guidebook of practical actions for building resilience.’ After reading David’s essay, readers are encouraged to explore the Simpler Way Project and contribute to the discussion.

I also recommend David’s website, which is available here, where some of his books and essays are available.


One Response to “David Holmgren Publishes Simplicity Institute Report: Retrofitting the Suburbs”

  1. LP says:

    Dear Samuel – Thanks for this post. It covered a considerable number of items of interest to me.

    In particular, I would like to comment on David Holmgren’s ‘Retrofitting the Suburbs for the Energy Descent Future’. I’ve recently seen the film referred to in his paper and it’s of some personal satisfaction that he takes a similar position to mine in opposing the urban planning push for high-rise-high-density living.

    A recollection I have is of attending meetings with Federal and State planning officials in the 1980’s where matters of housing-density were often discussed and medium density low-rise was lauded as ‘the way to go’; but then finding that whatever was said, and whatever the merits of medium density, most often there were set in train developer pressure and authority approvals for high-rise projects. Today of course, well-thought-out new medium density developments, with ample community gardens and public transport access, are few and far between.

    In general, I’d like to make four points, not by way of criticism of David’s thesis, but so as to tease it out further:

    1. In his article, David rests much of his argument on ‘the energy descent future’. That appears

    to me to be a sound ground of analysis. But as I’m sure he understands, there are additional underpinnings to his position for suburban retrofitting. There is likely to be considerable unevenness in the way energy futures are played out. Thus, for example, in the US, there is now hubristic talk of shale oil and natural gas supplies stepping into the vacuum when peak petroleum occurs. (What this might mean for Australia is something that requires further investigation.) I don’t know whether all it is, is hyped-up optimism. But is there any doubt that full scale production of these additional sources of fuel will be attempted and thereby throw out any estimates of ‘a descent’, financial interruptions notwithstanding? Clearly then, what we would face, and what we need to address as an underpinning of first order magnitude, is a climate change situation of considerable danger, more pressing even than now, and this should be spelt out as a possible impending ‘future’ for suburbia. In fact, I don’t believe we can plan responsibly any longer without such a potential disaster scenario in mind.

    2. The emphasis on feeding ourselves, having work and recreational opportunities within our suburban environments and so on in David’s paper and film is very welcome. The hyped-up version of a ‘growth engine’ future for our major cities is anathema to any sense that living within nature’s limits and tutelage including from other animals is something we must retrieve. The most pronounced exposition of the absence of any serious nature consciousness emerges in American urbanist Edward Glaeser’s ‘Triumph of the City’, and its thesis has found considerable favor in Australia. So it’s my view that we have to dig deeper for an underpinning/inspirational ethos for city life and I would offer the following two perspectives on which to base our thinking:

    a. ‘Even though we depend on traditional learning for any integral interpretation of experience, we also need the immediacy of experience. The difficulty is in being alienated from primordial experience. To have the interpretation without the experience is the present difficulty. We are alienated from immediacy with the surrounding natural community to which we belong and which is constantly communicating with us. Because we live in a human-made environment, the challenge is how to keep this immediacy with the natural world and to establish a traditional wisdom that deepens our understanding of the experience.’ (Thomas Berry: Edited and with a foreword by Mary Evelyn Tucker: ‘The Sacred Universe – Earth Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century’. Columbia University Press, 2009, 147- 2001).

    b. ‘The paradox of this work (the whole Sydney Biennale display) is that enormous effort and ingenuity have been expended to achieve a simulation of organic life, yet nothing could be less like nature, or indeed life. The same problem arises in a less conspicuous manner in other works that use photographic and electronic media to represent or suggest the processes of life. In the end, we are faced with the perennial question of how far we can transcend the realities of our own time. In a world alienated from nature and the immediacy of life – even own individual lives – by a consumer economy and the bewitching but sterile illusion of presence conjured by digital communication, it is a fallacy to think we can recover an intimacy with the natural world or with each other through the same means that have produced the alienation in the first place.’(Christopher Allen, ‘Connected and Together’,18th Biennale of Sydney, The Weekend Australian, Review, 28-29 July, 2012 – in a comment I would suggest is somewhat out of tenor with the general thrust of that newspaper’s unrelieved ‘anthropocentric’ line!)

    3. While I agree with David’s emphasis on local action(micro-level), I would stress that action at the macro-level will need to be given equal attention. Sure, the chances of having a public challenge to the Mainstream economic growth ethos appear slim at the moment. Where is there a public debate in our media about Steady State Economics, De-Growth, Prosperity without Growth, The Simpler Way, ‘New World Economics’? Unless these issues are mounted for all to see, then I’m concerned that decisions of Federal and State Governments (their morale constantly attacked in the media by the most powerful global capitalist agendas and hubris ever) will avoid local areas. The need there is for upgraded human services, re-creation of neighborhood parks from their earlier sterile regulatory provision, small shops and service centers frequently rendered non-viable by nearby mega-stores to be brought back to life. And the coffers of governments for these and other local support services will be empty as they continue to attract more and more funds into big-city infrastructure, glitzy Olympian-type projects and projects such as port facilities that minister obsessively to the mining boom – all the paraphernalia of a consumerist capitalist mind-set. (Richard Sennett in his new book, ‘Together: The Rituals, Pleasure and Politics of Co-operation’ exposes how the British Conservative government while espousing local initiatives is not matching the sentiment with financial support : ‘the localism the Prime Minister David Cameron calls the ‘Big Society’, by which he means big in heart, though short of state funding’, 250))

    4. Finally, to reiterate, David is right to concentrate on updating the suburbs by seeing the benefits they provide and calling for their upgrade in a way that will allow them to meet the challenges faced. My starting points, in the equity and nature-consciousness raising potential of suburbs, may have been different from David’s where peak oil has played such a pivotal role, but I believe there’s a confluence with his overall position in a paragraph I wrote in a piece published in 2009, entitled ‘Nature’s home or growth engine: Whereto the city?’ (Borderlands Co-op, New Community Quarterly, vol.7, no.3):

    ‘By design or good luck, Australians have created elements of a green world where nature enters our lives as a matter of course. Dating back well before the first world war, and based on practices of egalitarianism, co-operation, wealth distribution, (admittedly too, many copy-cat practices such as repetitive garden lay-outs), a modest abode with access to a nearby patch of nature inviting personal use has been considered a fair thing.

    And I should add: a high income era, cheaper finance and the encouragement from planners for higher densities lapped up by developers only too eager to achieve more lots in their subdivisions have all contributed to the setting aside of that modesty and given us the last 20 years or so of extravagant overbuilding of housing – serviced of course by roads programs that, in themselves, have been unable to cope with city expansion and population growth.

    Hoping I’ve struck a few positive notes of interest here,



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