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Retrosuburbia: The Downshifter’ Guide To A Resilient Future

Productive garden farming. Images courtesy of Melliodora Publishing

Retrofitting our homes, gardens and lifestyles to be more self-reliant and resilient promises both a more fulfilling life for us and multiple benefits for society and the environment.

Retrofitting also enables us to focus on what we can do at the household level, rather than community or government levels. We don’t need permission or government funding to start making our lives more productive and enjoyable. We don’t even need to own the place we call home. Although the scope for physical retrofits is greater for home-owners, renters can also make creative changes to their habits, diets and work patterns to create a more resilient and fulfilling life.

This retrofitting can be done wherever we are, but in my latest book, RetroSuburbia: The Downshifters’ Guide to a Resilient Future (Melliodora Publishing, 2018) I have focused on suburbs and country towns, which I believe can be transformed into productive and vibrant spaces where we can live within our global means. I use examples that are primarily applicable to my home territory in South Eastern Australia, but by extension the patterns of retrosuburbia can be adapted to other climates and cultures.


Retrofitting has never been exciting or sexy compared with novel technologies and grand schemes to save the world. Even in permaculture, there tends to be a strong focus on ‘clean slate’ design rather than retrofitting. While the purpose and assumptions behind ‘Retrosuburbia’ imply exciting, novel and challenging change, the basics of retrofitting are very safe, simple and pedestrian, starting with what already exists.

Retrofitting is a step between the slow incremental organic processes by which traditional peoples modified their living environment, and the typical processes of the modern world in which fossil-fuelled debt finance quickly wipes away old patterns and ways with brand new projects.

Although the current fashion for ‘retro’ style could just be a passing phase, maybe there is a link between this fashion and the revival of the energy and enthusiasm for DIY tech, food growing and self-reliant living. This current interest is the strongest I’ve seen since the 1970s, when permaculture last showed the promise of a grass-roots transformation of suburbia. In any case, I think retrosuburbia captures the ambiguity of a radical transformation for the future and the easy recreation of the best from the past.

Outdoor living areas, extended families and shared facilities are key patterns of retrosuburbia. Images courtesy of Melliodora Publishing


In the early days of promoting permaculture, ‘start at the backdoor step’ was the design advice of the father of permaculture, Bill Mollison. The idea that we should ground the big picture vision of permaculture in immediate and practical action is still sound.

Given that most Australians grew up in suburbia, it makes sense that those preparing for the future should do so on familiar territory, whether as owners or renters.

The density of people and housing in Australian suburbs provides a sweet point between, on the one hand, having enough indoor and outdoor space to create a vibrant and productive household economy that we usually associate with rural self-reliance, and on the other, the critical mass of community and connections we usually associate with urban lifestyle and enterprise.


Although retrofitting most obviously applies to our homes (the ‘Built Field’ of housing, services and technology), the concept also applies to our gardens, (the ‘Biological Field’) and our lives and habits; (the‘Behavioural Field’).


The Built Field incorporates recurring patterns and design solutions relevant to retrofitting detached houses and the other physical systems that support suburban households. It also includes ‘alternative technologies’ that can make a big difference to the way we live. This is an obvious starting point if you want to get stuck into making your place a better prospect for a resilient and productive life over the long-term.

These patterns and design solutions include:

  • using greenhouses and/or shadehouses to heat and cool buildings
  • installing wood stoves and heaters inside, or simple wood stoves, ovens or barbecues outside
  • installing water systems, such as tanks and outside taps, and utilising greywater from the house
  • creating outdoor living and food processing areas
  • constructing infrastructure for food storage such as cellars, cool cupboards and undercrofts
  • ensuring our homes are more resilient to natural disasters, for instance through sealing gaps to prevent ember entry in bushfires.
Work-Life-Balance Matrix. Images courtesy of Melliodora Publishing


The Biological Field includes the living world of soil, plants and animals that provide us with food, other yields and environmental services. The Biological Field has been the primary focus of permaculture teaching, design and activism over many decades. A permablitz remodelling of a backyard can be thought of as retrofitting or, more radically, as a redesign of the Biological Field.

Biological Field retrofits include:

  • improving soils through the addition of organic matter and remineralisation
  • starting vegie garden beds in areas of lawn
  • incorporating animals into backyard food systems
  • growing mushrooms in small, shady spaces
  • creating productive spaces in parklands and creek edges close to where we live.


We often get carried away by jumping into the details of more sustainable and resilient living through changing our environment, without paying enough attention to the larger context of personal relationships, health, work, family and community. If we can better see how to apply the retrofitting, redesign and reinventing processes to our household locations, lifestyles and living arrangements, then we have a stronger foundation on which to construct design solutions that will work across all areas of life.

The Behavioural Field includes everything about how we live in the Built and Biological fields, from our most unconscious actions, through to more complex collective organisations that extend from the household out into the wider community and economy. We are talking about reinventing our ways of living.

If we focus on our own behaviour, we can avoid both feeling disempowered by the seemingly overwhelming problems that society faces, and pouring all our energy into attempting to reform some aspect of society whilst neglecting our domestic realm.

Retrofitting the Behavioural Field might include:

  • doing more things at home, and walking and cycling more, reducing the need for a car
  • changing to a local, seasonal diet
  • taking in boarders, or becoming a productive and valued boarder in a resilient household
  • foraging weeds, fruits and fungi in public spaces
  • learning new skills
  • strengthening relationships with neighbours.

Reducing paid work to increase time and energy spent in the house and garden is one of the biggest retrofits many Australians could potentially make in the Behavioural Field. It also feeds into the perennial question of work/life balance. The demands of paid work and career development on the one hand, and life, especially family life, on the other, often seem incompatible. Reassessing our relationship with paid work (and spending) is an important step in the path to a resilient, fulfilling life. The work/life balance matrix outlined on the next pages will help you start this process.

More money, less time vs less money more time. Images courtesy of Melliodora Publishing


Several decades of observing, participating in, consulting and writing about permaculture, self-reliance and the nonmonetary and gift economies of the household and community has led me to create the ‘work/life balance matrix’. This tool can help people explore how their life is arranged and how it might be retrofitted to create new, more fulfilling life patterns.

The work/life balance matrix combines two variables: the first is between play and work, and the second is between market norms and social norms.

  • By work, I mean any activity that is primarily to satisfy material needs, either directly such as growing food, or indirectly such as paid employment.
  • By play, I mean any activity that is primarily driven by consumption and experiential urges, including learning in all its guises, entertainment and creative activities from which there is no immediate or obvious material gain.
  • By market norms, I mean the rules and protocols (mostly explicit) that govern economic exchanges mediated by money and credit through the formal economy.
  • By social norms, I mean the rules and protocols (almost always implicit) that govern relationships between family, friends, colleagues and the community more generally, where there is no direct measure of value or exchange. These social norms govern what is called the gift economy, where social rewards and status accumulate for those gifting or giving service.

This forms four quadrants that we all inhabit to varying degrees during the week and at different stages of life.

Profit and loss

This is time spent in paid work, including self-employment, managing investments, applying for welfare, grants and other forms of financial support, but most classically it is time spent in salaried or wage work. Profit and loss implies the monetary accounting system, which we constantly use, formally or informally, to evaluate what is worth doing, even if our conclusions are not entirely rational. For many, paying down debt is the most powerful motivation for time spent in this space. Paid work is often a source of personal identity and validation of how we contribute to society.

Consumer heaven

This quadrant represents the time spent using money acquired in profit and loss to satisfy needs, wants and addictions. It is called ‘heaven’ because it is often the prime compensation for the effort and strictures endured in paid work. It includes shopping, paid entertainment and other forms of purchased consumption including formal education.

Voluntary simplicity

This space involves passive recreation, chatting, correspondence or any enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life that are largely free from monetary exchange and with minimal technological mediation. It includes the development of new skills and abilities that arise through self-exploration and/or help from others through the gift economy. At the most basic level, eating and other consumption, grooming, and sex (all without monetary exchange) are included in this quadrant.

Permaculture productivity

This space includes any productive activity for self-provision in the non-monetary household economies, especially gardening, cooking, household management and maintenance and raising children. It also includes voluntary work in the community. Permaculture productivity implies energetically efficient, ethical and fruitful work that is diverse, integrated, creative and human-scale, rather than repetitive drudgery.

How is your life balanced?

Take some time out to analyse your life. Do this exercise with partners or other family members if appropriate. Once you have worked out where you sit on this matrix, it should be easier to plan where you want to be.

  • Assume you spend about 8 hours each day in sleeping. That leaves 16 hours per day, or 112 hours per week, to do everything else.
  • What do you do with your 112 hours each week? Divide your time between the four quadrants in the work/life balance matrix. Are there any surprises there?
  • Is there a big overlap or a separation between these quadrants for you? Some people will find considerable overlap, for others there are strong divisions. Many people engaged in permaculture lifestyles find a natural overlap. For instance at Melliodora, I enjoy working in the garden (voluntary simplicity) but this is also a serious part of our household economy (permaculture productivity), as well as contributing to Melliodora as a demonstration site for tours (profit and loss). It also requires that we make purchases of seed and tools to support our garden system, and extra gadgets such as cameras and weather stations to support our wider business (consumer heaven).
  • How does the pattern of partners and/or other household members balance your pattern?
  • Once you have worked out where you are now, it is time to consider how you would like to spend more of your time. Fill your 112 hours into the matrix again, this time as you would like your life to be balanced.
  • Do you have a plan to make the changes?

This is taken from David’s new book RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future. (Melliodora Publishing, 2018) Available in the Pip Shop.


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