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I spy ... scenes from micro-suburbia

This pamphlet by Linda Carroli & JM John Armstrong captures scenes from our locality which show some of the nuances and subtleties of suburban environments. While there has been a blossoming of engagement with DIY and tactical urbanism, it tends to overlook the complexity and difficulty of suburban contexts. It also tends to overlook the activity that is already part of the suburban environment. This project endeavours to present personal accounts and narratives as a counter to the sometimes anti-suburban tone of current design, planning and academic discourse. It presents small scale encounters that indicate the suburbs operate at multiple scales and offer a diverse palette of engagements and actions.

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I spy ... scenes from micro-suburbia

  1. 1. I spy ... scenes from micro-suburbia Compiled by Linda Carroli & JM John Armstrong
  2. 2. I spy ... scenes from micro-suburbia compiled by Linda Carroli & JM John Armstrong (cc) 2013 Unless otherwise specified, the content of this pamphlet is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia License. This pamphlet is produced as part of Enabling Suburbs, under the umbrella of the Fieldworking project. Enabling Suburbs is an interdisciplinary project exploring suburban futures by drawing on and developing alternative representations as a strategy for enabling change and diversity. Fieldworking was assisted by the Australian Government through the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body. Harbinger Consultants Creative Sustainability :: Place, People, Product, Partnership, Potential + Pollinate PO Box 334, Aspley Qld 4034 Author bios JM John Armstrong has held executive and senior management roles in higher education, enterprise and government. Prior to establishing Harbinger Consultants and developing a vibrant consultancy practice, he worked as the manager of an Indigenous business development hub. He has worked with many organisations to develop and facilitate strategy, policy and change. An experienced project manager and formerly CEO of a creative enterprise incubator, John was a member of the Board of the Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing and Export Agency and the chair of an arts and disability organisation. He has also participated in government initiatives in placemaking, creative city and urban agriculture. As a contemporary artist, practicing in the 1970s and 80s, Armstrong traveled widely and his artwork is held in many public collections. He has represented Australia in international cultural events including the Sao Paolo Biennale and Paris Biennale. Linda Carroli has worked across community, urban, organisational and cultural contexts with a special interest in stakeholder engagement and consultation.The diverse scope of her work has included reporting and analysis, public relations, community consultation and engagement, planning and policy, program evaluation, project management, publishing and information/digital content management. She chaired a national art, science and technology organisation, the Australian Network for Art and Technology, and was formerly the editor of an international art, science and technology electronic magazine, fineArt forum. As an award winning writer, she publishes in a range of media both nationally and internationally and is also the recipient of a Centenary Medal for ‘long and distinguished service in the arts’. She has completed studies in media, cultural studies,heritage and urban planning and design.
  3. 3. Contents Introduction Street stalls & yard sales Carpark concerts & events Front yarding Street art & chalking Street furniture Creative studios Markets & fetes Informal ‘commoning’ ‘Hole-in-the-wall’ businesses Suspended coffee Community garden Micro-business Street parties & gatherings Treehouses & play Local flavour Mobile & roadside vending Open house, hidden treasures Self-organisation Social space Feral food Lively streets Giving Notes & ideas 1 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 I spy ... scenes from micro-suburbia
  4. 4. Introduction Linda Carroli & JM John Armstrong 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. 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 in ways that engender sustainability. 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, big infrastructure 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 space, place and others. So, in identifying 1 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. We recognise the limits and understand that these examples are not heralding an emergent ‘redirective practice’ (Tony Fry) of suburbanism. However, as Fry urges, from a futuring perspective it is important to work with what is already at play, to retrofit and redirect. 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
  5. 5. it seems that ‘urbanism’ can be experienced and practiced in ways not bound to urban form ... the urban can be embedded in the 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 suburban. 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. 2
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  7. 7. Street stalls & yard sales Like garage and yard sales, street stalls, sausage sizzles and charity stalls invite passersby and neighbours to participate in informal exchange. Such events tend to be about more than selling off disused possessions. They hybridise private and public spaces by using the street and/or yard for social and economic exchange. Carpark concerts & events Above: A footpath stall set up by a child. Left: Yard sale at a suburban op shop. Suburban centres can be dominated by carparks which are rarely used to capacity and are often left empty during closing hours. Sharing and re-using space can help activate communities especially where the empty car parks become dead zones. A community minded business can change this dynamic. The car park at our local shopping centre is already used for mobile community services such as the blood bank and library. Prior to the anti-hoon campaigns, young people would gather and socialise in that car park, showing off their cars and attitude. Having built a back deck in its car park, a local coffee shop uses this space for small concerts and acoustic sessions. Hidden from the main road, the space is relaxed with an alternative feel, like a laneway, that enlivens with the social and cultural interaction. Other uses for this carpark are also being considered, such as a small market or jumble sale. Photo: Sourced from Cup From Above 4
  8. 8. Front yarding ‘Front yarding’ means using the front yard as an active space e.g. yard sales and food growing. Several homes nearby have established food gardens in their front yards. This changes the dynamic of the street as it realises a role of the the front yard as an extension of living and social space. It can connect people and enable passive street security. Instead of being an empty zone, the front yard is activated and used. Another household has installed raised garden beds of vegetables and herbs in their front yard. This kind of low key social activity is part of the thinking of new urbanism and traditional neighbourhood design. As residents garden, they are engaged with the street and the neighbourhood. Nearby, another resident has installed a skateboard ramp in his front yard. It makes for a potentially more sociable, open and safe street that cultivates neighbourhood relations rather than concealing activity in the back yard. Street art & chalking Small street artworks produced through stencilling, stickering and chalking can personalise and animate a space or object that otherwise lacks character. They can add visual appeal, detail and interest. These images are not intended to last and will eventally wear or wash away. It is also a very accessible form of creativity - ranging from elaborate drawings to haiku to hopscotch to QR codes. 5
  9. 9. Street furniture Many front yards are not fenced and their gardens roll out to landscaped property lines, which mark the beginning of private property. At the front boundary of one of those yards, the home owner has installed a small ‘fairy garden’ populated with small figurines as well as a bench and water for dogs. Here, a portion of the front yard is shared and anyone is welcome to use it and enjoy it under the shade of a large street tree. Small children squeal and point as they pass when they spot the small figurines fixed to the ground – ‘mummy mummy, I saw a fairy’ – and the dogs slurp up the water on hot summer days. More recently a second bench was installed, abutting the tree on the footpath. This bench is one our favourite street insertions as one of several thoughtful and kind gestures that endeavour to share and use the space in a community-aware way, recognising too that there is no seat at the nearby bus stop. Creative studio There is a secret creative and entrepreneurial undercurrent in the suburbs. Suburban houses and yards are often large enough for residents to establish studios, workshops and other workspaces. We know there are many craftspeople, designers and artists working in their suburban homes. At local markets, we meet many creative practitioners who are reviving domestic crafts like sewing and knitting. Others make jewellery and children’s clothing. Others are salvaging and upcycling discarded materials for all kinds of crafted items. While there are many diverse home-based businesses scattered through suburban neighbourhoods, there are other creatives too - like architects and fashion designers - who also maintain home studios. Recently, we attended the opening of artist Sophie Munns’ studio in nearby Chermside where she offered her work for sale and is continuing to develop her major project titled ‘Homage to the Seed’. Photo: Sophie Munns’ studio, Chermside. Republished with kind persmission of Sophie Munns. 6
  10. 10. Markets & fetes We are regular attendees at local markets and fetes. They crop up in unlikely places like the carpark of a nearby hotel and another at a local high school. Our local markets sell fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables, quality handmade goods and crafts, second hand goods and more. Markets and fetes are a hub of enterprise with many sellers having a relationship with the locality. Informal ‘commoning’ A large road reserve has provided neighbouring residents with an opportunity to develop their own 'community common'. The land is being used for a range of formal and informal uses such as play spaces (tree houses and cubby houses), fruit growing, gardening and car parking. In general, it looks like residents treat it like an extension of their backyard. Proximity of houses, especially backyards, to much of this area provides for passive surveillance, making it a safe place for many neighbourhood activities. There is a small banana tree grove (pictured) as well as a copse of mango trees. The land reserve looks occupied and cared for with local residents obviously playing a part in shaping the space and its use. An enquiry to the local authority revealed that this ‘commoning’ is tolerated rather than permitted. While much land in suburban areas is underutilised, there are few opportunities to bring it into a common use like this. 7
  11. 11. ‘Hole-in-the-wall’ business Suspended coffee Small and ‘hole-in-the-wall’ cafes and bars are spreading, even in the suburbs, as customers are looking for intimate and interesting places close to home. Destinations don't need to be big or flashy. At Sandgate a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ coffee shop uses its shop space for bean roasting while customers sit on stools on the footpath while a new small bar encourages small talk. Many suburban coffee shops are now selling ‘suspended coffees’. The principle of ‘suspended coffee’ is simple and the Suspended Coffee website describes it as “Someone goes into a cafe, bakery, restaurant and pre-purchases a coffee or food. This is then a ‘suspended coffee’. Someone in need can then go into the business and ask if they have any suspended coffees.” However, anyone can go to a participating coffee shop and ask for a suspended coffee. The process is based on generosity and ‘paying it forward’ rather than asserting a stereotype of the ‘deserving poor’. Our local coffee shop, Cup from Above, was one of the first to offer suspended coffees and many of the coffee shops we visit now do so. Like supporting charity stalls and community fetes, buying a suspended coffee is part of the ‘gift economy’ in which goods and services are given without any expectation of reward or gain. More information at 8
  12. 12. Community gardens & recycling As part of a masterplanned community in Fitzgibbon, a community garden has been established, planted with fruit, vegetables and herbs. The project has attracted much interest and support from locals who, having received start up support from the State Government, are seeking additional funds to maintain the project. The special school also runs a community garden, cafe and recycling centre, which is apparently the world’s largest school-based recycling centre. Like many social enterprise initiatives these projects aims to bring people together to learn, develop new skills and connect. These initiatives encourage engagement with sustainable food systems, healthy living and nutrition. Micro-business Residents also turn their love of gardening into micro-businesses by selling their propagated plants from their yard. These home based nurseries sometimes sell at markets at lower prices than garden centres. Home growers have much experience of local growing and planting conditions, often offering advice. Bromeliads and orchids tend to be local favourites, attracting many appreciative buyers. 9
  13. 13. Street parties & gatherings Treehouses & play Street parties and similar social events can build a sense of community. Street parties require some planning and coordination including permission from the local authority to close the street. They encourage people to meet and can help build trust, friendships and social capital in neighbourhoods. Trees hold a particular appeal for children. Not only for building treehouses but also for climbing and suspending swings. A few years ago a battle raged in nearby Newmarket about a treehouse that was torn down by the local authority. The treehouse was used as a meeting place for residents in the street, with birthday parties and other local gatherings held there, as well as many informal play sessions. According to a news story, eight boys from six families spent many hours building it, scavenging building materials and tools to construct four platforms. Local dads supervised, intervening to ensure the safety of the structure. We’ve noted that treehouses and swings can be found in bushland, parks and other open spaces, including tyre swings suspended over the creek. Such play spaces are a kind of commoning and give children a claim to public space and allow them to get dirty as well as exercise their creativity and problem solving skills. 10
  14. 14. Local flavour In the shadow of the big franchises that dominate local centres, new service and hospitality businesses create a different kind of local economy and vibe. Ethnic food and spice stores and restaurants - Indian smorgasbord, traditional Thai, Japanese noodle house - that invite locals to experience our cultural diversity. Coffee shops and a traditional bakery also add ambience, while a tattoo parlour adds colour. Mobile & roadside vending Like the seasonal mango and cherry seller, the ‘fisho’ at the ‘servo’ is almost an institution in the suburbs. While regarded as a sign of suburban blight, service stations also provide space to independent sellers who offer seasonal produce, seafood and flowers at low prices off the back of a truck. The excess space in service stations can be used temporarily and opportunistically. Further north, a pie seller parked his distinctive 1927 Chevy truck on an access road, where it did a roaring trade and attracted other vendors selling complementary goods like hot beverages and fruit unless roadworks forced closure. At peak times like Mothers’ Day and St Valentine’s Day, flower sellers line the roads with beautiful displays of seasonal floral arrangements. Note: These sellers are licensed. 11
  15. 15. Open house, hidden treasures What could happen if we opened our homes more regularly to show off our eccentricities or uniqueness? The residents of one home kindly decided to share their collections of vintage and retro treasures with their social networks. Via facebook, they extended an invitation to join an afternoon of chatting and appreciating the collection of ‘hidden treasures’. The afternoon was relaxed and enjoyable, presenting an opportunity to informally socialise and share stories about collecting and collectables. Beautiful and quirky objects were carefully curated and clustered; apparently with help from local children. Aprons lined the verandah, with tablecloths and tea towels hanging on the washing line, fluttering in the breeze. The Australiana motifs provide insight into our history of domestic design. This event presented a different view of suburban creativity: highly personal, individual, domestic and eclectic. With another ‘hidden treasure’ open house scheduled elsewhere, the host entreats others to follow suit. Self-organisation As the day ends and cools, the residents of a quiet shady street step out of their homes to meet and greet each other. It looks like a relaxed experience, where residents can mix and build friendships. As they walk along the street or sit on fences, they share stories and laugh. We’ve wondered how this practice started as it seems more like tradition than habit. While this ability and willingness to self-organise seems intuitive and flexible, it requires some energy and passion on the part of residents. It reminds us that ‘doing something’ or participating in something - a reading group, seed saving, craft circle, swap meet, catchment group, walking or cycling group - can bring many benefits. Social media has a role to play here too because the nature of the suburban form can hinder connections with others - self-organising, social media, broadband and wi-fi access can mesh to enhance openness and neighbourliness. 12
  16. 16. Social space Suburban estates are rarely surprising or extraordinary place. They tend to face away from main streets, with one entrance leading into a network of cul-de-sacs. In one such housing estate, a circle of cut logs has been arranged under a street tree. These logs are just high enough to sit on and provide a social or resting place on a quiet street. They invite passersby and neighbours to gather in the shade, perhaps with a cup of tea or freshly baked scones in hand, to socialise. It offers respite to the elderly and children who might need to rest. Like other forms of improvised street furniture, it extends an invitation and desire for connection. Feral food Feral food, especially fruit trees, grows in or overhangs public spaces and can be picked by anyone. Mango trees and Lilly Pillys can be prolific. Other food plants, including bush tucker and the odd corn stalk sprouting in the gutter, can also be found by the keen gatherer. Cook and preserve this produce - Lilly Pilly Jam, Lilly Pilly Jelly, Mango Pickle and Mango Chutney. 13
  17. 17. Lively streets When local traders band together or take initiative, streets can come alive with new social, commerical and creative opportunities. On the footpath outside a row of small shops in a suburban centre, a cafe operator offers a workshop with a papermaker and a meal. That same group of businesses also work together to present micro-markets featuring local makers and growers. Giving Giving and gifting can be easy. Baskets of lemons and other home produce, unwanted furniture and household goods, and other disused items are often presented on the footpath with signs like ‘please take’ or ‘free’. There is no expectation of return or reward. However, it would a more meaingful gesture of generosity to offer these items when fresh or in good condition. 14
  18. 18. Notes & ideas How can I make my suburb ... more interesting? more sociable? more creative? more local? more open? 16
  19. 19. Enabling Suburbs