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Sustainable Suburbia?

Would Mad Men's Don Draper feel at home in one of the ever-expanding suburbs on the margins of our major cities? I think so.

After all, we continue to embrace a 1950s vision of suburbia in which homes are built for the car, with men trudging off to work while women stay at home to mind the children.

As we explore what sustainability means and how we achieve it, we must look beyond the design of our buildings and begin to consider how we build communities that connect people to employment, entertainment and opportunity.

Looking at the opportunities available in our urban and suburban communities, it is no coincidence that the suburbs in which female workforce participation falls more than 20 per cent below the male average are located on the outer fringes of our cities. Women, who carry most of the caring responsibilities in our society, often need to be within short journeys of their homes. This makes them unable or unwilling to take up jobs that require a longer commute. Barbara Pocock, Director of the University of South Australia's Centre for Work and Life, has dubbed this the "spatial leash".

While female graduates now outnumber their male counterparts (in 2012, among people aged 25 to 34 years, 40 per cent of women held a bachelor degree or higher qualification, compared with 33 per cent of men), the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that male labour force participation is around 14 per cent higher. Once women hit their mid-20s, their workforce participation rates decline for the next two decades.

This spatial leash has an impact at both the individual and national level. Women who put their careers on hold for even a few years risk lower salaries, fewer leadership opportunities and smaller retirement nest eggs than their male colleagues. It's also costing Australia billions of dollars in unrealised productivity and higher government benefit payments.

Ipsos Executive Director Dr Rebecca Huntley, who routinely interviews groups of women in Australia's outer urban areas for her Mind & Mood Report has said that many women find the idea of employment impossible. A dream job in some parts of outer Sydney and Melbourne, even for women with university educations and impressive work histories, was being a 'check-out chick'. "He leaves at six am and gets home at seven pm. He's never going to be able to pick and drop off the kids. At least if I'm a check-out chick I get reasonable hours and a discount on groceries," Huntley has said is a frequent response.

The 2013 State of Australian Cities report argued that our cities, Melbourne in particular, are "afflicted with relentless pressure for low density urban expansion into districts that are increasingly distant from the main concentrations of employment." The truth is that services and employment opportunities decrease the further you travel from the city's heart. It's a long drive to work and the dominant mode of transport - the car - means hours a day stuck in traffic. Many of our outer urban areas have no access to trains, and bus services are sporadic. This is the daily grind at its worst - and impossible to comprehend doing it every day while juggling small children. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Canberra - where work is a maximum of 20 minutes away - has the highest workforce participation rate of women in the country (a gap of just 8.6 per cent).

Sustainability, as defined by the Sustainable Australia Report, is about ensuring that the wellbeing of current and future generations of Australians is maintained or improved over time. If a large percentage of our citizens do not have opportunities to contribute their talents and abilities through meaningful employment, the divide between the 'haves' and 'have nots' will continue to grow. The Grattan Institute's Cities Program Director, Jane-Frances Kelly, has noted that Australian cities have become increasingly polarised as "high-income residents with university level qualifications cluster in suburbs close to city centres, while residents on lower incomes, and residents with vocational qualifications, are more likely to live around the city fringes."

This is something that is our collective responsibility to change. If we want to foster a society that is fair, inclusive and truly sustainable, we must ensure everyone has opportunities to flourish.

On Tuesday 11 February, the Green Building Council of Australia will be hosting its first Leading Green Women event, in which we explore whether sustainability is 'women's business'. Certainly, women are attracted to the sustainability field. The GBCA now has more women on its board than ever before, and a large proportion of our executive and leadership teams are female. In fact, 69 per cent of the GBCA's employees are female. Research from the Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility in 2009, found that 60 per cent of sustainability specialists are women.

In an article for The Fifth Estate last week, I explored how women often lead more sustainable lives, being more likely to recycle, buy organic food and eco-labelled products, consider issues such as child labour and fair trade, and place a higher value on energy-efficient transport. Even in households with cars, women are more likely to use public transport than men. How we build our cities has deep ramifications for our lives, our long-term sustainability, and has a major impact upon Australian women.

Despite wanting to make sustainable choices, the housing options presented to most families make this harder for women to achieve. An argument about housing choice is not about whether greenfield or brownfield development is better; or whether it's better to 'go up' or 'go out'. As our population grows, we will need to develop new greenfield suburbs while at the same time maximising the use of space within our existing cities.

What we must do is provide people with more choice. The Grattan Institute's report, The Housing We'd Choose, found that people want a much more varied mix of housing than that which is currently on offer. This means ensuring people who do want to live closer to the city have affordable, livable and diverse housing options. For people who do choose a suburban lifestyle, generous backyards can be oases of self-sufficient food, energy and water production. This lifestyle can be sustainable and satisfying - but good transport connections are essential to help people access jobs and services.

Sustainable living - whether it's in a high-rise inner city crash pad or a rambling family home - is about more than the orientation of the building, the size of the solar panels or the choice of materials. Sustainable living is about creating connected communities that inspire and delight, that support work/life balance, that enhance people's well-being and that enable both sexes to make a valuable and enduring contribution.

So, what can we be doing to ensure we build cities of opportunity for all? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter - .