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Aspley, Study

PUBLICATION | I spy … scenes from micro-suburbia

John Armstrong and Linda Carroli have produced a pamphlet, I spy … scenes from micro-suburbia, which captures scenes from our sububan locality and endeavours to show some of the nuances and subtleties of suburban environments as experienced in Brisbane’s north. Please click on the image below to read and download I spy … scenes from micro-suburbia from SlideShare. However, the introduction to the pamphlet is reproduced here.


The suburbs can sometimes seem like a sleeping giant, curled up around the city. It is hard to say which is giving and receiving the comfort of this embrace. A body of such proportion and strength that it might strangle that frail centre determined to wall its cultural boundary by any means possible. We live in a middle/outer suburb in the mythic heart of the great Australian dream. In the literature we read about city design and planning, the suburbs are a problem; fraught territories. This pamphlet captures scenes from our locality and endeavours to show some of the nuances and subtleties of suburban environments that are indicative of a collaborative ethos and collective action. While there has been a blossoming of engagement with DIY and tactical urbanism, it tends to overlook the complexity and difficulty of suburbia. Enabling Suburbs was, in part, set up with a view to work with that difference in the making of place and culture in and of the suburban landscape.

We’ve described our examples as ‘scenes from ‘micro-suburbia’ to make a point about scale. Suburbia is often described as a massive and creeping expanse of homogeneity that generates blandness, waste and excess. Big houses, big cars, big consumption, big brands, big blocks of land, big roads, big shopping centres, big boxes and so on. While that is true, it is also only one facet of the suburban. The macro-view of ‘suburbia-as-monolith’ makes for a feeling of placelessness and non-place. Over the years we have been living in Brisbane’s north, we have observed and documented numerous micro-views of suburbia that we have, quite simply, appreciated. This, in turn, has engendered small and intimate relationships with pace, place and others. So, in identifying micro-suburbia, we are saying that the suburbs, like most places, function and dysfunction at varying scales. From our own experience and our own forays in the suburban field, which we play as a kind of embedded fieldwork, macro-suburbia is failing, while micro-suburbia is flourishing. These moments – the ‘micro’ – give us pause to consider how suburban systems can be disrupted through simple, productive and localising everyday acts. This pamphlet presents some of the un/usual and un/expected things we have encountered. These are not merely copies of ‘authentic’ urban phenomenon, but genuine articulations of the local. This small survey seeks to encourage a closer look at what we have recognised as a kind of ‘everday creativity’ (Elizabeth Sanders), ‘enabling city’ (Chiara Camponeschi) or ‘everyday urbanism’ (Margaret Crawford) in suburbia.

One morning, drawing on our fieldwork and documentation from the Placing Project, we compiled this list of small community driven local innovations and informal activities that have made our suburban locality seem more open and vibrant. We have seen, encountered and participated in these things during our life in Brisbane’s north. Suburban streets can offer gifts and surprises – the generosity of neighbours, an entrepreneurial spirit and makeshift encounters. Many of the initiatives presented here roll and spill out of homes and businesses into underutilised public or semi-public spaces, like verges and carparks. Domestic and private spaces become more porous and open as residents share and participate. It is not the kind of activity ordinarily attributed to suburban communities, though we suspect it has always been here in various guises, like cul-de-sac cricket and street parties. For us, there is a sense of an ‘enabling suburb’ emerging from these small invitations, innovations and actions.

This pamphlet is a kind of ‘mattering map’ endeavouring to pinpoint moments of aspiration and participation. Creativity is often regarded as an urban phenomenon thriving on the energy and density of inner urban life. Subsequently, there can be a distinctly anti-suburban tone in design, planning and academic discourses and practices which perpetuate an outdated view of our suburbs.  However, cultural and aesthetic thinking now places value on participation, relationality, improvisation, informality, adhocism, conviviality and the like. We see signs of this in suburbia where citizens are finding ways to “do, adapt, make and create” (Elizabeth Sanders). When we bump into friends while walking to a restaurant, or organise meetings or co-working in a cafe, we jokingly declare “how urban!”. Perhaps there is a small truth here, as it seems that ‘urbanism’ can be experienced and practiced in ways not bound to urban form, that confound the urban/suburban divide. The urban can be embedded in the suburban. In these scenes from our own micro-suburbia, we are detecting a creative, generous and productive drive that runs counter to persistent perceptions of a self-absorbed suburbia. It is slowly and minutely reconfiguring the everyday for people and of place.


About lcarroli

Writer. Editor. Researcher. Consultant.


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