Transition Towns are social experiments on a massive scale, in which communities are facing up to the challenges of peak oil and climate change by reconstructing themselves as independent and self sustaining, says Kim Jones of Sonter Jones Architects.

As suburbia eats up proximate farming land, a climate responsive urban growth pattern is put further out of reach for Australian cities.

With this in mind, recognizing the rural context when considering the issues of urban development is particularly important.

Under the current economic model, food production, packaging and distribution contribute to more than 20 per cent of our energy use. Most of this is consumed by packaging and distribution, so localizing and intensifying food production could easily alleviate rising food prices. This is the Transition Town notion of decoupling food from oil.

However, significant damage has already been done by suburban agglomeration. Not only has it destroyed farmland, coastline and other non-urban habitat but its form and pattern is such that it can never be economically serviced by any type of circulation infrastructure: water, energy, waste or, most obviously, transport.

An energy efficient city cannot be so dispersed and the continued release of land for housing on the fringe of major cities, while politically attractive, is environmentally irresponsible.

The need to effectively implement higher density mixed-use development into suburbia goes hand-in-hand with a more climate responsive approach to the non-urban environment.

Maintaining a compost heap down the end of the garden hardly compensates for the massive environmental footprint of suburban living. Yet residents can hardly be blamed when what passes for urban consolidation is really just suburban intensification — it offers nothing in the way of a real urban experience and retains the negative features of suburbia.

The real benefit of densification should be the opportunity to avoid the homogenised sameness of suburbia whilst being in close proximity to non-urban places.

We have never really embraced density in Australia and have sacrificed much to live a suburban lifestyle. We have lost our proximity to the source of food production and the local produce markets that accompany it. Our commitment to massive scale metropolitan infrastructure systems has stymied the development of efficient local infrastructure serving energy, water and waste, together with the opportunity to develop a co-dependent relationship between adjacent urban and rural uses. We have lost large chunks of productive time to commuting. We cling to what meager public open space remains while our suburban subdivision patterns create vast wastelands of private open space. Even our recent attempts at density are constrained in their configuration by suburban notions of spatial form, such as backyards and excessive street setbacks. Residential zoning ensures that suburban apartments do little to promote a genuinely diverse urban lifestyle.

Initiatives, such as Sydney Council’s Sydney City Farm project, which aim to educate and reconnect people to the source of food production, are significant in the message they convey. But they can only serve their aim as demonstration projects, being insufficient in number or scale to support a local trading economy. As demonstration projects they have great value, but equally important is their role in preserving open space. Indeed there does not seem to be any good environmental reason to build on open space in an existing metropolitan area. There is plenty of inefficient land-use in the existing suburban fabric, which could meet the growth needs of our major cities were it not for the resistance of local councils and their constituents.

There is an entrenched view that the suburbs are here to stay. But they are a very recent phenomenon in the history of cities that only really took off with the widespread availability of private transport. Their low-density dispersion means that they will never be adequately serviced by public transport. It may be time to consider whether they have any place at all in a future urban environment. They are destroying our cities, our farmland and our coastline.

Despite good intentions, it is probably not enough to simply introduce higher densities to the suburbs. The suburbs themselves may need to be transformed.

If the transition towards much higher densities at transport nodes were accompanied by a corresponding transition to much lower densities in the surrounding undifferentiated suburban fabric, the suburbs could be ultimately dismantled to be reconstituted as non-urban space.

Under this scenario, a major metropolitan area such as Sydney would be recast as an efficiently linked network of maybe a hundred small high-density cities occupying one tenth of the current urban footprint, with the featureless interstitial suburban fabric going under the plough.

Like Transition Towns, suitable land would then be available locally for fresh food production, or for other non-urban uses such as forest, parkland, waste recycling, aquaculture and power generation.