Transitioning the suburbs to a low carbon future

By Brian Feeney

While many of the foundation myths of non-indigenous Australia are linked to images of a ‘land of sweeping plains’, the reality is that we are a country of suburbs. As historian Graeme Davison tells it, we were probably one of the world’s first suburban nations.

In thinking about how to transition to a low carbon future, we need to acknowledge this reality. The fossil energy embedded in housing means that the existing housing stock will need to be adapted to the low carbon reality rather than completely replaced. This also means that low carbon transport will have to take over from the car as the dominant form of transport in the suburbs.


The typical suburban house has a large carbon footprint, using fossil energy for space heating and cooling, refrigeration, clothes washing and other electrical appliances. A plan to reduce the size of this footprint has been produced by the Australian non-government research group Beyond Zero Emissions []. The Zero Carbon Australia Buildings Plan [] recommends retrofitting existing houses with a number of off-the-shelf technologies to halve residential energy use within 10 years, and increase domestic solar panel output to 31 GW. Underlying the report is the ZCA Stationary Energy Plan [] to generate 100% of Australia’s electricity from solar thermal power stations (with molten salt storage) and wind turbines, together with small contributions from hydro, biomass and standby gas turbines.

From a permaculture perspective, houses and yards will need to be integrated to incorporate the principles of permaculture design [], including intensive food production close to the house (zone 1 in permaculture design). Pulling down dividing fences between individual yards will create shared space for activities such as aquaculture, fruit and nut growing and water storages associated with zones 2 and 3. Cooperative local production of a wide range of food will reduce the carbon footprint of food consumed in the suburbs and, at the same time, provide a model for a diverse local sharing economy.


The older suburbs (prior to WW2) were built in an era when walking, cycling and public transport were the dominant forms of transport. In Brisbane for example, new suburban estates such as at Ashgrove were usually linked to extensions of the tramlines. Starting in the 1950s, the car gradually took over as the main form of transport and significantly influenced the location and layout of new suburbs. These suburbs are now the largest areas of our cities and are very dependent on oil-powered cars.

Jago Dodson from Griffith University’s Urban Research Program thinks that ‘for those on the fringe the failure to extend public transport has meant transport disadvantage, forced car dependence and, what …. I have termed oil vulnerability.’ He is sceptical of recent claims of abundant oil supplies from non-conventional sources like tar sands. With oil supply likely to remain constrained, a strategy is required to address the needs of the large areas of oil vulnerability in the major cities.

The shift away from oil-dependent transport, according to Dodson, will not come from technologies like electric cars. He says it’s unlikely in the short to medium term that there will be a market-led shift to electric cars because of difficulties in setting up standardised and convenient refuelling away from home. He believes the required transition strategy for the suburbs should be to massively ‘scale up’ walking and cycling facilities and bus services (including electric buses).

The conventional wisdom in transport planning is that the population density of the suburbs is too low to support high quality public transport. Transport planner Paul Mees from RMIT University doesn’t accept this, and points to places like the Canton of Graubunden in Switzerland (about the same area as the Richmond-Tweed region in northern NSW, and with fewer residents) as examples of high public transport usage in low density areas.

According to Mees, we need to reform public transport ‘so that first class public transport can take its place alongside walking and cycling as part of the alternative to auto-dependence’. This would involve a networked bus system offering ‘anywhere to anywhere’ services with acceptable travel times. In order to support public transport, walking and cycling, the transition strategy would also mean little new road construction, and the introduction of bus priority and congestion charges for driver-only cars in higher traffic volume areas. In addition, there would be little further spending on high cost public transport infrastructure (such as the proposed Brisbane underground bus and train tunnel), with spending diverted to cycleways and more buses.

Increased capacity for cycling could be achieved quickly by reducing the speed limit on most residential streets to 30km/hr and taking over whole lanes on multi-lane roads. Streets providing local property access only could be rebadged as shared spaces where cars have to give way to walkers and cyclists. Parts of these streets could also be reclaimed for food production and communal activities. Car and truck sharing could be available for those with special needs, freeing people from individual car ownership.


It is entirely feasible for the suburbs – where most of us live – to adapt to a low carbon future. Technology is already available to implement a powerdown strategy, involving home retrofitting, local food production and low carbon transport. Permaculture design principles provide a proven template for adapting the suburbs to support a local sharing economy.

These tools are ready. We need to create a catalyst for widespread community action.

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