Fifty years ago, I left my suburban family home to move to the city, and I have lived within a few kilometres of the CBD ever since.

I hated my early years in suburbia, I felt circumscribed by its ordinariness. My studies in architecture only reinforced this disdain, pouring out essays on poor design from houses to planning.

My working life in sustainability suggested that density was the key to the future; that we needed to convert Baulkham Hills into Surry Hills, Ringwood into Collingwood, Woodbridge into Northbridge. But that never seemed possible: suburbia was so vast, and expanding faster, that it would never be undone. Sustainable suburbia was the most absurd oxymoron.

But recent events, particularly the COVID years, suggest we view suburbia in another light. Could the very things we condemned in suburbia - low-density sprawl, monotonous monoculture of forms, white picket fence family appeal - be its salvation. Could we have sustainable suburbs in the future? Here’s some speculations.

Diversity and density

The mismanagement of the Sydney lockdown revealed huge discrepancies in households, the north and east had smaller numbers in larger houses, the southwest had more people in smaller dwellings. Most commentary noted the discriminatory political policies that applied to the lower SE (socio-economic) status of the SW households; but behind those observations is a note of social hope.

The larger household sizes were often because multicultural means multi-generational: grandparents, parents, and children living together is common in the Mediterranean and Asia (and our indigenous mobs), but not in Anglo-Celtic-Saxon derived Skippys, where children can't wait to leave to buy their own house.

We are now seeing the huge social benefits in the ‘inversion rule’: whilst parents work the grandparents look after the children until the children are old enough to look after the ageing grandparents. It increases social interaction and helps in childcare, home education and passing on culture. The social benefits are matched by the subtle increase in density, aiding sustainability. So that’s a win to suburbia.

Power to the People

Australia is leading the world in the uptake of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, almost entirely because it is a suburban nation. More than 25% of dwellings have installed PV panels, an easier purchase for an individual suburban house owner than a strata owner in collective apartments. And many installers are discovering the value of batteries as the prices fall.

This is locally generated energy: it is made, stored, and used by one or more houses. It is the antithesis of the substations and long-distance transmission wires of the centralized fossil fuel power stations so beloved of the National Party and the loony right. Whilst they are stuck in the 20th century trying to replace one fuel with another, 21st century suburbia has skipped the debate entirely, moving to a ‘wireless’ transmission future.

Again, it is the very characteristics of suburbia that make this work: the large roof areas and lower population densities allow for the energy generated to be ‘carbon neutral’, or even better, by exporting it to local businesses, schools etc., it can be ‘carbon positive’ in ways that the proportionately smaller roof areas of apartment buildings, with larger numbers of residents, cannot.

Ironic then, that the higher density urban buildings, so often seen as ‘more sustainable’, will always rely on remote power (from wind, solar or heaven forbid, gas) to supplement the smaller area of PVs that they can achieve. Strike two against the inner urban.

Moving on

One of the constant criticisms of suburbia was its high dependence on fossil fuels for transport; the low population density rendered mass transit inefficient, increasing ICE (internal combustion engine) car dependence. Electric vehicles change all that. On demand local electric buses can take residents to the local tram or train (all electric), and all individual trips can be carbon neutral when cars are charged at home from the solar PV on the roof.

Suburbia offers one great advantage for that last issue: charging. A detached house, with its own carport, garage or off-street area can have a dedicated ‘fast-charge’ point to plug into. But in the inner city it is impossible to charge an electric vehicle if you live in a terrace without a garage in a back lane or an apartment without parking. You rely on public charge points (rare) or in shopping centres (spend your time literally). Strike three against the city.


One of the major innovations in lockdowns was the rise in ‘working from home’. The idea was badly misjudged by many politicians who thought all workers were like them, wearing white collars (less than 25%) and working in the city (less than 25%); they forgot the manual labour on sites or on the move, who nevertheless appreciated the fewer commuter cars on the roads.

But the possibility of home-work has changed perceptions of our city fabric. Working from a home (occupied 24/7), avoids the commute and the necessity for office blocks (unsustainably occupied only 8-10/5). We will see more family homes with space for an office or two and the rise of the home micro workshop, or home-based creative industries or more share-spaces at the corner shops. All of which is likely more sustainable and a further strike against the city.


Another downside of suburbia, that can be turned to advantage, is the low-level, not to say poor, house construction. This belies the ease with which we might change them, converting the single-family home to a multi-generational one is easy in suburbia; by adding alts and adds, a nanny or granny flat, a studio or an income producing micro apartment, increasing both the efficiency and the value of the suburban house.

Some states have codified altering homes without reference to the local council, and why not?  If you remain within a nominated envelope and build to the code, then let a thousand ideas flourish in every street. Better, and likely more sustainable, than homogenous McMansion replacements.

Constant change is one of the great possibilities in suburban housing which, crucially, you can't do in apartment blocks; ironically built to far higher standards, and hence subject to far greater criticism when things inevitably fail. Anyone who has tried to make even the smallest alts or adds in a Strata controlled building knows how beyond difficult it is. The Australian birthright of being a DIY homemaker is thwarted at every turn. Strike five.

Growing up

When Australian suburbia doubled between 1950 and 1975 much of the homemaking was by southern European immigrants who bought with them the traditions of growing food at home. Some grew grapes to turn into wine (or stronger); others grew fruits and vegetables, some of which had not been seen in Aussie culture before. There were market gardens in every home.

Now, there is a revival in the idea of the home garden, (thank you Costa and the ABC’s Gardening Australia). The 25-year drive in the eastern states to install water tanks means these gardens, growing fruit and vegetables to feed a family or more, are drought proof.  And where gardens may not have sufficient soil, sun or water there is the community garden (converted from Council land or a local Bolo).

We know the heavy meat diet has huge carbon consequences; more fruit and veg in your diet is good for the health of you and the planet. Home-based gardens are a solution on every suburban block of land but near impossible on the wind-swept rooftops of modern apartments, dedicated to barbecues and outdoor lifestyle rather than growing food for the occupants. Strike six, over the fence and out.

My conclusion

Recently my 95-year-old Mum and I took a trip down memory lane to see the house I grew up in. The suburb has been transformed, the property values have skyrocketed and it's full of two-storey McMansions replacing the beautiful old Calbungs (Californian Bungalows – really a Queen Anne with a veranda). And I realised the suburbia I grew up in was far better then than now.

There were six or more in every house, many of them of my own age. We played in the street and the parks. We walked everywhere. There was only one family car. We had a tenant, sometimes two, in the back ‘shed’. The schools were local as were the shops, now replaced with a shopping centre. European families had grandparents come out and stay, and they became multi-generational (without that fancy word). The Greek family across the back fence gave vegetables from their garden.

I had grown up in an ideal suburb, although I didn’t appreciate it. Now that it has become a sterile upper middle-class enclave, I hate the suburbia of my childhood even more. If only it could adopt the six ways forward to sustainable suburbia: multi-generational homes with more residents, retrofitted to be more efficient, with local home-work, local power, electric cars and food for all.

Would that it could gain something of the dynamics of the Sydney SW, reviled in the press but as close as we have to sustainable suburbia, an oxymoron no more.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].