Retrofitting suburbia

Retrofitting suburbia

by Charlotte Allen

A recent session of the SSM Reading Group discussed two articles by the Australian author and permaculture pioneer David Holmgren: ‘Retrofitting the suburbs 1and A History from the future2. Although we were a small group, we had a good discussion.

Suburban dual carriageway with green area and houses

South Manchester suburbia: near an area with the interesting name, “Fallowfield”.

In ‘Retrofitting the Suburbs’, Holmgren argues that the suburbs are ideally adaptable living spaces for life in what he describes as the ‘Energy Descent Future’3. They can easily be gradually transformed into low-energy use, agriculturally and economically productive areas with home-based lifestyles and strong communities, following the holistic approach of permaculture.

In ‘A History from the future’ Holmgren illustrates how humanity could get from the present ‘golden age’ of consumption to a culture of ‘Earth Stewardship4’, demonstrating a ‘prosperous way down5’ to low-energy use future shaped by behaviour change at the household level.

We discussed how far Holmgren’s vision, grounded in the sunlit low-density suburbs of Melbourne, is relevant to, or replicable in British suburbs, in particular in Greater Manchester.

We found that although GM is much denser than, for example, Melbourne (43 people per Ha compared to 26, on a population weighted basis6), it has a lot of green space, in both public and private hands (e.g. back gardens). Generally English cities have much lower residential densities than continental European cities. However, excepting the very dense building in Manchester city centre, most residents of GM live at relatively low densities in houses with gardens – this includes large areas of social housing pre-war and from 1970’s. Flats are not the norm. Houses can be retrofitted by public and private owners and gardens could be more productive. But access to land is a barrier for future suburban expansion (if this is desirable); in Australia there are wide open spaces which don’t exist in the GM region.

The problem with GM at the moment, and with current planning policies, is that people overwhelmingly have to travel from all over GM to work in central Manchester or sites such as the airport (very often by car), leaving houses unoccupied during the day, equivalent to almost 50% of the time. And most workplaces (offices) are empty more than 50% of the time – isn’t that crazy? So much energy is consumed by people travelling to work, instead of being able to work close to home.

Obviously Holmgren is writing from different socio-cultural perspective in a different physical environment (climate, housing types and density). A key difference between GM and Victoria is the climate – we need heating and we can’t grow so many crops. However, we found it strange that he doesn’t mention public transport in his writing.

We also felt that his suggested bottom up approach might not be successful in GM. There is not the same pioneer spirit nor the availability of land for suburban / rural settlement. There is a much tighter regulatory framework, which is largely accepted – we have learned that lowering regulatory standards many not be a good idea. We felt that an approach based on partnerships/joint activities between grass roots and local government or social housing providers could be more successful – local authorities might support community ideas because they are desperately looking for new ways to provide services etc.

We concluded that we should look at Holmgren’s list of bottom-up activities and, for each one, find out whether there are any relevant activities in GM and map/investigate these. One possibility will be to prepare a paper on possible future scenarios and trajectories for change in GM in the face of climate change, energy descent and economic collapse, similar to Holmgren’s ‘History from the future’7.

Update: this recent article, by Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson, also covers the same theme, arguing that the suburbs could be the site of a degrowth transition.


Our next reading group session “What will it take to keep global warming within safe limits?” is on 23 January. More details:


Notes Holmgren has also written a substantial book on the subject, “RetroSuburbia” a kind of permaculture manual for the coming energy descent. Holmgren, D. (2018). RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future. Hepburn Springs; Victoria.: Melliodora Publishing. UK supplier:

3 For an exploration of energy descent in the context of Europe, and the brexiteing UK, see

One of Holmgren’s 4 Future Scenarios: Holmgren, D. (2008). Future Scenarios: Mapping the cultural implications of peak oil and climate change

The term comes from the book, Odum, H. T. O. and E. C., & Odum, E. C. (2001). A prosperous way down : principles and policies. Univ. Press of Colorado.

6 Comparing the densities of Australian, European, Canadian, and New Zealand cities. (2015, November 26). Retrieved 11 December 2018, from

7 Some dimensions of such a future scenario in post-industrial cities and towns can be found at the end of this presentation:

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