Chiara Camponeschi is author of The Enabling City and works at the intersection of interdisciplinary research, social innovation and urban sustainability.
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?
Suburbs are particularly vulnerable places. As predominantly car-centric, they lack lively public spaces where the act of socializing can go beyond forms of recreational or status-defining consumption. The emphasis on driving and shopping not only makes a problematic statement about the idea of participation itself, but also impoverishes the very social infrastructures that promote neighbourliness, encourage trust, and counteract the pervasive ‘culture of fear’ that dominates mainstream discourse. In a sense, suburbs strive to exist in isolation; the ‘domestication’ of the everyday doesn’t leave much room for an appreciation of diversity, experimentation, and serendipity that is more visible in urban centers. For any given suburbanite the most important part of the day either happens elsewhere, such as in cities or offices, or happens in privacy, in a car or living room. This deprives suburbs of those very ‘happy discoveries’ and creative contamination that make cities such vibrant and dynamic places. Moreover, the economic underpinnings that shape the life of suburbs, with their focus growth and private ownership, decouples them from larger economic and environmental processes that only exacerbate the very issues that make them vulnerable in the first place. I’d like to see suburbs becoming more resilient and open to the ‘positive chaos’ of cities.
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 see these challenges as a tremendous opportunity to spark a conversation about the future of suburbs and their sustainable survival. More importantly, I think it’s time we – as artists, practitioners, designers and activists – brought the same kind of creative thinking we deploy in cities to their suburban counterparts, effectively idesigning projects that challenge the current status quo and the perception of suburbs as bland or uninteresting places. One way to start would be by investing in the creation of safe public spaces and to use them as organizing tools to foster social innovation. Public spaces are crucial in shifting the focus away from the private realm to the kind of lateral thinking needed to formulate a new idea of public life. Interventions in pop-up or disruptive spaces could be particularly useful in challenging the deeply-entrenched logic behind suburban development and galvanize the public to come together for creative self-organization. I would also call for the embeddment of strategic leadership and creative problem-solving in the political process that governs life in suburbia, stepping away from the ‘NIMBY’ mentality that frequently characterizes suburban responses to most societal challenges. Diversity (of demographic, space, use and intent) is also crucial. Suburbs are already diverse communities, but we need to unlock their creative and cultural potential and put that diversity at the heart of more socially- and environmentally-minded initiatives.
3. Are you already engaged in addressing those challenges and contradictions in some way? How are you doing that?
Much of my work focuses on cities, but I strongly believe that both suburban and rural communities should be invited to join the conversation, especially if the aim of our work is to produce outcomes that are holistic and mindful of dynamics of exclusion. Place-based creative problem-solving, as both a tool and a framework for action, can be very powerful in addressing complex issues such as population growth, over-consumption, the degradation of public space, and the erosion of local practices. While any community can harness the imagination and inventiveness of its diverse actors to generate new and responsive solutions to these challenges, suburbanites in particular should leverage them to push local authorities to move from frameworks of ‘control’ to ones of ‘enablement.’ What I’d like to see more of in suburbs are the physical spaces and social networks that enable ‘community connectors’ to enhance the ability of others to co-design and innovate. For this to happen, residents and authorities should join forces and share their various forms of capital (creative, political, social, economic, etc.) to foster a stimulating environment that provides a space for input where power is legitimately shared with others. Imagine if every suburb had a co-working space, a project incubator, accessible learning labs, resource exchange hubs, and open meeting spaces that were flexible and designed to accommodate the needs of a wide range of actors. The problem-solving capacity of residents would grow significantly, and it would capture local creativity without seeing it wasted or dispersed outside of the community.
4. What could an ‘enabling suburb’ look and feel like?
An enabling suburb would be one that is open to change and to risks, one that is responsive to emerging trends and interconnected social issues, that supports the social economy, explores models for co-investment, incubation, and prototyping and, more importantly, that provides opportunities for mentoring, informal exchange, formal skill-building, and networking. An enabling suburb, to me, is one that seeks and learns from inspiring individuals and that nurtures community bonds. There is no reason why initiatives like resilience circles, lending networks, local business alliances, childcare co-ops, landshares, and crowdfunded renewable energy investment schemes couldn’t work there. Maybe suburbs have come to rely too much on the idea that ‘someone is going to take care of the community’, whereas cities are more self-reliant and prone to guerrilla problem-solving without waiting for businesses or government to step in. But if we gave suburban communities tools instead of ideas, and if we harnessed the power of bored youth, of intercultural communities, of entrepreneurial residents, then opportunity for residents to become decision-makers over their environment would instantly multiply.
Of course, there are no ‘one size fits all’ models to follow here. Suburban communities are just as unique and diverse as urban ones. However, almost all of the ‘enabling’ projects that are started in cities could be replicated, adopted, expanded and re-imagined in suburbs: from place-making to resource sharing, local food production, and innovative funding schemes the possibilities are virtually endless.
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?
I am not a resident of Aspley, but I do believe that online technologies play an important role in opening up avenues of participation for communities. Today, as netizens, we have a vast array of tools that can be used to facilitate a global exchange of best practices and support. Examples range from the ubiquitous Twitter and Facebook platforms, to mobile apps developed to and for cities, as well as participatory mapping projects and more. Some outcomes that could be facilitated by the equitable distribution of online and mobile technologies are: increased opportunities for telecommuting, collaborative civic app development, enhanced community organizing, as well as the provision of temporary substitutes for the kinds of offline social and physical infrastructures that (most) suburbs currently lack. Social media and publishing platforms could also be used to document progress, start a working group, find collaborators, ask for feedback, share resources, and celebrate achievements, thus establishing suburbs as important nodes in the larger networks of diffused enterprise where cities currently dominate.
Of course, none of these tools are substitutes for what happens ‘offline’, but this doesn’t mean that the same kind of DIY spirit couldn’t be leveraged to make suburbs more connected and interactive places. Web 2.0 is not just about tools or tweeting; it embodies values that ‘netizens’ then embrace, and expect to see embraced, in the public realm. Social networks have become invaluable avenues for the creation of a culture of openness, interactivity and ‘everyday democracy.’
6. What is one suggestion you have for harnessing or facilitating the kind of creativity or social innovation required to create ‘enabling suburbs’?
One suggestion would be to not underestimate the importance of access to inspiration. Instead of demonizing suburbs, we should be embracing the opportunity to re-imagine them as sites of civic potential, as part of the solution. In the age of peak oil and climate change, this is a prime opportunity to envision what a resilient and sustainable ‘enabling suburb’ might look like – though stopping at the visioning level is not going to be enough. We need to embed different kinds of values in the everyday fabric of suburban life, no longer implying that wealth is synonymous with ownership or that self-interest overrides the commons. We need to pass new laws and policies that support the initiatives of ‘creative communities’ by providing low barriers to entry and equitable distribution of funding. More importantly, as I write in The Enabling City, “we need to enable public servants to understand the shifts from leading to enabling, from controlling to influencing, and from operating in isolation to working in partnership with others.”