Producing New Community, or undermining it? Subdivision grading, road layout, and site preparations for a new suburban community north of San Diego, California, December 2005 (Elvin Wyly).
Community and Connection in Suburbia
Urban Studies 200, Cities
April 19, 2016
Can “suburbia” ever get any respect?1
Suburbs are comparatively new settlements adjacent to, subordinate to, and functionally dependent upon, older, higher-density urban places. Suburbs are nothing new: many ancient cities were surrounded by settlements that were reliant on the central core, and that developed at comparatively lower densities. Suburbanization came to take on a new character after the Industrial Revolution, however, as accelerating capitalist growth produced vivid and terrifying inequalities of wealth and power in rapidly-growing cities. Suburbs came to be seen as spaces of refuge from an increasingly threatening city of industrial pollution, over-crowded housing, and perpetual class conflict. Those who had the means to escape the exploding industrial metropolis did so, as fast as they could -- even if it required spending more time traveling from a suburban home to work in the city. Suburbia came to be understood as an escape to safety and spacious living -- even if suburbs still remained subordinate to the dominant economic power of the city’s factories, offices, and other workplaces.
This ambivalent view of suburbia was highlighted most clearly in a massive outmigration of households out of the densely-packed cores of cities in Canada and the United States after the end of the Second World War in 1945. Post-World War II North American suburbanization came to dominate urban theory, and for better or worse, the varied trajectories of suburbanization around the world today are often compared to the “reference point” of the North American experiences. It is thus worth considering the reactions to this social and spatial form that has come to be paradigmatic. First, we’ll consider the backlash against suburbia. Then we’ll consider the contemporary diversity of suburbs, before turning our attention to the way commerce and advertising are being used to understand the spatially expansive communities of suburbia. Finally, we’ll take a look at how suburban communities and ways of life are shaped by transport technologies -- especially the automobile -- and how despite the challenges, suburban community ties can and do remain strong in many places.
The Backlash Against Suburbia
The explosion of suburban growth in Canada and the United States was more rapid than anything ever seen before. Millions of households left old city apartments for new homes in the suburbs, which they usually bought with subsidized mortgage credit at the same time they purchased a new automobile. Almost immediately, however, social scientists began to question this huge migration to the exploding edge of the metropolis. Lewis Mumford offered eloquent but harsh historical condemnation:
“From the thirteenth century on, the dread of plague prompted a periodic exodus from the city; and in that sense, one may say that the modern suburb began as a sort of rural isolation ward.”2
William H. Whyte, author of the best-selling book, The Organization Man, was similarly critical:
“To find where the mobility of organization life is leading, the new package suburbia may be the best place of all to look. For they are not merely great conglomerations of mass housing. They are a new social institution, and while the variations in them are many, wherever one goes -- the courts of Park Forest, the patios of Park Merced in San Francisco, Philadelphia’s Drexelbrook, the new Levittown, Pennsylvania -- there is an unmistakable similarity in the way of life.”3
Although Whyte’s study was much more careful than most popular and press accounts of the time, his interpretation of suburban life was harsh indeed, such as the judgment that
“As far as social values are concerned, suburbia is the ultimate expression of the interchangeability so sought by organization.”4
Suburbia was attacked as a barren, uniform landscape of interchangeable conformers who had traded the challenges and risks of the diverse city for the false promise of security in the house with its own front and back yard.
uburbia was attacked as a barren, uniform landscape of interchangeable conformers who had traded the challenges, risks, and opportunities of the diverse city for the false promise of security in the house with its own front and back yards. Much of the social critique of suburbia portrayed the specter of individuality destroyed by suburban conformity, and the parallels drawn by John Keats -- who wrote of a Mary Drone who “dwelt in a vast communistic barracks”5 -- were deeply ironic. William J. Levitt, the developer who pioneered the application of assembly-line industrial practices to housebuilding, is often best remembered for his quote that “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.”6
Harsh criticism of suburbia persists today. “The transformation of Canada into a suburban nation eventually led to a suppression of diversity,” writes Richard Harris, a pre-eminent analyst of Canada’s urban and suburban histories.
“By 1960 people spoke freely of ‘the Canadian suburb.’ Suburbs were being created in standard ways, and those who bought into them lived a fundamentally similar way of life. ... in this book I tell a story of creeping conformity, not only of the suburbs but also of certain aspects of Canadian society.”7
And yet any careful consideration exposes the myth of a unitary suburbia, and raises fundamental questions about a presumed ‘suburban way of life.’ Harris takes as the point of departure for his book the pronounced diversity of suburban forms apparent in the early twentieth century in Canada -- both in terms of the ways they were built, and the circumstances of people who lived in suburban communities. Due to poor planning and other failures, this diversity was gradually supplanted by a “creeping conformity.” But conformity -- and indeed all sorts of other problems blamed on suburbia -- was not inevitable in the past, and it is not inevitable today. Barbara Phillips points out that
“When the dust started settling on the newly paved roads of tract homes, social scientists began to paint a more complex portrait of suburban life. ... By the 1960s, researchers dropped the label ‘suburbia.’ It was, they inferred, a myth. Suburbs do not look alike, nor do their inhabitants share a lifestyle.”8
Similarly, the historian Kenneth T. Jackson, in his influential Crabgrass Frontier, traces a long and winding path of growth and change that has culminated in the suburban landscapes we see today.9 It did not have to work out exactly as it did, and in some times and places we can find remarkable exceptions to the stereotypical histories told in those early attacks on suburbia.
“Some might be tempted to classify Vancouver’s tortuously sophisticated anti-Surrey bias in the same category as Manhattan’s disdain for the ‘bridge-and-tunnel crowd,’ but the analogy isn’t quite apt. In Manhattan, a genuine superiority complex is in play, making the contempt for peripheral suburbanites (in this case sub-urban, as in beneath city-dwellers) casual and off-handed. In provincial Vancouver, aspirant middle-class types desperately repeating the mantra world-class city (that phrase being the closest thing to a ritual prayer we have out here) are so desperate not to be confused with the rubes east of Metrotown Mall that they lash out against Surrey with both vigour and fear. Not as important as Toronto, not as well-dressed as Montreal, not as rich as Calgary, Vancouver shits on Surrey like a kid with a lazy eye draws a bully’s attention to the fat kid.” Charles Demers (2009). Vancouver Special. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, pp. 15-16.
Herbert Gans, a legendary sociologist and urban planner, wrote a highly influential study of Levittown, New Jersey, in which he used participant-observation methods to describe life in the first two years after the subdivision was built. The prevailing climate of hostility against suburbs led Gans to begin his preface this way:
“This book is about a much maligned part of America, suburbia, and reports on a study conducted by an equally maligned method, sociology. The postwar suburban developments...have been blamed for many of the country’s alleged and real ills, from destroying its farmland to emasculating its husbands.”10
Gans offered a rigorous, balanced, and nuanced account of the Levittowners, and his richly-documented book cast doubt on the widespread assumption that suburbia was destroying those who moved there.
“People’s lives are changed somewhat by the move to suburbia, but their basic ways remain the same ... many of the changes that do take place were desired by the move. Because the suburb makes them possible, morale goes up, boredom and loneliness are reduced, family life becomes temporarily more cohesive, social and organizational activities multiply, and spare-time pursuits now concentrate on the house and yard.”11
A Critical yet Constructive Approach
Suburban development has a wide range of negative consequences. Sometimes it allows for dominant groups to withdraw from the diversity of the city, and to form their own exclusive political space while abandoning any broader responsibilities to society. In other cases, suburbanites themselves are the marginalized ones -- the extremely poor residents of informal settlements on the outskirts of Latin American cities, or in the large social housing estates on the fringe of expensive European cities. Suburban development has often involved large, hidden subsidies -- such as tax policies favoring the purchase of new homes, or the huge public expenditures required to build and maintain vast street and highway networks. The typical housing of the typical suburb -- the detached, single-family home on its own private lot -- requires an enormous amount of labor to maintain and keep clean; suburbs thus tend to reinforce traditional gender roles between men and women, and often make it extremely difficult for women to balance family work with career goals in the workforce. Suburban development often produces landscapes that are repetitive or confusing to navigate, or that require the use of the automobile to do almost anything outside the home.
Suburbia in Three Dimensions. Snap judgments on whether suburbia is good or bad can be dangerous. In assessing the consequences of suburban community, it is helpful to use three-dimensional axes to distinguish the processes creating suburban landscapes, from the characteristics and motivations of people who live in suburbs, and the physical and functional characteristics of suburban places.
But we must recognize these problems carefully, while keeping in mind the extraordinary diversity of contemporary suburban experiences, and the plurality of interpretations of suburbia. Hard as it might be, we must avoid the polemical attacks on suburbia that have been popularized in recent years by authors like James Howard Kunstler, author of books like “The Geography of Nowhere,” who has attacked suburbanization for producing “places not worth caring about.”12 This is harsh, and it is also quite dangerous. When we attack the building styles or street layouts found in suburbia, for example, are we also criticizing the intelligence of people who have chosen to live there?
Diverse Interpretations of Suburbia
Suburbs can be interpreted as
1. Natural ecological extensions of organic, evolutionary urban expansion.
2. Escapism from the problems of industrial cities.
3. Economic policy tools that boost consumption and macroeconomic demand.
4. Investment and speculation opportunities for landowners, developers, and financial interests.
5. Social engineering programs to rescue or reform the poor, or to recapture a lost traditional way of life.
6. Rational locations for cost-conscious firms and/or households.
7. Maps of consumer preferences among households who want new homes, abundant space, and certain public services.
8. Socio-political strategies to separate from a nearby metropolis while still enjoying the economic benefits of proximity to the city.
9. Asylums, or defensive strategies driven by a far of “others,” decline, crime, and threats to property values.
10. Rural nostalgia, and a desire to return to the countryside while still relying on the economy of the city.
Source: Adapted from Larry S. Bourne (1996). “Reinventing the Suburbs: Old Myths and New Realities.” Progress in Planning 46(3), 163-184.
A critical, constructive approach requires separating aspects of the processes that create suburbia, the decisions and constraints of people who live there, and the characteristics of the places.
Being critical does not require being mean, or being careless. We do need to offer a critical perspective on suburban growth and development, because this is now the dominant way new urban spaces are produced everywhere around the world. But a constructive critical approach requires that we carefully separate different facets of the suburban phenomena: we need to think carefully about variations in the processes that produce suburban landscapes, the choices and motivations of people who choose (or are forced to) live in suburbia, and the physical and functional characteristics of suburban places.
Surveillant Suburb. Beaverton, Oregon, just west of Portland, February 2006 (Elvin Wyly). In suburbs with insufficient wealth to create full-fledged gated communities, inexpensive video technology is often used to warn outsiders.
Gender and Suburbia. Social scientists have known for many years that variations in built form -- the way homes and workplaces are laid out in various parts of cities -- can reflect and reinforce gender relations. The detached, single-family house in the suburbs typically requires a great deal of labor to clean and maintain. In the Vancouver region, one out of six women -- 162 thousand -- works more than thirty hours per week on unpaid household labor; this is three times the fraction for men. Areas shaded red are spatial clusters with higher-than average shares of women working more than thirty hours per week on unpaid household labor; areas shaded blue are spatial clusters with lower-than-average shares. Map by Elvin Wyly, using data from the 2006 Census of Canada. See Dolores Hayden (1981). “What Would a Non-Sexist City be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work.” In Catherine M. Stimpson et al., eds., Women and the American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 167-184. See also Leslie Kern (2007). “Reshaping the Boundaries of Public and Private Life: Gender, Condominium Development, and the Neoliberalization of Urban Living.” Urban Geography 28(7), 657-681. For the full graphic, see http://www.geog.ubc.ca/~ewyly/transfer/sample.pdf
No Longer Subordinate or Subsidiary
Joel Garreau’s concept of the “edge city” announced the arrival of a new age, in which suburbs are fully autonomous communities that have no need for the older “central city” nearby.
he continued outward expansion of rings of suburbs, and the intensification of new kinds of non-residential development, rendered the stereotypical image of isolated bedroom communities obsolete. North American suburbs began to evolve in ways that questioned their presumed subordinate status to a nearby ‘central city.’ The United States became a suburban nation according to the statistical criteria as early as 1980, and since then the suburban dominance in numerical terms has only strengthened. Moreover, suburbanites seem to be living more and more of their lives in suburbia -- either their own neighborhood, or on the road between their home and other suburban communities. Gans’ book was only the first in a long line of studies that sought to document the increasing diversity of suburbs, and in recent years the pace of social and spatial transformation spawned a cottage industry of new descriptive terms: bourgeois utopias, technoburbs, cyburbia, and, most famously, ‘edge cities.’ Joel Garreau, a writer who now spans the professions of journalist and university professor, is best known for his book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, in which he argued that suburbs are evolving into fully autonomous communities with social and cultural lives that rely less and less on the older ‘central city’ of the industrial age. For Garreau, the city of the future is the edge city – a place that is on the edge of the old urban settlements built in previous generations, but now very much at the center of the lives and cultures of millions of people who live in them, and who longer feel a strong connection to the old ‘central city’.13
The Edge City Age
Garreau’s Edge City turned out to be a powerful and influential way of summarizing the enormous changes afoot across the North American landscape. The term made its way into countless academic and policy debates, and also began to pervade popular discussions. Tom Wolfe captured the spirit of edge city through the character of Charlie Croker, a powerful developer, in his novel A Man in Full:
“He looked away from the buildings and out over the ocean of trees. Since Atlanta was not a port city and was, in fact, far inland, the trees stretched on in every direction. They were Atlanta’s greatest natural resource, those trees were. People loved to live beneath them. Fewer than 400,000 people lived within the Atlanta city limits, and almost three quarters of them were black; if anything, over the past decade Atlanta’s population had declined slightly. But for the past thirty years all sorts of people, most of them white, had been moving in beneath those trees, into all those delightful, leafy, rolling, rural communities that surrounded the city proper. By the hundreds of thousands they had come, from all over Georgia, all over the South, all over America, all over the world, into those subdivided hills and downs and glens and glades beneath the trees, until the population of Greater Atlanta was now more than 3.5 million, and they were still pouring in. How fabulous the building booms had been!! As the G-B banked, Charlie looked down ... There was Spaghetti Junction, as it was known, where Highways 85 and 285 came together in a tangle of fourteen gigantic curving concrete-and-asphalt ramps and twelve overpasses ... And now he could see Perimeter Center, where Georgia 400 crossed 285. Mack Taylor and Harvey Mathis had built an office park called Perimeter Center out among all those trees, which had been considered a very risky venture at the time, because it was so far from Downtown; and now Perimeter Center was the nucleus around which an entire edge city, known by that very name, Perimeter Center, had grown ...”
“Edge city ... Charlie closed his eyes and wished he’d never heard of the damn term. He wasn’t much of a reader, but back in 1991 Lucky Putney, another developer, had given him a copy of a book called Edge City by somebody named Joel Garreau. He had opened it and glanced at it – and couldn’t put it down, even though it was 500 pages long. He had experienced the Aha! phenomenon. The book put into words something he and other developers had felt, instinctively, for quite a while: namely, that from now on, the growth of American cities was going to take place not in the heart of the metropolis, not in the old downtown or Midtown, but out on the edges, in vast commercial clusters served by highways.”14
The Paradigmatic Edge City. Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, October 2011 (Elvin Wyly). Tyson’s Corner was just a small intersection with a general store and gas station in the 1930s, but now has more commercial space than downtown Miami. Its growth was driven in large part by Til Hazel, a lawyer who had specialized in litigation over the proposed locations for interchanges along the “beltway” highway that encircles Washington, DC. Hazel soon realized that this kind of expertise would be far more lucrative if he were a real estate investor and developer. Near the end of his career when asked about the disappearance of green space and controversies over the development of rural land, Hazel replied, “It’s a war. How else would you describe it?” See Dolores Hayden (2003). Building Suburbia. New York: Pantheon, p. 158.
Just as Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities captured the sense of time and sense of place of New York in the 1980s, A Man in Full captures the essence of life, power, and profit in the fast-growing suburbs of Atlanta in the 1990s. All the elements are here: the racial segregation, the highways, and of course the figure of the charismatic entrepreneurial developer looking at it all from the window of the Gulfstream G-5 jet overhead. But this is very much a Canadian story as well. After being influenced by Garreau’s ideas that shopping centers were best understood as the village squares of the new edge cities emerging across North America, the Toronto-based Cambridge Shopping Centres purchased the old run-down Oshawa Center for $145 million in 1991. “ ‘So, taking that theory,’ said Ronald Charbon, Cambridge’s director of strategic market information,
“we said, ‘Where are the next edge cities going to occur? Where is the next wave of growth going to occur in the greater metropolitan Toronto area? And are any of our shopping centres sufficiently located to capitalize on that growth?’”15
After a bold series of investments and efforts to recruit upscale retailers to the area,
“The Oshawa Centre is ... in the midst of a massive transformation from a jerry-built suburban mall into a mixed-use development that includes retail, business, government, and community services, all inspired by Garreau’s book.”16
Contingencies of Global Suburbanism. Shatin New Territory, January 2010 (Elvin Wyly). “Suburbia” grew so rapidly in North America in the middle of the twentieth century that it distorted perceptions of suburbanisms that came before, and obscured distinctive suburban trajectories that have unfolded in other parts of the world. There certainly is a lot of evidence of Canadian and U.S.-style suburban growth on the outskirts of many cities around the world. But there are many important exceptions. Hong Kong illustrates the significance of the state in controlling and planning suburbanization. Beginning in 1973, the New Town Development Programme identified key sites in the New Territories north of Hong Kong Island, and coordinated public transit construction with public, non-market housing development. By 2006, the New Territories accounted for more than half of the entire Hong Kong region’s population of 6.7 million. See Si-ming Li (2009). Housing and Urban Development in Hong Kong: Political Economy and Space. Occasional Paper No. 94. Hong Kong: Center for China Urban and Regional Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University.
Edge cities, and discussion about edge cities, is now a truly transnational phenomena. Given the increased spatial mobility made possible by the automobile, urbanization spreads across the landscape rapidly in any society with sufficient wealth to support automobile ownership and all the associated needs (especially the construction of good highways). But as the phenomenon has expanded, so has the controversy. It has become increasingly difficult to encourage calm, measured discussion of suburbia in recent years for two inextricable reasons: First, suburbia is now equated with “sprawl.” Second, millions of people continue to choose to live in places that are described as suburban sprawl.
Macionis and Parrillo provide a concise definition on the first point:
“Sprawl is the term used to describe spread-out or low-density development beyond the edge of services and employment. It separates where people live from where they work, shop, and pursue leisure or an education, thereby requiring them to use cars to move between these zones. This type of development results from decades of unplanned, rapid growth and poor land-use management. Sprawl thus identifies the cumulative effects of development that is automobile-dependent, inefficient, and wasteful of natural resources.”17
On the second point, Macionis and Parrillo observe:
“Sprawl is like that cartoon snowball rolling down the hill, growing in size and momentum, becoming practically unstoppable. In the past half-century, government policies on taxation, transportation and housing – nurtured by society’s embrace of laissez-faire development – subsidized virtually unlimited low-density development. And the more this development occurred, the more people clamored for it.”18
Contemporary urban and regional planning is thus trapped in a painful dilemma. Planners learn quickly that unrestrained suburban sprawl has a variety of negative consequences, but if they try to stop it they encounter widespread and intense resistance and resentment: millions of people want the amenities and lifestyles that the phenomenon called ‘sprawl’ is able to deliver. On the other hand, if planners acquiesce to the preferences of the most politically engaged residents and development companies that shape suburban communities, their profession is quickly redefined and co-opted.
If the widespread popularity of the suburb means it can no longer be considered subordinate or subservient, however, there still may be other reasons to retain the word itself. The distinguished urban/suburban historian John Teaford writes that suburbs
“are not subordinate to the urb; but they are subversive to the whole concept of the urb, the commercial and cultural focus of an extensive hinterland, and thus perhaps are deserving of the title suburb after all. Their triumph marks the victory of the amorphous metropolitan mass over the focused metropolis of the past. They have supplanted the notion of the city as a center ... creating a new centerless world where ... the longstanding pull of downtown has diminished to a faint tug.”19