Retrosuburbia: The downshifter’s guide to a resilient future
by David Holmgren
Hepburn, Vic, Melliodora, 2018
Book Review by Janine Banks
I have just reread this huge 592 page book and really want to recommend it to everyone who cares about the future of the earth and all life on the earth. When I first read it, I had just completed a permaculture course with David Holmgren and the book had just been published. So I don’t think I appreciated how incredibly thorough and all encompassing the book was after being submerged in permaculture principles and practice for a couple of weeks. I am glad I have reread it and really appreciate the incredible detail and broad coverage of this “guide to a resilient future”. The book certainly reflects David’s deep thinking and ideas and knowledge about the possible future of this planet and our lives upon it.
There are 34 chapters divided into 4 main sections: Setting the Scene; Built Field: Patterns of Human Habitats; Biological Field: Patterns of Life and Growth; and Behavioural Field: Patterns of Decisions and Actions.
In Setting the Scene, he is really introducing his concepts and ideas and why he thinks the suburbs are the place to work from. As he says,
In the early days of promoting permaculture, ‘start at the backdoor step’ was the design advice of the father of permaculture Bill Mollison. The idea that we should ground the ‘big picture’ vision of permaculture in immediate and practical action is still sound.
Given that most Australians grew up in suburbia, it makes sense that those preparing for the future should do so on familiar territory whether as owners or renters.
The density of people and housing in Australian suburbs provides a ‘sweet point’ between on the one hand, having enough indoor and outdoor space to create a vibrant and productive household economy that we usually associate with rural self-reliance, and on the other, the critical mass of community and connections we usually associate with urban lifestyle and enterprise.
He also introduces all the ethics and design principles of permaculture and lays a thorough groundwork for the more detailed sections later in the book. And he discusses a retrosuburban pattern language based on another of my favourite books, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language.
The second chapter in Setting the Scene is David’s pictures and stories of a history of a suburban street Aussie St: the Past and Future of Suburbia, as it changes and evolves from the 1950’s through to the 2020’s, illustrating how his retrosuburban vision can be a reality (and necessity) of community support and lifestyles within the suburban street setting. This chapter is trying to illustrate how easily and naturally the transition from a regular independent suburban place to a retrosuburban inspired community experiencing energy descent can be.
After Setting the Scene, he goes into much more detailed and practical information about all the different aspects of retrofitting a suburban block from greywater harvesting and bushfire defence, to garden farming and domestic animals, to creating your own livelihood and household disaster planning. The book is huge because it is full of very thorough detailed information on every aspect of setting yourself up for a resilient and satisfying lifestyle. In addition to the book, is the companion website, Retrosuburbia.com, that adds to and extends the material in the book. And keeps the book a lot smaller!
A special aspect of the book are the photographs which Holmgren’s son, Oliver, is mainly responsible for and reflect the local retrosuburban communities, mainly in Victoria and particularly around David’s property. Local practicing permies are pictured living and working the retrosuburban permaculture lifestyle, which adds a certain richness and credibility to all the information and ideas in the book. Also at the end of each section is a case study of examples of retrosuburban permacultural properties with brief descriptions of their history and how they work. Both the real life photographs and the case studies add another level to the vast amount of information presented in the book.
In the chapter on Household Disaster Planning, in the list of ‘rising threat levels’, is included ‘an increased threat of pandemics due to novel environmental factors and global mobility’. This book was published at the beginning of 2018 so when I read this I realized how easy it is to not be concerned about future disasters because they seem so unlikely in the daily routine, but here we are in the middle of a pandemic just 2 years later. It certainly adds even more credibility to the necessity for us to start to take some action to make sure our future is a bit more secure by taking responsibility for it ourselves and not counting on any government to do the right thing by everyone.
Household disaster planning is part of the process of building greater self-reliance and resilience. It takes back responsibility that has been progressively outsourced to central authorities over several generations.
Almost everyone needs this book even if just to remind them of all the different areas of our lives that need retrofitting to make our futures more safe and secure. When covid19 became big news, David Holmgren announced that Retrosuburbia was being made available online at a ‘pay what you feel’ price. It is also still available in the hardcopy from holmgren.com.au.