While around 80 per cent of Australians live in suburban streets, “we still talk as if suburban equals subhuman”, social researcher Hugh Mackay has observed.

One day, Mackay predicts, “we’ll shake off the rural mythology created for us by Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson and accept that we’re a suburban nation.”

For now, however, it is still a national pastime to knock our suburbs. While advertising, lifestyle magazines and television shows often show suburbia as the centre of happy family life, secure employment and material comfort, film makers and musicians, authors and comedians attack suburbia as a wellspring of insatiable consumption and social conformity.

From Muriel’s Wedding to Kath & Kim, Dame Edna to Daryl Kerrigan, suburbs are depicted as row after row of homogenous houses in desolate streets, rooms laden with unnecessary time-saving devices and people desperately trying to break free from stifling conservatism.  As Paul Kelly sings in his song Adelaide, “the streets are so wide, everybody’s inside. Sitting in the same chairs they were sitting in last year.”

Sadly, there is some truth to this cliché, as experienced by anyone who has driven through the outer fringes of city centres, where suburb after identical, car-dependent suburb is interspersed by supermarkets, chain-store coffee shops and big box retailers.

However, suburbs don’t have to be microcosms of cultural alienation and middle-class malaise.

In fact, a new suburb in Canberra is challenging perceptions of suburban life after receiving national recognition at the 2014 Property Council of Australia/Rider Levett Bucknall Innovation and Excellence Awards.

Winning the RPS Award for Best Master Planned Community, the suburb of Crace in Gungahlin was awarded for being a model of industry innovation, and for delivering the highest levels of community, sustainability and amenity.

Suburban Life

Suburban life

Crace is the result of the collaborative efforts of the Crace Joint Venture, consisting of the ACT Government’s Land Development Agency and Crace Developments – a consortium of which CIC Australia is the lead partner and project manager.

The Crace master plan demonstrates how creativity and a commitment to design excellence can create a community that enjoys the best of both urban and suburban worlds. A vibrant, high-density urban core with an ‘urban buzz’ often lacking in suburban life is surrounded by a tranquil suburban precinct with tree-lined streets and green spaces. The looping streets so often found in Canberra make way for a grid layout that enhances the views of the surrounding mountains, encourages pedestrians and makes public transport easier to access.

The plan features 35 hectares of green space, including the 7.5 hectare Hilltop Reserve at the centre of the suburb. Cycleways, pedestrian paths and a bus route were included in the master plan, while the suburb was the first in Australia to achieve GreenSmart accreditation in recognition of its sustainability initiatives, including leading-edge water-sensitive urban design. A large community green at the heart of the suburb encourages healthy and active living.

Affordability was a key driver at Crace, with 15 per cent of homes sold under the ACT Government’s affordability threshold. A mix of housing types, including terrace and semi-detached houses, deliver housing choice. The Crace Central shopping centre, a medical centre, community garden, Goodwin Independent Living for seniors and childcare centre foster a vibrant and diverse community for people of all ages and abilities.

The Crace Joint Venture team applied clever and creative design solutions to maximise solar orientation, such as block sizes that are larger on the sloping sites to allow easier construction. The streetscape, with its sustainable landscape setting of rain gardens and open spaces, is a modern take on the well-trimmed hedges and lawns of the old days and reflects the best traditions of ‘old’ Canberra.

Crace doesn’t reinvent the Great Australian Dream of suburban life. Rather, it embraces the best elements of suburbia – such as space, safety and serenity – and aligns those with most desirable elements of inner-city living – short walks to cafes and culture, and easy access to public transport and services. While the design and layout of a suburb is no guarantee of happiness, it can certainly provide the backdrop to help people discover how they want to live. After all, as Hugh Mackay says, “it’s how we live, not where we live, that determines the quality of our lives.”