Linda Carroli is a writer, planner and placemaker. She is an associate with Harbinger Consultants.
1. What do you think are the most difficult challenges, contradictions and opportunities facing suburbs and their communities, or Aspley/your suburb and its community?
Aspley is a particularly interesting example. The challenge is change; changing our place, ourselves, each other. It’s estimated that more than 12,000 people reside here and that is more than 1% of the population of the Brisbane local government area. Over the last few years, since moving here to live closer to my aging mother, I’ve noticed a number of transitions. In particular, I’ve noticed changing demographics and growing cultural diversity. While that’s changing the business profile, it’s also changing the cultural experience of place and this is something to be celebrated.
At present, I don’t see much constructive commentary about adaptation and regeneration in the suburbs: solar panels here, water tanks there. Then there’s a banal narrative about garden cities and the like. The discourse perpetuates the homogenising or genericising tendencies and so the situational is absent. The future of suburbs is not separate from that of cities and regions but nevertheless when we talk about planning and development, the suburbs somehow disappear from the discussion, reduced to a number of formal planning conventions, even slogans. That’s dangerous because most Australians living in metropolitan areas/regions live in suburbs. In other words, it sometimes seems in the prevailing discourses that suburbs can be dealt with through a suite of formal planning instruments and approaches rather than social and cultural approaches. We should know by now that people and communities don’t respond well to those kinds of technocratic and top down approaches.
Part of the challenge here is about engaging communities in a way that’s not so accusatory; that’s facilitative, social and communicative. There’s value and some of that value, as Jason Haigh points out, is in the architectural heritage. It concerns me when it seems that people don’t care – they don’t care about the place, they don’t care about the community. We need to bring care back into this conversation and negotiation. The largest obvious challenge (for everyone) is charting and visioning a ‘sustainable’ future – in an honest and hopeful way that has futuring as its purpose.
2. How do you think these challenges and contradictions, particularly in relation to cultural and urban sustainability, can be addressed from your perspective or practice as an artist, strategist, designer or activist?
I work across a few domains – as an interdisciplinary practitioner – including writing, design and planning. My work involves a critical and creative engagement with people and place, and this is a suitable platform for negotiating, thinking and designing change. Solutions and innovations tend to lie between things and require more than one way of thinking about a problem or idea. It’s about stacking things up or joining the dots in different ways to come up with options. I dislike templates, hierarchies and models, which seems to be what planning and design like to peddle. I much prefer a more recombinant approach to problems that is more responsive to people and place from the ground up.
With the kind of engagement we have in this project, we’re just starting a conversation and a creative collaboration. Here we all are, three of us living in Aspley and not being wholly certain about what to do next. Chiara brings a different perspective and set of experiences that can stimulate and challenge. The only thing we can say with certainty is that doing nothing is not an option. We’re not so bold to be saying that we have the solutions and we’re not likely to be rolling out a cookie cutter approach to suburban issues or to insert one-off or tokenistic interventions like advocating temporary uses as an end in itself, seperate to systemic change or adapation. We just have a strong, perhaps urgent, sense that change is necessary and perhaps develop a few ideas that has redirection as its motivation. It’s better that people come willingly to a conversation about change rather than brace themselves for an argument about ‘not changing’ or engaging in ‘culture wars’, as often seems to happen in the urban change context. It’s very much a question of how we should live and how we can live together to create the future.
So for my own practice, as a writer, it’s about gathering, communicating and sharing. That’s an iterative process which says things are always in development, change is a process, the world is complex and we’re always learning. My work in planning does this too. At its most simple it’s about imagining and visioning a future. Culturally grounded methods are by far the best way of negotiating that challenge, perhaps by shifting aware from individual preoccupations to those of more collective significance. In that respect, I am always inspired by the work John Armstrong does as a facilitator and curator.
3. Are you already engaged in addressing those challenges and contradictions in some way? How are you doing that?
I am heartened to see a gradually growing discussion about suburbs and a focus on creating alternatives, ranging from transition towns to backyard farming to granny flats. Those aren’t the whole story but there’s growing recognition that futuring happens or can happen in these environments – this futuring is probably different to what can happen in inner urban environments. Those approaches tend to recognise plurality – it’s not just about a singular urban environment. Over the past few years I’ve been working on a project titled Placing, a cultural writing project that has been exploring writing place and place writing. That led to another project called Changescaping and has now led to this project. While that might seem like a purely critical and abstract exercise, it has raised quite a number of problems and possibilities for at least starting a conversation. To date, though, it has felt like a series of heroic failures where ideas have fallen on deaf ears, or where differences escalate into animosities. Ultimately, what I believe are significant opportunities, like repurposing of a recently disused university campus, have been missed. Community assets and capacity are ultimately diminished as a result of that kind of expedient and exclusionary decision making.
More recently, I have advocated to my elected representatives (at all levels of government) to initiate a community visioning process given some significant pressures in our locality. At this point in time, the local area plan for my community says Aspley is a gateway for the city. It’s not a place, it’s a gateway for commuters!! So the plan affirms the placelessness of this suburb by prioritising the highway and cars. I’d only heard from one of them and it’s apparent that there is no will to progress this need for community visioning and how such a process could support the ways in which we imagine or redirect the future of this place. So, in part, that’s what Enabling Suburbs is addressing, perhaps more abstractly than I had initially hoped. We need to create conditions to cultivate emergent systems and processes to have our interests and ideas addressed seriously and creatively. As our funding proposal wasn’t successful, we need to figure out other strategies for mobilising our intention, without necessarily investing too much sweat equity.
4. What could an ‘enabling suburb’ look and feel like?
An enabling suburb is not only enabled to rethink and redo itself (as and in a network of connections and in a way that creates the future), it’s also a platform for people to make change and be changed. So it is both enabled and enabling. An enabling suburb does; it acts. Chiara Camponeschi’s work resonated – I wanted to think away from ideas like tactics, intervention and her engagement with Manzini and ‘enablement’ seemed potent and realisable for suburbia. An enabling city enables its suburbs.
Aron Chang recently wrote in Places Journal that “rethinking suburban design is an enormous challenge because many suburban neighbourhoods have been designed, developed and managed precisely to avoid change and limit uncertainty.” So loosening that resistance to change is at the heart of this project because we might also be able to generate new and regenerate old languages for governance and collaboration; we might seriously recognise some geniune alternatives. If we’re serious about cities and regions being more than the sum of their parts, then rethinking suburbs and the kinds of constraints they impose on citizens and citizenship is essential.
5. Aspley, as our case study, is the first Brisbane site to be connected to the National Broadband Network meaning it will be connected to highspeed broadband. How do you think highspeed broadband and online technologies can be used to address challenges or realise opportunities?
No one has had a conversation with us yet, although I have received a letter from my Federal member highlighting some positives for the community. In particular, it seems that there is some perceived benefit for older people in terms of health services and social inclusion (and it’s important to note that there are several retirement villages and aged care facilities locally). When I checked the geographic distribution of internet connection in the local area, I found that those Census collection districts where retirement and aged care facilities are located are among the least internet connected.
New technologies are catalysing some significant shifts in our society – it adds a new dimension to the informal society. At one level, there’s home-based business and telecommuting, which means people are spending more time in their localities. This creates demand for third spaces where people can mingle, co-create, do business, socialise, access wifi and the like. Should the only place in a community with free wifi really be McDonalds? What about suburb 2.0?
Broadband is social and cultural infrastructure and there are some emerging issues in suburban areas, like homelessness, poverty and obesity, that low density and fragmented communities aren’t well-equipped to address due to the distribution of public resources. If we think about the virtual realm as a commons, then it’s important to shift our sense of ourselves as citizens rather than consumers; to take up challenges of self-organisation to pool energies for these kinds of issues. My other hope is that this technology can help us put the pieces of the city back together again – enhancing sensemaking and storytelling – and neutralise the hierarchies, templates and models of existing planning, design and governance regimes. Those frameworks lack transparency and have a tendency to reproduce themselves for their own sake.
6. What is one suggestion you have for harnessing or facilitating the kind of creativity or social innovation required to create ‘enabling suburbs’?
Reinvigoration of the commons; asserting a public, cultural and social realm. Platforms for formal and informal activity and participation, particularly the pooling of resources and ideas. I love this idea of ‘readiness’ or ‘readying’ in the face of uncertainty – it’s not bracing for uncertainty, but embracing it. In that respect, a fusion platform could play a central role in cultural change and social innovation as well as just easing people into participating in change in a situated way. It’s important to just get people talking, deliberating and learning about things that matter, to develop stories that bridge and shape the present and the future.