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Retrosuburbia: A Downshifter’s Guide To A Resilient Future

Retrofit at Abdallah House with attached greenhouse. Photo by Richard Telford

Over the last two decades I have explored permaculture as a set of thinking tools for the energy-descent future and outlined a nuanced and over-the-horizon view of the diverse ways in which that energy-descent future might unfold. Since then ‘resilience’ has displaced ‘sustainability’ as the buzzword about the future, while ‘energy-descent’ still lurks on the conceptual fringe.

My soon to be released book– ‘RetroSuburbia’ (due to be published late 2016) – focuses on residential landscapes, backyards and behaviours in suburbia, where most Australians live or were raised. Less theoretical and dense than some of my previous work, ‘RetroSuburbia’ builds on my ‘Aussie Street’ presentations, showing how ordinary Australians can downshift and retrofit their houses, gardens and lifestyles to be more sustainable and resilient; to survive and thrive.

With this energy-descent future looming, the ‘lucky country’ is likely to get a big shake-up, with: the bursting of the property bubble; the ongoing collapse of prices for Australian exports; more extreme weather events; and geopolitical crises. We don’t have time – decades – to redesign and rebuild our cities, so we have to retrofit our suburbs to cope with a future where we might have more time, but far less capital and fewer resources.

In the search to become more self-reliant, some will leave the cities for rural locations but most will need to stay where they are, or regroup with like-minded others to ‘create the world we want’, or at least a ‘new normal’. For most that will be in city suburbia or regional towns.

Whether retrofitting is focused on a long-established extended- family home, a move to cheaper property near like-minded others, going part-time, working from home, or growing most of your fresh food, there are many ways to reduce dependence on money and debt, create a new normal and rebuild the community economy. All this can be done without the need to ask the permission of the usual gatekeepers: banks, government, media.

Behaviour change is the ‘low-hanging fruit’ by which we could adapt to, and even thrive in, energy-descent futures. Behaviour can be shifted more rapidly than remodelling the house or growing a garden. However, entrenched dysfunctional habits can: undermine good design and action in the built and biological domains; lead to family and community break-ups; cause despair – that more self-reliant and smaller- footprint ways of life are too difficult. That’s why the book focuses on behaviour, as the springboard for adaptive community level change.

Suburban retrofit concepts have national and global application, but the book is focused on Melbourne, Victorian regional towns and southern Australia for several reasons:

  • it concentrates on the strategies, techniques and designs that work here, without the need to cover variations appropriate in other climates and contexts
  • an order of magnitude jump in the number of household retrofitting projects here could generate responses from academics, policy makers and activists in the context of the Melbourne metropolitan councils’ participation in the global Rockefeller Foundation funded 100 Resilient Cities Challenge
  • success here will inspire similar action around Australia and beyond – permaculture designers and transition town activists everywhere will readily adapt solutions.

‘RetroSuburbia’ explains and illustrates patterns, designs and

behavioural strategies applied by those already on the downshifting

path to a resilient future, using permaculture ethics

and principles. Although it includes some proven design specifications

and pointers, and references technical sources and

case studies, it is more of a strategic guide than a technical


The book has an overview of options that increase household resilience and productivity. This book will help you get your hands dirty tackling tricky issues with creative solutions.

‘RetroSuburbia’ captures the ambiguity of a radical transformation for the future, and easy re-creation of the best from the past.

If this project aligns with your personal, household, enterprise or community level aims and actions, visit


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