Suburbia Project

The Simpler Way

Above all, the basic feature of the new suburbs and towns must be their highly self-sufficient local economies.

By Ted Trainer
Published October 21, 2005

Before one can begin to discuss what a sustainable neighbourhood might look like, one must recognise how grossly unsustainable our present society is. Most people do not grasp the magnitude of the overshoot embodied in consumer-capitalist society. We should be trying to cut per capita and total resource use to something like 10 percent of their present levels.

This context sets very coercive principles for the design of desirable settlements. The Simpler Way must have frugal but sufficient living standards, high levels of self-sufficiency in households, neighbourhoods and nations, more cooperative and participatory ways, an economy that is not driven by market forces, profit or growth (although it could have many private firms and markets) - and it can't be driven by competition, individualism or acquisitiveness.

Following is a brief indication of the most important concrete implications for settlements.

Above all, the basic feature of the new suburbs and towns must be their highly self-sufficient local economies. These settlements and the space close to them must produce most of the things their people need, from local labour, soils, skills and resources, dramatically reducing the need for travel, transport and trade.

They must be crammed with productive facilities and areas, including little farms, firms, fish tanks, ponds, forests, workshops, stores, bamboo clumps, herb patches.

There must be many neighbourhood workshops. Most food will come from home gardens, community gardens, small farms in and close to where we live, and especially from the commons, e.g., the orchards producing fruit and nuts.

Because there would be little need for transport, most people would be able to get to work on a bicycle and therefore most roads could be dug up to increase space for gardens, the commons, etc.

Much production would take the form of hobby and craft activity. All building would be from local earth and timber, including tiles from the wood-fired kilns.

Each neighbourhood would have a community workshop, including tools, library, recycling racks, craft and meeting rooms, leisure equipment and art gallery.

Much energy and water would be provided from the locality and all waste would be recycled to its soils via compost heaps and garbage gas units. Many small animals including poultry, rabbits and fish would be partly fed on food and crop wastes on their way back to soils.

Much development, construction and maintenance would be carried out by voluntary working bees. Many goods and services would be "free" from the commons, and via the concerts and festivals. There would be a weekly market day enabling people to earn the small amounts of money they would need.

These neighbourhoods would be very leisure rich, reducing the demand for resource-expensive leisure activity. There would therefore be high levels of interaction, interdependence, mutual assistance and community. There would be much participation.

The community would (have to) take control over much of its own development and functioning, via town meetings, committees and reference. The obvious dependence of the welfare of all on how well local ecosystems and social systems were functioning would be a powerful positive incentive for conscientious contribution.

Synergism would be evident; contributing would yield direct rewards which would multiply good will and contributions.

Most people could live well on about one or two days working for money per week, devoting the other five to arts and crafts, community building, learning and personal growth. Many people in eco-villages now enjoy these kinds of conditions.

These changes would be easily and quickly achieved, even within much of the existing city landscape - if most people wanted to make them. They are mostly changes to technically simple ways and they require little capital.

Obviously little of this is possible without radical change from the present globalised, competitive, market driven and growth-obsessed economy.

It would only be possible in a radically new economy in which local resources could be put to meeting local needs for a high quality of life for all, in which there is strict social control over market forces, and in which there is no growth. However most firms could still be privately owned and there could be markets.

Those of us who advocate transition to The Simpler Way stress three final points.

  1. There is no other option: a sustainable and just world has to be characterised by radical system change to settlements more or less as described.

  2. The transition will not only dissolve the alarming global problems now threatening our annihilation, but also it will yield a far higher quality of life for all.

  3. Our prospects of making the transition are very poor.

The mainstream remains blindly obsessed with the quest for growth and affluence. Your chances in coming decades will depend on whether people in your locality can begin to build more self-sufficient, cooperative, and frugal communities.

Ted Trainer is a professor in the School of Social Work, University of New South Wales. His main interests have been global problems, sustainability issues, radical critiques of the economy, alternative social forms and the transition to them. He has written numerous books and articles on these topics, including, The Conserver Society: Alternatives for Sustainability, Saving the Environment: What It Will Take, and What Should We Do?. He is also developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney. Visit his website:


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